Monthly Archives: January 2014

“Fit to Follow?” – A Sermon on Matthew 4:12-23

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Matthew 4:12-23

“Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the lake, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 
     ‘Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali,
        on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 
     the people who sat in darkness
        have seen a great light,
     and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death
        light has dawned.’ 
From that time Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’

 As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. 

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.”

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Growing up, I was really active in my Presbyterian church back in Waterloo, Iowa.  I can remember very few times when my family and I missed worship on Sunday or when I missed a Sunday school, bible study, or a children’s or youth group event.  And this was not because I had to be involved; it was because I loved to be involved.

I loved learning and talking about faith and exploring how God was present in my life and in the peoples’ lives around me – especially as we experienced both joys and sufferings.  And while I was in middle school and high school, I loved going to church and being part of a youth group where I felt that I belonged and could be myself – especially when I had not always felt that way at school.  And so when I was a junior, I started to feel like I was being called to create a similar space for other youth to find a loving community where they could explore how God is present in the midst of their life chaos and where they could discern how God is calling them to share God’s love with others.  And by the end of that year, I had decided that I wanted to go to seminary after college and to serve in youth ministry.

However, what I lacked in my church upbringing was a strong teaching about the specific Bible stories – especially in the Hebrew Testament – and I never took on the practices of memorizing scripture verses, listening to Christian music, or reading books by popular Christian authors.

So you can just imagine what it was like for me when I first joined a campus ministry my freshman year of college: where the majority of my fellow students involved in the ministry had grown up immersed in this Christian culture that was so foreign to me and could recite long Bible passages from memory and spoke with an extensive “Christianese” lingo that I had never even heard of.

christianeseI started to feel insecure, and in addition to being told by many of my peers and campus ministry leaders that I couldn’t be called into ministry because I was a woman, I also started to doubt that I could even be involved in ministry because of how I began to see myself as inadequate.  And so I convinced myself for several years that I was wrong about feeling called into ministry and that I was actually better suited to work in a different field, like higher education or something like that.

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And yet somehow, after all of that, Jesus did not stop calling me…

And his voice eventually got louder than the voices of my fellow campus ministry friends and the voices of my own insecurities.   And the encouragement I received from my parents, sister, and grandparents helped me to take the terrifying step out of my own comfort zone and take a leap into seminary.  And so, to make a long story short: here I am today, 5 ½ years later.

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Minus the women issue, I can’t help but wonder if this is close to how the fishermen from Galilee in our Gospel text were feeling when Jesus sought them out and called them to follow him.

You see, in first century Judaism – particularly in the region of Galilee – there was a very extensive process a man would have to go through in order to become a disciple – or a follower – of a rabbi.  Boys in many parts of Palestine would have started studying with a community rabbi in most likely the local synagogue or meeting place at the young age of 4-5 years old in what was called beth ha sefer, the first level of public education.  During this time of study, young boys (and possibly in some places young girls) would mostly study the Torah, the first five books of our current Bible today.  By the time these boys and girls finished this level of education (which ended at around age 10), most of the children would have been expected to have memorized the entire Torah.

After children finished beth ha sefer, many of the boys – and most definitely the girls – would stay home and participate in home-keeping or would start learning either the family trade or another trade in the community.  The top students coming out of this level of education would continue onto the next level, which was called beth ha talmud.  Students in this level would start to learn different interpretations of the scriptures and oral traditions, and they would continue to memorize more scripture.

Most children would finish this level by the time they were 14 or 15 years old – having memorized 39 books of the Bible.  Can you imagine that!?  When I was in college, I could barely memorize one or two Bible verses before I got bored!

At this point in a youth’s life, the majority of boys would go onto learning their family trade or another trade if they had not already started to do so.  Yet, the top students among these already top students would go onto studying at the next level, which was called beth ha midrash, meaning “House of Study.”  These basically “Yale students” of the first century would seek out their top rabbi whom they wished to study under and ask him if they could “follow” him.  The rabbi would then decide whether or not this young man was knowledgeable and adequate enough to trust him fully and to take on his “yoke” (or his particular interpretation of scripture) and then eventually pass that yoke onto others when they began their own teaching ministry at around age 30.  In many cases, the students would be turned down by the rabbis they sought out, and they would then have to find another rabbi or find a whole different trade to go into.

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Photo taken at the Sea of Galilee (Emily Heitzman)

Our passage in Matthew does not give us many details about the fishermen who encountered Jesus at the Sea of Galilee.  We are not told how many years they had been fishing or how old they were.  We only know for sure that at least James and John were fishing with their father, Zebedee, and therefore were continuing on their family trade.  And because these two brothers and another set of brothers – Simon (who we know as Peter) and his brother Andrew – were all in the fishing trade, we also know that they would have only finished as far as the second level of education and may have only been through the first level of education.

And so these four fishermen in our text in Matthew had not made the cut.  They were not the top… of the top… of the top of the students of their day.  They did not have an extensive resume – scriptural knowledge, interpretations, or lingo – that would have enabled them to continue climbing the educational ladder.  And so they were definitely not fit to follow a rabbi – a Jewish teacher – become his disciple, take on his “yoke,” learn to imitate him, and eventually be commissioned by him to share his scriptural interpretations as they would become teachers, themselves…  At least, this is what the fishermen would have been told by the more advanced students, their families, and their local rabbis.  And I can’t help but think that this is what these fishermen believed about themselves, as well.

And yet, for some reason, Jesus thinks otherwise.  For some reason, as Jesus begins his own ministry at a little over the age of 30, he seeks out these fishermen – these average, “every-day-Joes” who Jesus just happens to pass as he is walking along the Sea of Galilee.

And for some reason, Jesus sees in them a great potential… to become his disciples and eventually his friends… to learn to imitate him, and to become participants in the ministry of bringing about the kingdom of heaven here on earth by bringing light into the darkness of the world.

The Call of the First Disciples

And so Jesus calls out to them: “Follow me, and you will no longer be in the trade of gathering up just fish; but you will be in the trade of gathering up God’s people and bringing them good news.”

And so we see that the fishermen immediately get up, drop everything they are doing, and follow Jesus as he travels across Galilee, teaching in the synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and bringing healing to the sick and the suffering.

Now, I don’t know about you, but whenever I read this text, it amazes me that these fishermen just get up, leave all that they know behind them, and immediately respond to Jesus’ call to follow him.  If it were me, I’m pretty sure I would have done the same thing I did for the many years I doubted my own adequacy during and after college: I would have stayed in that boat… and I would have grabbed and held on as tight as I could to that fishing net and to the side of that boat – to what was comfortable and familiar to me – so as not to go against the expectations that others had of me and that I had of myself… and especially so as to avoid confronting my own fears and insecurities.

And I can’t help but wonder how often this happens to so many others of us in the Church, as well.

I wonder how often we let others’ discouraging voices and expectations of us – or even our own insecurities – hold us back from responding to Jesus’ call to follow him and to spread his good news to those living in the darkness around us.

I wonder how often we let our own fears about our lack of church background and religious lingo, biblical education or faith formation keep us from teaching or even joining a Sunday school class or small group, leading a prayer or reading scripture during worship on a Sunday morning or Wednesday evening, or even just chatting with our fellow Ebenezer Lutheran brothers and sisters after worship at coffee hour or over a beer in Andersonville.

I wonder how often we let the negative voices we hear throughout our society and even within our own selves about what makes a person’s voice worthy of being heard and of bearing good news (like how a person looks or the kind of education or type of job, home, or possessions a person has) dominate the way we view ourselves… And how often do we let these messages hold us back from getting involved in community organizations and our neighborhood schools and committees?

And I wonder how often we allow our own fears of what others will say and think about us if we do follow Jesus’ call to then hold us back from speaking up about and getting involved in advocacy for justice so that all people are cared for and treated equally.

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I can tell you from a lot of personal experience, it is definitely not easy to immediately drop these negative voices, fears, and insecurities off at the edge of the boat – along with all that is familiar and comfortable to us – and then to step out of that boat and confidently follow Jesus in his ministry of light shining, good news spreading, and kingdom bringing.

And, yet, in times when we wish to hold on tight to our own fishing nets and to the sides of our boat, it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the words of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in a sermon he preached in 1963 as he prepared for the Birmingham Campaign:

“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.  The true neighbor will risk his position, his prestige, and even his life for the welfare of others.”

This may seem like a very difficult call – to get up out of the comfort and convenience of our boats to lift up our shaky voices and join this terrifying movement of following Jesus.  And yet, the good news is that Jesus does not call us to follow him by ourselves.  He calls us in community to follow him in shining His light in the darkness and lifting up our voices together to spread the good news of the kingdom.

…And so when we hear Jesus’ call and we just feel like we cannot let go of that fishing net and the side of that boat, our brothers and sisters can come sit with us inside our boat and help us to take that step in dropping the net, getting out of the boat, and leaving them behind.

… And when we are afraid to open our mouths because we just don’t know how to spread the good news, our brothers and sisters can stand alongside of us and help us to find the words to say.

…And when we feel it is difficult to let our lights shine because of the darkness we – ourselves – are living in, our brothers and sisters can shine their own lights in front of us to help us see and find our way.

…Because when Jesus calls us to follow him: just as he saw the potential of those four every-day-Joe fishermen he called on the Sea of Galilee 2000 years ago and believed in them, so does he see and believe in each one of us – no matter what other voices might be saying.  And so, we can have confidence in knowing that we will eventually be able to find our way to the path that Jesus is walking on.

So, as we hear Jesus calling to us: “follow me,” let us confidently lift up our voices together in response, saying: “Here I am, O Lord.  Teach me your way.  And I will follow you!”

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Lift Up Your Voice! – Joining Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Unfinished Movement for Justice and Equality

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Today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: the one day of the year when many people across the nation take off school and work to remember and celebrate Dr. King and his work for racial justice and equality.  However, too often, this day serves as merely a holiday from our “every-day activities” and maintains only a small “memory” of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many other unnamed faithful and courageous voices proclaimed and peacefully fought for in order to bring about an end to the Jim Crow racial segregation laws fifty years ago.  Consequently, there tends to lack on this holiday a recognition of the racial and economic injustice that continues to persist throughout our society today and thus King’s unfinished work we are all called to continue to work for.

However, yesterday I had the opportunity to gather at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church on the far South Side of Chicago with more than 2,000 people from all over the Chicago area who have not forgotten about the majority of this nation’s people who have still not seen Dr. King’s dream fully come true.

“We are not coming to engage in any histrionic gesture. We are not coming to tear up Washington. We are coming to demand that the government address itself to the problem of poverty. We read one day, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the National Cathedral during his work on the Poor People’s Campaign – on March 31, 1968, a week before his assassination.

Organized by IIRON and The People’s Lobby, the event was called “Hope in the Age of Crisis: Reclaiming Dr. King’s Radical Vision for Economic Equality” and included a public meeting and a call to action by community and religious leaders, such as: Rev. Dwight Gardner, president of IIRON and pastor at Trinity Baptist Church in Gary, IN; Bishop Wayne Miller of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of American; Rabbi Brant Rosen of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, IL; Jack Darin of the Illinois Chapter of the Sierra Club; and Bishop Sally Dyck of the Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church – among many others.

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The meeting began with a congregational song led by a combined choir: “Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty…” and a call to action by Rev. Dwight Gardner, who proclaimed: “We must stand!  We must stand together!”  Throughout the meeting, several Chicago and Illinois elected officials were called up to the front of the sanctuary and asked to publicly agree to support legislation that would protect the common good.

Issues that were discussed included:

Increasing Revenue Rather than Cutting Programs that Help those Most in Need

Advancing Worker Justice: Creating Good Jobs that Don’t Exploit Workers

Environmental Protection: Stronger Regulations on Fracking

Ending the “New Jim Crow”: Mass Incarceration

As we remember the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and so many others who have courageously and peacefully fought for the common good, let us not forget that we – too – are called to do the same until all of God’s children are cared for and treated equally.

Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins…

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.” – Isaiah: 58:1, 6-10

So join the movement to “stand together” to continue Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work of racial and economic justice for all!

UPCOMING EVENTS:

IIRON & The People’s Lobby Orientation; Who We Are/What We Believe: Wed., Jan. 29, 6:30-8:30pm

Fundamentals of Organizing Full-Day Leadership Training: Sat., Feb. 1, 9AM-1PM, 2-4:30PM

Protecting Our Environment Taskforce: Thurs., Jan. 30, 6:30-8:00PM

Advancing Worker Justice Taskforce: Tues., Feb. 4, 7-8:30PM

Ending Mass Incarceration Taskforce: Thurs., Feb. 27, 6-7:30PM

*Find out more information at: IIRON.org

For more information about this movement and the root of the economic problems we face today, check out this video:

“There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia…

As I noticed these things, something within me cried out, “Can we in America stand idly by and not be concerned?” And an answer came: “Oh no!” Because the destiny of the United States is tied up with the destiny of India and every other nation. And I started thinking of the fact that we spend in America millions of dollars a day to store surplus food, and I said to myself, “I know where we can store that food free of charge—in the wrinkled stomachs of millions of God’s children all over the world who go to bed hungry at night.” And maybe we spend far too much of our national budget establishing military bases around the world rather than bases of genuine concern and understanding.

Not only do we see poverty abroad, I would remind you that in our own nation there are about forty million people who are poverty-stricken. I have seen them here and there. I have seen them in the ghettos of the North; I have seen them in the rural areas of the South; I have seen them in Appalachia. I have just been in the process of touring many areas of our country and I must confess that in some situations I have literally found myself crying…

This is America’s opportunity to help bridge the gulf between the haves and the have-nots. The question is whether America will do it. There is nothing new about poverty. What is new is that we now have the techniques and the resources to get rid of poverty. The real question is whether we have the will.” more of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech at the National Cathedral during his work on the Poor People’s Campaign.

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Related Articles:

MLK Celebration Pushes Economic Equality (on abc.local.go.com)

Activists at MLK Event Tie Equality to Wages (on chicagotribune.com)

Reclaiming MLK’s Vision of Economic Justice in Chicago! (on rabbibrant.com)

These Children Share Their Dreams… and poignantly show that we still have a long way to go. (on eugenecho.com)

Stop Celebrating Martin Luther King (on redletterchristians.org)

Sermon: “Time to Protestify” (on musingsfromabricolage.com)

“Servant of All” – A Youth Group Lesson in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.

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*Feel free to use any or all of this lesson for youth group, confirmation, Sunday School, or any other group.

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OPENING DISCUSSION:

ASK IN LARGE GROUP:

– What messages do we get in today’s society, at school, on tv, in magazines, etc. about who is the greatest in society? (Examples: most powerful, wealthy, good job, people who look a certain way, people who drive a certain type of car or live in a certain type of home, highly educated or best education, etc.)

*Have one youth write down what other youth say in first column on a white board.

– Are these similar messages we get in church or from our Bible about who is greatest?  What messages do we get in church, in our Bible, and from God about who is the greatest?

*Have someone write down what other youth say in second column on a white board.

EXPLORING SCRIPTURE:

BREAK INTO SMALL GROUPS:

Read: Mark 9:33-37

Discuss:

– Who is the greatest in this passage?  How does this passage differ from our societal messages? (Talk about how children were some of the last and least in society and were expected to be quiet. In understanding this first century context, what message is Jesus trying to convey in verses 36-37?)

– What does it mean to be a “last of all and servant of all” in verse 35?

– Look up the following passages and come up with a list or description of what being a servant or “servant of all” means in Scripture and what this means for us today.

Mark 10:45; Philippians 2:1-8; Isaiah 42:1, 4; Micah 6:8; Matthew 25:34-40

SHARE IN LARGE GROUP:

Share in large group what each group discussed: what do these Scripture texts say about being a servant or a “servant of all?” (Have someone write these out on the white board.)

APPLYING OUR CONTEXT TODAY:

DISCUSS IN LARGE GROUP:

– Does anyone know what holiday we celebrate(d) on Monday? (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)

– Can anyone tell me why we celebrate MLK day?  Who was he and what did he do?

– Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a famous speech.  What was it called?  (I Have A Dream.)  We are going to watch a video that includes an excerpt from his “I Have A Dream” speech.

SHOW VIDEO:

Discuss Video:

– What does MLK say about being a servant or a “servant of all?”  (Who can be a servant?)

– How was Martin Luther King, Jr. following his call to service?

– As we see in the Scripture passages we read and in the video, we are all called and commanded to be servants.  So what does this mean for us today?

RESPONDING: 

DISCUSS IN LARGE GROUP:

– MLK had a dream that one day all people in the United States would be treated equally.  He helped move this nation forward in making his dream come true.  However, are racism and inequality completely gone today?  How so?  (What are examples in your schools, our city, our country, or in the world where racism still occurs or where people are not being treated equally?)

– Let’s take this time to write out our own dreams: both for world and for our own lives.  (Provide a large piece of butcher paper and markers.  On the top of the butcher paper, write: MY DREAM FOR THE WORLD, and in the middle of the butcher paper, write: MY DREAM FOR MY LIFE.  Give youth 3-5 minutes to write their responses under each of the statements.

REFLECTING: 

EXPLAIN: We are going to watch another video based on the popular song called “Whatcha Say.”  The lyrics were rewritten  by a group of youth as they reflected on Martin Luther King, Jr.  As we watch the video, look over the lyrics sheet I will hand out.  Highlight any of the phrases that stick out to you as we continue to think about being a “servant of all.”

*Hand out lyrics sheet and markers.

“MLK WHATCHA SAY” LYRICS SHEET:

WHATCHA SAY MLK?

This Dr. King, we have come so far

We have worked so hard

But we still hold the scars

We are living out his dream in this once racist world

Well we couldn’t walk the streets

Without the stones being hurled

But we can’t stand and talk

Being judged by how we look

But you never know the story by the cover of this book

Dr. King gave us the rubric

Now we need to write the sequel

That the story never stops

Until we are all created equal

CHORUS

In this world we keep on livin’

And the people keep on givin’

But I didn’t know what to do

So get up and take a stand, now come on and take my hand

Because this change begins with you

Tell me now: Whatcha say?

That you only meant well?

Well of course you did

Whatcha say?
That is all for the best

Let’s flip the coin

A new perspective

Different angle, fade to white

Martin Luther King has spoken to me

Even though my skin is light

Brotherhood is not a term

That should separate and divide us

So lets all huddle up

Cause it’s meant to join, unite us

The strive for our equality

Has trials and tribulations

But the cause is worth the fight

It’s for one united nation

Under God, indivisible, for liberty and justice

Come join our peaceful army,

It’ll work, I hope you trust us

CHORUS

Tell me, tell me whatcha say?

You look but you don’t see me; Can’t see what’s underneath me

Tell me, tell me whatcha say?

You are more than just a phase; Now stand up, it’s time for a change

Can’t we keep the love we’re creating; Stop discriminating

Tell me, tell me whatcha say?

When love is in our life; We can make things alright

CHORUS

SHOW VIDEO:

 

Discuss Video:

– What are some phrases from the song that stuck out to you?  Why?

Respond to Video:

– (Hand out pieces of paper to the youth that state: WHATCHA SAY? in large, bold letters at the top of the page as seen in the video.  Give youth a few minutes to write their “dream” or specific ways they can “stand up” like MLK and help make this a better world.  Examples: “hug someone who needs a hug,” “volunteer at a food pantry,” “stand up for someone who is being bullied,” “meet someone new,” “stop saying things that are racist, sexist, agist,” etc.  Tell the kids to tape them up throughout the church and/or at home.)

CLOSING PRAYER:

(Print out the following prayer on little strips of paper and have everyone pray this prayer together.)

Good and caring God, you give us all that we have. Spirit of Compassion, help us to share what we have with those who are less fortunate. Help us also to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, Martin Luther King, Jr., and many others who have gone before us to work to end poverty and to promote justice in our world by speaking up for those in need in our community, our nation, and our world. We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. 

“The Rich Man and the Man With a Name” – Sermon on Luke 16:19-31

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In the midst of what is being called “Chiberia” – where the weather in Chicago has been colder than the South Pole this week – I cannot help but think about the thousands of Chicagoans who remain homeless and struggle to seek shelter from this bitter cold.  (According to the Chicago Coalition for Homeless, 116,042 Chicagoans were homeless in the course of 2012-2013.)

As many of us are able to seek refuge in our warm apartments, homes, coffee shops, and libraries from this Chiberia without giving much thought to those who are not so privileged, I thought I’d share a sermon I preached at Ebenezer Lutheran Church on Sunday, Sept. 29 (the Festival of St. Michael and All Angels)… “The Rich Man and the Man With A Name.”

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Luke 16:19-31

‘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.” ’

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(photo courtesy of bohocommunity.org)

A few years ago while I was serving as an intern pastor at a church about a mile from here, I attended a pastor’s conference in Denver.  The conference was held at the Sheraton Hotel and Convention Center, which is quite the hotel: with a gorgeous lobby, beautiful rooms, incredibly comfortable beds, great food served by the hotel staff… you name it. And it is located right downtown on the 16th Street Mall, the main business district of Denver.  If you’ve ever stayed in a really nice hotel like this, you might know what it felt like for me – as a second year seminarian and a pastoral intern, having the opportunity to get away from my studies and messy apartment and stay in this luxurious hotel – I sort of felt like I was royalty for the week.

Our first full day at the conference included several workshops and classes beginning in the early morning and lasting until dinner-time.  So you can imagine how ready we all were to rush out of the convention center to enjoy our hour and a half break on the town. When our last workshop ended, we all quickly met up with our groups of friends and ran outside – everyone hurrying in order to beat the crowd of the 500 other pastors.  We all wanted to ensure that we got a table at our top-choice restaurant, since we knew that the bill was on the house, thanks to our home congregations.

As my new pastor and seminarian friends and I rushed down 16th Street to get to our desired restaurant, a man came up to us holding out his bare hands that were bright red from the cold and asked in a small shaky voice if we could buy him a little something to eat. I only noticed him because he had actually walked up onto the sidewalk next to one of my new friends who was walking directly in front of me. But just as he finished speaking, my friend quickly said: “Sorry, sir.  We are in a hurry.” And she and her friends next to her picked up their pace and scurried on by.  So this man, who was as skinny as a stick – so skinny that his eyes sunk into his skull – with only a stocking cap and an over-sized hoody sweatshirt to shield him from the January cold, was left standing on the sidewalk with his bright red fingers stretched out to me and with a look of complete hunger and desperation in his eyes.

I stopped, looked at him, and considered my options as the rest of my new friends continued to make their way quickly down 16th street without me.  I could stop and get him some food somewhere or I could brush him off, and rush on by to catch up to the rest of my group.   If I stopped, this would interrupt my overly comfortable and luxurious week and it would keep me from experiencing my very short social time that I really was looking forward to.

The easiest thing would be to just brush him off, ignore him, and quickly walk away.  I had a small time frame and a lot on my plate, after all. (Pun intended.)

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I think that this is a somewhat similar situation for the characters in Jesus’ parable in our text for today in Luke.

In Jesus’ parable…

There was a rich man…

And this rich man wore some of the finest, top-of the line clothes of his day – fine linens and articles of clothing that were purple – a color that was favored by the royalty and that only the extremely wealthy could afford.

And this man feasted sumptuously… He consumed large amounts of the finest foods and delicacies that would have been prepared and served to him by his servants – not just on special occasions, as feasts were saved for – but he feasted every single day.

And he lived in a home: probably with the finest dining hall and most comfortable and warm beds.

And this home was protected by a gate: something that only the most elite urban resident would have owned and that would have kept out the most miserable weather conditions… and not to mention the least “desirable” city folk.

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And then there is another man…

In extreme contrast to the rich man, this man is very ill and extremely poor.

Instead of being clothed with fine linens and purple garments, he is clothed in large sores that covered his body… that were so bad that the hungry wild city dogs would lick them as they impatiently waited for the scraps of the rich man’s food to be thrown outside of the gate.

This man is helpless, lying on the ground at the front of the rich man’s gate – for who knows how many days and nights.

How he got there, we don’t know.  Maybe a compassionate person in town dropped him off at the gate in hopes that the rich man’s scraps would save him from his ultimate destiny of a miserable death caused by hunger.  Or maybe this poor man went to this rich man’s quarters in hopes for just a bit of food to tide him over, and in the long, miserable wait, his body couldn’t take the malnourishment anymore and collapsed.

And we don’t know how or what caused him to be in such a dire situation in the first place: whether it was unemployment, lack of health care, or being taken advantage of by greedy business owners… Depression, lack of good education, family abuse in his early years that left him on the streets to fend for himself since he was a child, or a system that did not help him get back up when he was pushed down.

We just don’t know.

What we do know is that he was so hungry and desperate to satisfy his hunger, that he put himself in such a humiliating situation: lying so helplessly at the foot of the gate of one of the most elite’s living quarters, waiting for the scraps of food from the rich man’s luxurious and abundant daily feasts.  Scraps that would not have been even left-overs from the rich man’s plate, but rather pieces of pita bread that the rich man and any others dining with him would have dipped into a bowl of water, wiped their dirty hands with as a cleaning devise, and would have thrown under the table.  Scraps that after the feast was over, the rich man’s servants would have cleaned up from the dirty floor and thrown out to the trash… to the unclean wild city dogs.

This poor man was desperate, and he was seeking out his last possible chance to survive through the night.

And while we may not know how this man got to this dire and humiliating situation, the audience of Jesus who was listening to the story would have taken a guess.  The scriptures had been misinterpreted for years: the common belief was that such poverty was a consequence of sin and poor choices and that wealth was a consequence of piety and was a sign of God’s blessing.

So to Jesus’ audience, it would have made sense that the rich man would have stepped over the poor man in his condition in order to enter his gate and his home – possibly day in and day out – giving this poor man little notice.

The poor man was not deserving of anything else.  Plus, the rich man had a lot of important things to think about: a household to take care of, feasts and parties to tend to…  Stopping to help or acknowledge this man would interrupt his important agenda.  It’s likely that this rich man didn’t even see this poor man.  He was not his concern and was just one of the many unlucky and undeserving poor folks he walked by every day in the city.  Why would he see or notice THIS one?

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But isn’t this a familiar and common narrative in our capitalistic society today?

Don’t we often praise those who have worked hard for their extravagant paychecks that allow for mass and luxurious consumption and demonize those who can barely make enough to get by?

Don’t we often hear this type of demonization of the poor and homeless – and in many cases even think it ourselves?

It’s their fault that they got themselves into this situation.  We shouldn’t punish the hard-working wealthy class by increasing their taxes.  Why should we stop what we are doing to acknowledge and give to someone who is begging for some change, food, or time, when we have more important things to do and they are obviously lazy?

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I’ll never forget a conversation I had with a friend in college.  I had been talking to Larry, a man I became acquaintances with whose home was a tent on a campsite – when he was lucky and his tent was not stolen – and who hung out at the university union building during the day, hoping to get a meal or a few bucks for a hot coffee and possibly a bit of human socialization.

After I said goodbye to Larry one day, a friend of mine from the Christian campus ministry I was involved in came up to me quickly and said, “Emily, you should not be talking to that homeless man or giving him money or food.  He is just lazy and choosing not to get a job.  You are enabling him to mooch off other people.”

Yet, after getting to know him over the course of my four years in college, I had realized that this guy was not just a homeless man.

He had a name… Larry.

And the stories that Larry shared with me as we would eat a sandwich or drink coffee together – about his past, his losses, and his sufferings that led him to this place in life told me otherwise.  They opened up my eyes to see Larry as a beloved child of God…

As someone who was just like me…

Who was once a kid who wore a backpack and went to school; who had parents and siblings; and who had experienced many joys and celebrations as well as many losses and sufferings in life.

And yet, somehow I was the lucky one – not because I worked harder than he did – but because I had the resources and the opportunities to make it through high school and to go to college…  And to not have to ever live in a tent or worry about putting food – good food, might I add – on my table.

Yet, I am ashamed to admit that it took me a very long time to get to that point where I could truly look at Larry as an acquaintance and as an equal to myself: as someone who I just happened to share my stories with and listened to his while we sat outside the union over a coffee or a sandwich, rather than just seeing him as someone I was doing charity work for.

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This reminds me of a video that has been shared all over facebook this past year.  It is an interview with a man named Ronald Davis who talks about what it is like to be homeless in Chicago.  If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend that you watch it.

One of the most touching parts of the video is hearing about how he is treated and looked at while on the streets trying to get a few dollars in order to stay in a safe bed at night or to get some food to eat.

He explains:

“It’s really humiliating to be shaking a cup 24 hours a day, and people just look at you like you’re some kind of little bum.” He goes on to tell the interviewer about how passers-by have hollered at him to “get a job, bum.”

“I’m not a bum,” Ronald says, as he breaks down in tears. “I’m a human being.”

Yet, too often, we don’t look at people who are living differently than we are, who have not had the same kind of upbringing, or opportunities or resources, or second or third chances like we have – as human beings, with stories, and with a name.

And this is the problem that Jesus is identifying in his parable as Jesus continues the story in our text for today.  The rich man was so focused on his wealth, his possessions, his home… his feasts and parties, his status, his to-do lists, that he was unable to see the poor man who was desperately lying at his front gate.

The rich man’s blindness, his love of his abundant wealth, and his fear of having to give any of it up kept him from seeing and responding to the poor man for who he was: a human being and a beloved child of God… a man with a story and a man with a name.

To Jesus, this is such an offense against God and God’s children that it had major consequences.

In Jesus’ story, after both of the men die, it is the rich man – the one who was considered to have received divine blessings and a high societal status – who remains nameless and who is being tormented with a burning tongue in Hades (the place – according to Jewish thought – where people would go after they died and were buried.)

And it was this poor, desperate, dying man – the one who had been seen as no more worthy than a dirty, city wild dog to the rich man – who was given a name…

Lazarus.

A name that means: “one who is helped by God.”

And it is this Lazarus – not the rich man – who is carried up in the after-life by the angels to sit at a place of honor next to Abraham.

Jesus’ warning from just a few chapters earlier in Luke was likely now ringing in the ears of Jesus’ audience…

The last shall be first and the first shall be last…

And it is not until the rich man is experiencing a bit of the poor man’s earthly plight in Hades, that he somewhat sees Lazarus at Abraham’s side.

And yet, even in this after-life scenario, the rich man’s eyes are still not fully opened to who Lazarus truly is in God’s eyes.  And instead of taking responsibility for his own selfish actions on earth, he begs Abraham to send Lazarus – the one he, himself, refused to see and to help on earth – to now come to him and to cool his burning tongue – giving him relief from his own anguish.  So even as the roles are reversed, in his torment the rich man still does not see and affirm the poor man’s humanity.  And he is given no relief from his agony.

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Now, most of us here are probably not even close to as wealthy as the rich man in our story.  But many of us here do live lives that are full of abundance and comfort: the ability to go out to eat in Andersonville – maybe even once a week or more; to get the new update on our iphone; to sleep in a warm and comfortable bed on a cold January evening; to grab a hot cup of coffee at Starbucks on our way to work because we didn’t have time to make coffee at home; to travel to another city like Denver and go to a conference in an amazing hotel…

Or just to be able to fill our schedules with so many activities, meetings, and social events, that we are too busy to stop and even just acknowledge the existence of a man sitting at our gate – shaking his cup and asking for food.

We may not be as “rich” as the rich man in Jesus’ parable, but we do live rich and abundant lives in so many ways compared to the majority of people around the world.  Hey, we don’t have to go too far from Ebenezer Lutheran Church to pass by many of the individuals and families who could only dream of having a taste of our abundance.

Now it’s not this abundance that we have that Jesus is condemning… Abraham, himself, was a man of earthly wealth – and yet is sitting in a place of honor in the after-life of Jesus’ parable.  But it is the love of this worldly wealth, status, and abundance that Jesus is warning us about.

Such love of abundance keeps us from truly seeing the humanity of others and sharing some of that abundance with others in need.

As St. John Chrysostom put it: “Not to share one’s goods with the poor is to rob them.”  And as Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel explained: “The opposite of love is not hate.  It’s indifference.”

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Now some of you might be wondering what happened with the man I encountered in Denver.  While I was so tempted to go with my friends, something tugged on my heart that night to stay with this man and take him out to a sit-down dinner.

And even though it was obvious that other customers in the restaurant we went to didn’t think he belonged there – as we could feel the constant glares and looks and even heard the whispers of a few of the people around us – Richard still told me at the end of the night that for the first time in years he felt like he was a normal human being who was equal to the others who were dining in the restaurant – rather than a piece of dirt.

And he told me that he truly felt that I had been an angel sent to him by God that night.

But what was so amazing to me was that while I had gone into this dinner thinking I was making such a sacrifice and was doing my good deed for the night, in hearing the stories about Richard’s life and his continued faith through so many tragedies and crises: I began to realize that I was the one who finally was experiencing the beauty and joy of true humanity again in that moment.

And I began to realize that it was Richard who was an angel sent to me that night.

The stories of Richard’s life and his love for others touched me and inspired me in ways that I could not have possibly imagined and that I will never forget.

In my time with Richard, God opened my eyes to see the beauty and faith in him that I was so tempted to ignore.

And in allowing myself to see Richard for who he truly is, God also released me from some of my own torment – like the rich man in Hades – that comes with too much focus on the abundance, comfort, and busyness of life.

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So how might we hear what Jesus is speaking to each of us through his parable in our passage in Luke?

Maybe some of us need to first recognize the abundance that we do have and explore how God wants us to share that abundance with others: whether it be our money, possessions, food, time, gifts, resources, or stories.

Or maybe it is figuring out how we might better see, get to know, and respond to the needs of others around us – esp. those who we might otherwise ignore and disregard as fellow human beings and children of God.

And if we don’t know where to start on this process, maybe we need to begin with a daily morning prayer, asking God to help open our eyes each day to the fullness of God’s kingdom and God’s children around us.  In doing this, we might actually be pleasantly surprised at what God might help us see, how God might teach and touch us through our new relationships, and how God might release us from our own torment that comes with focusing on and worshiping our worldly abundance and riches.

I’d like to leave you with a benediction that was posted this week on d365.org, a daily online devotional:

“May God fill your soul with waters of generosity; Taking you to the gate of thirsty neighbors; That you might come to know them and, knowing them; Share from the richness of God’s love.”

Linking with: Hear it on Sunday, Use it on Monday

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Related Websites and Articles:

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

“What If the Homeless Man on the Bench Was Jesus?” (on eape.org)

“Life of a Homeless Man; Steve Gallagher’s Story” (on lakevoicenews.org)

“20 Things the Poor Really Do Every Day” (on benirwin.wordpress.com)

“Magdalene” (on gottafindahome.wordpress.com)

“It’s So Little” (on gottafindahome.wordpress.com)

“Spirit of the Poor” Link-up (on newellhendricks.wordpress.com)