"For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains."
Why does the bible give us so much wisdom about the use of money, wealth, and possessions? Jesus taught about the wise use of wealth more often than he talked about love, or peace, or justice, or faith. Yet, in many Christian churches talking about money is taboo. It seems like money is nobody's business, not even God's business. Money can often be the one thing we keep so close to ourselves that it takes the place of God in our lives. We place our trust in wealth, we spend our time counting it, working on it to grow, and thinking it can solve all of our problems. I think Jesus, and St. Paul talk and write so much about money because it is so dangerous to love money more than we love our God, our neighbors or our enemies. Love of money is a rebellion against the first and capstone of God's commandments - to love God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength.
St. Paul wrote to Timothy this admonition - that the "love of money is a root of all kinds of evil". The key here is not that money, by itself is evil. Money, wealth and possessions are all gifts from a good and gracious God. Instead, it is our love of money that produces so much evil in the world. It is the love of money that has sorted people into specific categories. Categories which are formed by measuring human worth by the amount of money one has, or goods one owns. The global imbalance in the share of wealth is the "kind of evil" that Paul is warning against. When too much wealth is concentrated in the hands of too few, all kinds of evil emerge - the evil of poverty and the perpetuation of a social underclass, the evil of victim-blame, where it assumed that if one is poor, one is responsible for it, and responsible to fix it, - the evil of racism, where economic systems that benefit the few are protected and inaccessible to those who are considered less than worthy because they look and behave differently - the evil of injustice, where so many go hungry while others are lavishly overfed.
Our Lord Jesus loves us so much that he doesn't pull punches when it comes to the wise use of money. When he saw people who put their money where their God should be, he told them so, whether it was the man who had so much grain he decided to build bigger barns, or the man who refused to give up what he had to follow Jesus, or rich man who ignored the suffering Lazarus all his life because he thought his god, his wealth was bigger than the one true God, the author of all that is good and loving in the world.
So when you are sorting out your gods, which one gets your fullest attention?
I don’t know if you are a fan of WNYC’s Radiolab podcasts, but I like to listen to them on occasion. The stories shared on Radiolab involve the connection of science and philosophy to real-life situations. The overlay of these three perspectives over and against each other create very interesting ways to look at life, and especially things we might take for granted.
A recent podcast that caught my ear was titled “Playing God”. It is a story about sorting, and the ways in which humans determine how to sort out the relative worth of human life. The Radiolab team went back 11 years ago to 2005, and to a hospital in New Orleans dealing with the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina and the process of having to prioritize the saving and extending of life in extreme, devastating conditions. Most of us will never have to face such difficult decisions in our lives – literally leaving some to die so others could live. I encourage you to listen to the podcast because it tells us a lot about our own humanity, and in particular what we value, or don’t value about human life and how we sort those things out. In conclusion, we see how inadequate we are when it comes to "Playing God".
In many ways, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a critique on the human tendency to sort and to place value on certain lives at the expense of others. It’s interesting in this parable that the person given the name (Lazarus) is the one who the unnamed rich man doesn’t even notice, the one who sits right outside the gate of the rich man’s home. The man passes Lazarus by day after day, paying him no mind as he retires to the incredible comfort of his luxurious life. In the mind of the rich man, a sorting has taken place and Lazarus, poor, dirty and covered with sores, is a life not worth noticing, not worth saving, not worth extending.
As with many parables, there is a pivot to the story, one which turns the world upside down, so we can see better, not how we sort out our own world, but how God sorts things out. Jesus wants us to notice Lazarus, because in God’s world, Lazarus is the one whose life is worth saving. It is Lazarus that stands next to Father Abraham, symbolizing that the person ignored by the rich man is a true heir to the covenant God made with Abraham. This is how God sorts things out in the end, by turning our human assumptions upside-down.
I think that part of the story is easy for us to grasp – that ignorance of the poor, that sorting the poor out as unworthy is not what Jesus wants from his disciples. But what about the rich man? Is he doomed forever? Is that the fate that God has destined for us when God “sorts it all out”?
It’s not easy to deal with the subject of Hell, of some divine judgment that places people into categories of eternal life or eternal death. In fact, outside of the parables of the New Testament, which are image-laden stories, there is little theological discourse in the bible about the existence of Hell or what it may be like. I think the key to understanding the fate of the rich man is found in the last verse “neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead”. You might take this as a rebuke of the rich man that indicates the finality of the sorting out process. But I see that statement more as a rhetorical device pointing us to the fact that the Resurrection is the ultimate redeeming act of God to sort each of us into our baptismal categories, already marked for living lives dedicated to loving others, because of Jesus Christ. As disciples, it is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ that we see God’s ultimate sorting plan, one that takes notice of the worth of all life looking ahead to the promise of everlasting life.
So when you walk by that Lazarus in your neighborhood today, this week or this month, know that “Lazarus” has been sorted by God into the book of life, and because of Christ, you too have been sorted into the same book. Now go in peace and remember the poor!
Devotions for Week of Sept. 25, 2016
I'm sorry to say that it has been another rough and violent week. No, I'm more than sorry - I'm sad. No, I'm more than sad - I'm disgusted. No I'm more than disgusted - I'm helpless. I confess that I may not be the best pastor this week. As a pastor, I'm expected to preach messages of the grace of God and by the power of the Holy Spirit, present a message of hope for the people. How so, when there is so much hate, racism, quick trigger fingers, terrorism and destruction around us? How so?
How does one preach a message of grace to a world that doesn't deserve it? How do I even allow myself to feel God's grace in the midst of my own disgust and helplessness?
A world that continues to say that lives of people of color don't matter is not deserving of the grace of God. A world that repeatedly tells the poor that they are responsible for the mess they are in, and offers no help is not deserving of the grace of God. A world where violence, and not love is the preferred response to hate is not deserving of the grace of God. A world where the gun is the final judgment for too many people is not deserving of the grace of God.
It is so hard to preach a gospel of grace, of love, of forgiveness, of abundant life in the face of a culture that seems to prefer death.
"For this reason it depends on faith"
Grace is not mine to give to those who I deem worthy. Grace is not mine to withhold from those who don't meet certain conditions. Grace is not mine to hold as a weapon against the guilty. Grace is not mine to choose who receives and who is beyond its power.
The promise of grace comes from God alone - to an undeserving world. In spite of all the hate that the world can muster. In spite of all the ways in which we mistreat people that look differently from ourselves. In spite of all the fear-based decisions that snuff out the lives of God's children, we are not beyond the power of grace.
I don't exactly know how this message will come from my words this week, but thank God that it depends on faith, even for this most undeserving of pastors.
Always the master storyteller, Jesus makes liberal use of parables throughout his teachings, and in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is particularly prolific in telling these stories – stories of life in God’s Kingdom using everyday imagery to convey meaning. Some parables are harder to understand than others, and the one in Luke 16, often called the “Parable of the Unjust Steward” is one of the most difficult to decode, because it seems odd to us that Jesus would lift up the dishonest and self-serving work of the steward as something to be emulated.
We often look at parables and try to substitute characters in the story from the perspective of the relationship between God and God’s people. Using this key, we may assume God to be the master, and the steward could be any one of us. With that in mind, it would be easy to draw the conclusion that dishonest, self-serving behavior is commended by God. But what meaning would the parable take on if it were Jesus who was the “dishonest” steward? How does that help you understand the parable?
One of the ways to look at a parable is to find those who are doing acts of grace and forgiveness. Surprisingly, the one doing the forgiving in this story is the same person whose behavior we find objectionable, even scandalous. And that just may be the point of the story. In a world marked by quid-pro-quo relationships, the idea of forgiveness is simply scandalous. It doesn’t make sense, but if you are on the receiving end of such forgiveness, a new world of possibilities emerges, and new sense of freedom, and a new sense of appreciation for the one who bestowed grace and forgiveness on you.
Indeed, if we see Jesus as the “unjust steward” in this parable, we see a pattern of grace leading up to our honoring of Jesus and welcoming into our hearts our homes and our lives, just what the steward was trying to achieve by forgiving debts. Jesus has forgiven all our debts to God, and as a result places a claim on our lives, but a claim which allows us to live freely and fully.
So next time you read a story in the bible you don’t understand at first, look for the pattern of grace, the scandalous grace of Jesus.
To see the full text of my sermon on the Parable of the "Dishonest Manager", CLICK HERE
I was travelling that morning, a sunny, spectacular Tuesday morning 15 years ago. It really was a particularly beautiful morning with a small suggestion of Fall chill in the air As I almost always did on long morning drives, I had Don Imus’ show on the radio to keep me company. About 1/3 of the way through the trip, sports reporter Warner Wolf broke through with a special report, but not about a breaking sports story. Instead, Wolf was a resident of lower Manhattan and was calling in to report on an incident involving an airplane crash into one of the two towers of the World Trade Center. As he tried to present the facts to the radio audience, there was a sense of great confusion around what had happened. Some people on the scene reported that it was a small plane that hit the building. Others were saying it was a large plane. Some were reflecting back on a similar incident involving a small plane and the Empire State building many years before - but that crash happened in heavy fog, and this Tuesday, September 11, 2001 was a crystal clear day. Other witnesses suggested that it seemed the airplane rammed into the tower intentionally. I remember thinking to myself as I was driving “No, let’s not go there, please”. Seconds later, Wolf reported that a second plane crashed into the other tower. At that point, we all knew these were no accidents.
I’m sharing this little vignette about 9/11, not just because this is a day of profound remembrance of an act of brutal violence which caused the deaths of thousands, or because we remember the heroism of many people whose actions in the face of danger saved many lives. And not just because in the aftermath of 9/11, America and her allies began a campaign of war against state- sponsored terrorism that still has our armed forces on the ground in many parts of the world, but has failed to eliminate, and may indeed have exacerbated terrorist movements around the globe.
I’m also sharing this remembrance of 9/11 as a story of loss and a story of being lost. After hearing the news on the radio, I continued my drive having, with no visual experience of what was going on. I could only imagine in my mind the chaos that was stirred up when the first, and then the second tower collapsed, then a plane crashed into the Pentagon, and another attempt thwarted when a plane crashed in rural Pennsylvania. I remember erroneous reports of other attacks, including a plane crash into Camp David, one of several reports which turned out to be untrue. The more I drove, the more I remember a sense of deep loss, and a sense of being lost, coming over my soul. And I wondered where God was in all of this. In the aftermath of these acts of unprecedented evil, I began to think that God may have given up on all of us – were we beyond even God’s ability to help? We all seemed so vulnerable, so fragile, sooooooooo….lost. I’m reminded of the scene in the Lord of the Rings – The Two Towers, when facing annihilation by the army of Saruman at Helm’s Deep, King Theoden lamented: “So much death. What can men do against such reckless hate?”
The parables that Jesus presents in Luke 15 remind us that God does not see the world in the same way that we see it. Jesus is sitting with a group of “tax collectors and sinners”, which is a way of describing those that don’t belong to the elite religious class of the time – those lost ones considered to be unworthy of God’s love. Looking on were the Pharisees who were complaining about Jesus, and the amount of time and attention he gave to those the Pharisees deemed to be unworthy, unredeemable – lost. Observing the class divide standing in front of him, Jesus uses double-edged sword of God’s Word here as the teachings provide comfort and hope to those the world considers lost, and simultaneously issue a call to repentance for those who use their power to oppress rather than liberate – those who determine who is lost and who is not – those who determine who is worthy of being found, and who is beyond the pale.
Jesus makes the first parable very personal right from the outset – “Which of you”, Jesus asks. Which of you having 100 sheep, and losing one of them….? Actually, Jesus seems to assume a little much here. I’m not sure that any of us would leave 99 of anything unguarded to find 1 that was lost. But that is just the point… that his audience knows that the parable exposes their own weaknesses and points them to see a heavenly shepherd who will risk everything to find the one who has been lost. The shepherd in the parable takes extraordinary risk with almost no hope – even to the point of venturing deep into the wilderness (an image that conveys an area of complete desolation, utter loneliness, beyond any kind of protection) to retrieve the one sheep who everyone else has left for dead. Most “normal” people would consider the actions of this shepherd to be folly, but Jesus uses this image to let us know the depth of God’s love for us, and the lengths that God will go to find and return any part of God’s creation that looks lost and beyond healing. It’s an image that makes us think of those 9/11 first responders who risked so much to run toward ground zero, when most were running away from danger and death. Jesus tells us through this parable that God is the ultimate first responder who never considers anyone to be lost and considers none to be unworthy of risking everything to save. And more importantly, considers recovery of the lost something over which God and in fact all of God’s kingdom rejoices.
The second parable, about a woman and her lost coin, is more than just a repetition of the same message with different metaphors. This parable takes us in a little bit deeper to show how much God has done and will do for those who seem lost. It would be easy for the woman to say that its hardly worth the effort to find one solitary coin, while still retaining 90% of what she owns. Yet, this woman stops everything to scour her home to look for the coin. We are told the woman searched carefully, more literally she over-cares for the coin, looking over and over and over again. We are given a sense of her determination, and she lights a lamp to aid in her search. The lamp not only brightens the room to aid in her search, but also allows the coin to reflect some of that light in order to be more visible to the woman. Do you see the connection of lighting the lamp to the gift of the light of Jesus?
Like the widow and the coin, God so loved the world, this often lost world, that he sent Jesus, God’s only son to be a light shining our way to God, and to give us a chance to reflect that light along the way. And like the first parable, the end result of finding what was lost, is the joy of all of heaven, that what once was lost has now been found, what was considered dead has been found alive.
You see, God never counts anyone of us as lost and never leaves any of us for dead. Each and every one of us is as precious to God as that one lost sheep or that one lost coin. God promises never to stop searching, no matter how far away we stray. God always lights the lamp, searches over and over again, and rejoices when we see God’s light and turn back. There will be much joy in heaven, when we realize that those promises are for us, and for each of us. What the world may count as lost, God counts as loved.
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About this website
Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church (GA) in New York City has been chosen as one of eight internship congregations to participate this year in a church-wide initiative designed to increase our understanding of Holy Scripture and most importantly, to cultivate our engagement with it. In partnership with The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Vicar John Heidgerd will be working to develop innovative ways to deepen our faith formation and sense of discipleship for the sake of ourselves and our communities.