Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
‘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.” ’
A Preponderance of Evidence- Luke 16: 19-31
In today's Gospel reading, we encounter Jesus nearing the end of his journey to Jerusalem. With the cross looming in his future, feeling that his disruption of the status quo can only be tolerated for a so much longer, he seems to have an important goal in mind for the rest of his journey. He wants to make sure his followers understand how to construct their lives on the foundation of the Gospel. What he has said about God during this time is that God is perpetually loving and continually seeks out humanity and celebrates our renewed relationship... he has said that God will see your pain and heal you without even being asked. What Jesus has said about living a life of Gospel love and justice is that it will be dangerous... is that you will be asked to re-evaluate every part of your life and make it measure up to God's standard. You do this not to earn God's love, but to better reflect this love more fully into the world. Even so, it is not easy to be a mirror for God's love.
Today's scripture, a parable about a rich, nameless man and an impoverished man named Lazarus, falls into a third category of Jesus' teaching: a teaching about how to re-orient your life to be a reflection of God's love. And, my... is this parable harrowing. It begins by describing two men who could not be more different. One was very wealthy and always decked out in the finest clothes: head to toe purple and linen. He had so much money that every meal was a feast. He lived in a home big enough to have it's own gate. And, at that gate, laid the other man, Lazarus. Lazarus is covered in sores, head to toe with purple and red angry welts. He had so little money that he had no food, wishing he could eat the scraps that had fallen from the rich man's table. He had no home, living among the stray dogs at the rich man's gate. No people notice him. Only the dogs notice him, licking his wounds. He is too weak or perhaps too bereft to stop them.
Both men die. The poor man, once ignored by everyone but stray dogs, is now tended by angels. He is taken into the bosom of Abraham, where the great ancestor of his faith offers him love and comfort that he did not have in his life. The wealthy man was buried, another symbol of his wealth. This would be the last thing that goes well for him. Remember, in Luke, Mary sang about God who would bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly. And, Jesus preached about the poor being blessed and said that the rich would become hungry. This rich man in this story would soon embody being knocked off one's throne and being suddenly hungry. Having lived in comfort, his death is marked by isolation and torment. Having always had enough to eat and drink, he now begs for even the smallest drops of water to ease his pain. This rich man who never crossed his yard to tend to the sick man at his gate now suffers alone because because a great chasm separates him from the ones who could offer comfort. This story stands as a portrait of a desperate, tormented, and foolish man.
Before we go further, I'd like to share something that one of the scholars I read this week pointed out. We would be wise to avoid seeing this story as Jesus saying all rich people are terrible and deserve punishment. Jesus is critical of unethical elites, but he is not cruel. Instead, it is more helpful to understand this parable as a critique of a particular understanding of the relationship between wealth and righteousness. Jesus is critiquing a theology that understood one's relative wealth as a sign of one's righteousness. Wealth and comfort are gifts from God for good behavior. Some people who espoused this theology might have assumed that the rich man was rich because he was righteous, and would have expected him to be one curled up in Abraham's embrace. Some might have even argued that had he tended to Lazarus, he might have been interfering with God's judgment. To see him being tormented because, to quote the scripture, he had already received good things, would have completely upended some people's understanding of God. In the story, it definitely upends the rich man's understanding of how he lived his life. He becomes so convinced that he did wrong that he wants to find a way to convince his siblings, who apparently lived like he did, to change their ways.
Knowing that Lazarus could have been the witness to spur him into compassionate action, he pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to his siblings to warn them to live differently. Abraham says no. They have plenty of witnesses to tell them about God's love. They have Moses and the prophets... the whole Law that shares God's concern for the poor as well as God's instruction to care for one's neighbor. They should listen to them. The rich man, remembering how he had misunderstood Moses and prophets and assuming his siblings would do the same, thought they would need more evidence... thought that seeing a man return from the dead might convince them. Abraham says no. The evidence is sound. They shouldn't need more. If they don't believe that, they won't believe anything... even the testimony of a dead man brought back to life.
I have been thinking a lot about evidence and testimony in these last couple weeks. Thirteen year-old Tyre King was shot in the back as he ran from police while holding a bb gun in Ohio. Forty-three year-old Terrence Crutcher was shot as he walked towards his broken-down car with his hands up in Oklahoma. Another 43 year-old man, Keith Scott in NC, was shot after being ordered out of his car where he had been waiting to pick his son up after school. In Maryland, a 15 year-old girl was struck by a car. When she refused care at the scene and tried to ride away, police officers grabbed her off her bike, slammed her into a windowsill, and put her in handcuffs. They told a bystander that she might have a brain injury and they needed to help her. When she struggled while being placed in the back of the police car, they pepper-sprayed her. Her name has not been released. Just a couple days later, in a different part of Maryland, Tawan Boyd, a 21 year-old man, called 911 because he felt disoriented. In the recording of the call, you can hear his girlfriend tell him to "tell them to hurry up" because he was acting strange. Police report that he was acting confused and paranoid, running up and down the street and even trying to climb into police cars. He ended up being punched at least twice in the face and wrestled to the ground. He was hospitalized in intensive care. He has since died. All of these people were black or bi-racial. This seems like a lot of evidence.
About three weeks ago, a colleague of mine here in Maine was pulled over. She had no idea why. She was not in the town where she lived and knew all the police officers. She did not know the trooper who pulled her over. She looked over at her sister and made a joke, something like, "Well, this could be it." You see... she was afraid.. Everything went ok, though. She just had a blown taillight. She made it home. But, she was still afraid. My friends with black and bi-racial kids have been teaching them how to respond to the police in ways that I was never instructed. The cases I've described in the last two weeks just become more examples of why this instruction is necessary. Guys I went to college and seminary with, guys I've worked for, all wonder if they will one day get identified as a "bad dude" and not make it home that night. These stories of fear seem like a lot more evidence to me, just as surely as the words of Moses and the prophets, telling me something about how I should be living my life of faith. I guess the question is, will I heed it, or will it take a dead person... well, another dead person, to convince me to make a change, particularly in the ways that I engage others about racism. This evidence is showing me how systemic racism is preventing black folks from being understood to be whole children of God.
Jesus is clear... the relative cushiness of our life is not a sign of how much God loves us. The tragedies and misfortune that some experience are not always, not even often, signs of some inner problem they are being punished for. My neighbors and friends who are struggling in a world that is punishing them for the color of their skin do not deserve the discrimination, hatred, and fear that they face every day. Our privilege should not insulate us from seeing the pain of our neighbors, some of who sit on our very doorstep, struggling to survive.We don't have to be like the rich man who realized that he could serve his neighbors only after it was too late. We are here, now, like his five siblings, alive and still able to listen to the witness before us. We can choose to live life differently in light of Jesus' call let the oppressed go free.
As Jesus warned us in other parts of Luke, living this new life will be risky and disruptive. We will have to re-examine all parts of our lives and institutions in order to shape them into the standard of God's love. We should have no doubt that this will be really hard. We'll mess up and apologize and start again. We will listen, a lot. But, we have to keep working towards God's reign of love and just. We have one upcoming even that can help us do this work together: the anti-racism training in Auburn on November 5th. What we can't do anymore is sit at our table eating dinner while ignoring the dying man outside. We are called to see just as Jesus saw and pursue our neighbors with love just as God does. There is a preponderance of evidence for what needs to change in our world. Let us all be willing to be changed by it.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
I am particularly grateful for conversations and social media posts of friends and neighbors who are also people of color. Many people have shared their testimony with me about their experiences as people of color in this country. For this sermon, I am particularly indebted to a conversation with a former roommate from seminary, the Rev. AJ Green, who helped me think through the process of being changed by witnesses who's experiences differ from one's own, and also, colleague here in Maine, who was willing to share a recent experience being pulled over.
Barbara Rossing: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2983
Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=795
Lois Malcolm: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1784
Greg Carey: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=679
Reporting on the teenager who refused medical care: http://usuncut.com/news/cops-caught-pepper-spraying-handcuffed-15-year-old-girl-hit-car-video/
Reporting on Tawan Boyd's encounter with the police: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/24/baltimore-man-tawon-boyd-dies-after-he-called-911?CMP=share_btn_tw
Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
If you are looking for a tangible tool for helping someone who is on the receiving end of verbal harassment in a public space, I would encourage you to read the follow post by artist who goes by the name Maeril. She was particularly interested in helping people intervene in Islamophobic harassment, but this technique could be helpful in many kinds of bullying encounters: http://maeril.tumblr.com/post/149669302551/hi-everyone-this-is-an-illustrated-guide-i-made
Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’
Who Do We Really Serve? Luke 16:1-13
You know that it's going to be a rough week of sermon prep when you consult literally eight different commentaries and all of them tell you how difficult this particular scripture is to interpret. Some call this story from Luke, often known as the Parable of the Shrewd or Dishonest Manager, the "most perplexing of Jesus' Parables." Other scholars quoted one of the most renown theologians and New Testament scholars of the last century, Rudolph Bultmann, calling this story the "Problem Child of Parabolizing Jesus." Much to my consternation, I am inclined to agree with them. I mean, it's not like I'm expecting every teaching example that Jesus shared to be easy to understand. After all, Jesus taught in parables and parables are notoriously dense and complex stories. They often turn conventional wisdom on it's head. In these parables, Jesus often stretched and bent common imagery with uncommon grace, creating brand new metaphors for the reign of God. Folks who are usually villains become heroes. People who usually live on the margins are become the center by God's unfailing love. Silly sheep and simple coins become prizes worth risking life and reputation for. If we have been paying attention, we should know that when we read the parables, we should expect a surprise. The issue here is that the surprise is a little different. The surprise seems like it might be Jesus praising dishonest actions. That seems kinda weird, right?
Let's turn back to the story and walk through it a bit more slowly to see if that helps. There's a rich guy, a guy rich enough that he has employees to help manage his money. Someone accuses that manager of squandering the rich guy's money. The rich guy seemed to believe the accusations. First, he asked the manager for an account of his actions and then he fired him. The manager, who is not actually shown refuting that he has been really bad at managing things, is shown trying to figure out how to make a living after being fired. He decides pretty quickly that he's too weak to get a construction job and to proud to beg people for help. Instead, he decides to cut down on the amount of debt people owe his former employer in hopes that one of them will help him when he needs it because they feel a sense of obligation. It should probably be noted that Jesus explicitly said not to do things like this a couple chapters back. The guy in the story doesn't seem to be worried about that at this moment.
He quickly went to two of the people who owed the rich guy money and changed the records of their transactions to say that they owed much less than they actually owed. He still had one more meeting with his boss... an exit interview, I guess. The boss saw that the manager had reduced the bills of these two people. In our first surprise of this reading, the rich man saw what the manager did, an action that actually lost him quite a lot of income, and, rather than berate him, the boss commends him. Now, I don't know about you, but I'm not seeing a lot here that is commendable. I mean, if you admire sneakiness, I guess you might call this guy commendable. Or, if you're one of the people who got some debt relief, you might call him commendable. But, I don't see how this boss, or Jesus, for that matter, would want to commend the manager.
In verse eight, Jesus offers some kind of explanation for the rich man's commendation. Jesus said that "children of this age," that is, people who have not decided to live according to God's will, are much more adept at gaming the unjust system they live in for their own gain. What is happening is that the boss recognizes that man's skill at gaming a system that should have gotten him in trouble. I think this is one of the first parts of this story that gives people pause... or, at least, this gives me pause. I'm pretty sure, in other parts of the Gospel, Jesus has critiqued manipulative and oppressive system. I can't think of somewhere where he recommends playing by their rules (with the exception of paying taxes). I'm pretty sure that Jesus' typical recommendations for behavior has been to live by God's rules and not the rules of empire. This verse seems strange, counter even, to Jesus' typical teaching. Things get stranger in the next verse. Jesus seems to tell his followers that if they have wealth from shady sources, they should use it to buy influence with people who will take care of them later, just like the manager did. What? Why would he say that? I don't understand.
Now, scholars have offered several explanations for these two verses. Some commentators have said that Jesus is taking this moment to explain to his followers how unethically-gotten possessions can be used for good purposes. After all, in the last couple weeks, Jesus has spent a lot of time justifying his close relationships with people who have plenty of dishonest money: tax collectors, other sinners, the occasional woman of ill repute. Maybe this is a story for folks who might think they can't take this money that they earned from the empire's systems and then turn around and use it for God's purposes. Or, maybe this is a story that is kinda like those verses in Matthew where Jesus reminds his followers to be wise as serpents and innocent and doves. Wisdom comes from using what you have to make do, like this manager tries to fix his mistake by being merciful to people that he might have cheated.
My favorite reading of this scripture is from a scholar who suggested that these two troubling verses should actually be read as Jesus making sarcastic statements about the state of the world. Maybe Jesus was saying these two things with a wink and a nod. "Oh, of course the unethical landlord would commend a sneaky manager for finagling his way into the good graces of the people he'd once tried to cheat. Of course someone unscrupulous would suggest that we all could learn something from him... finally use our ill-gotten gains for something good. Right? *Wink*Wink*" This scholar wonders if maybe these two lines of scripture aren't actually recommendations for behavior but, instead are being held up as ways not to behave. When we look to Jesus' actual recommendations for proper Gospel behavior, we should look to the next four verses instead.
In the next four verses, Jesus describes a relationship with wealth that sounds like it is more in line with his mission to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, and proclaim the year of Jubilee. In this final portion of the reading, he says that the wealth that we have right now, ultimately, is not the most important thing with which we are entrusted. In fact, our access, or lack thereof, to wealth is far more likely mirror the oppressive system that we live in than it is to mirror God's intentions for creation. Furthermore, according to Jesus, our material wealth is not actually our "true riches." Our relationship with God and neighbor is. However, the fact that we are called to value our relationship with God and our neighbors above all else does not actually mean that we get to ignore what we do with our money. Our relationship with God is to guide our relationship with money.
Jesus said, "Whomever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; whomever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much." Ultimately, as difficult as it is to imagine, our money is the small thing that has been entrusted to us. Our relationship with God and neighbor is the greatest thing that can be entrusted to us. Jesus knew that then, just as now, it is too easy to become trapped in a system that tells us to value small things, like our money, more than big things, like our relationship with God. It can also be too easy to forget that as our primary concern, our relationship with God, should be helping to guide how we use our money. When we forget that God is our true riches, we can believe the lie that our wealth is the most important aspect of our lives, and we will turn our attention towards protecting it at all costs. We can develop an unhealthy, untrustworthy relationship with things that aren't ultimately the most important things. Jesus calls us to remember our right relationship with the small things, our wealth, in order to better express our relationship with the greater things, God and our neighbor.
Now, you may say, "Chrissy, it seems a little too easy to make sense of a difficult parable by suggesting that Jesus didn't really mean the two lines that make clear interpretation the most difficult. Can it be a good interpretation if you basically ignore the lines about learning to be shrewd like this terrible manager was shrewd and skip over to the parts of Jesus' teaching that seem more clear?" If you said that to me, I'd tell you that I think you'd be right. It can always be tricky to assume tone in a piece of writing when you have no access to the original author and come from a drastically different time and culture. However, despite some misgivings I might have about the ways I have suggested for addressing theological incongruities in the parable, I don't really have a problem with taking the last four verses as the authority on how to use our wealth as a reflection of our greater relationship with God. These four verses seem much more like the mission of justice and love that Jesus described at the outset of his mission in Luke. These four verses help me remember that everyday we are afforded a million small opportunities to allow our behavior to reflect our connection to God, including our behavior with money. I pray that we can each as ourselves, "When I make this choice, who am I really serving? The small things? Or, my God?" These questions merit a good answer.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Barbara Rossing: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2982
Lois Malcolm: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1783
Greg Carey: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=675
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4713
David Lose: http://www.davidlose.net/2016/09/pentecost-18-c-wealth-and-relationships/
Phyllis Tickle: http://thq.wearesparkhouse.org/featured/lect25cgospel/
The Sermon Brainwave Podcast: https://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=794
Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’
So he told them this parable: ‘Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.
‘Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbours, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.’
This Sunday was our first week back to Sunday School for the program year. The kids, the teachers, and some of the grown-ups talked about their hopes for the coming Sunday School year. The kids really liked that they were able to be teachers sometimes. They want to do more of that this year. They also really hope that there will be snacks.
You Go After That One Lost One? Luke 15:1-10
"Martine, I'm worried about this." So says, Fillipa, one of the two sisters at the center of the story in the film, Babette's Feast. "Martine, I'm worried about this." What exactly is she worried about, you might ask? A meal, a feast, in fact, that their friend Babette has offered to cook for them in honor of anniversary of their belated father's birth. Initially, their primary concern had been the time and expense such a meal would incur. They had always offered only a simple meal at this commemoration. They were hesitant to allow her to cook something more because they had never done it that way before. But, Babette, who had lived with them for fourteen years since fleeing France during the civil war, insisted. She said, have I ever asked you for anything? And, they agree, she hasn't. She has cooked for them, and for the other elderly members of their isolated Danish religious community, for years with no compensation beyond their companionship and a roof over her head. How could they not allow Babette to prepare this meal for them using her own lottery winnings? They could receive this kind gesture from her, especially since they assumed that she would soon take those winnings and return to France.
They grew concerned, though, as the time for the celebratory meal grew closer. As Babette began to gather a sumptuous and astounding variety of foods for the meal, Martine began to have nightmares of hellish flames burning up the rich foods and devils dancing into the feast. She and Filippa began to see this meal not as an act of love but as a temptation, a wholesale assault on their faith by way of earthly extravagance. Martine, in a hushed apology to the others in her small community, shared that she feared that they have exposed themselves to sin by virtue of this meal. The others agreed. They'd seen the rich food and drink that Babette had delivered to the settlement. They usually lived on salted fish and gravy-thick ale-bread soup. They have come to see the deprivations that they endure in such a rural settlement as symbols of their faith. Their simple food, simple homes, and hardscrabble life was not just bad luck, but it was a sacrifice they endured in order to be closer to God. This feast, un vrai diner francais, a true French dinner, as Babette calls it, cannot possibly reflect a proper relationship with God. It is simply too much... to much meat, too much wine, too many exotic fruits from far away places. They knew that God was with them in their lean meals, offering sustenance beyond what they could afford. They were not at all sure that God was present in un vrai diner francais. It was so extravagant.
They were right about one thing... the meal was extravagant. Four kinds of wine and champagne, all of which were of the highest quality and some of which were quite rare. Caviar and tropical fruits graced their tables, with the fruit being particularly rare and difficult to bring to rural Denmark in 1885. The entrée was quail stuffed with pate and some other delicious stuff that I couldn't identify cooked with figs and wine and baked in a crispy crust. There was some amazing cake that looked to be soaked with brandy. And, more wine. Babette cooked and cooked and served course after course of beautiful food. All the while, her eleven friends, the people she had helped tend to for nearly a decade and a half, said not one word about how great it tasted. That's right. Not one word as course after beautiful course is laid in front of them. Well, that's not exactly true. They did talk. They talked about the weather and share stories about Martine and Fillipa's father. He had been the religious community's pastor and was beloved by everyone around the table. However, they say not one word about their meal. Despite the obvious looks of pleasure on their faces with each bite and sip, they say nothing of the meal in hopes that their silence will save their souls.
There is only one person sharing the dinner who speaks of the beauty of the food, a general named Lorens. As a young man and struggling soldier, he had worshiped in the isolated community and had fallen in love with Martine. However, after months of pining for her attention and being rebuffed, and months of hearing sermons about a powerful and unsparing God, he had grown disconsolable. He said that he had learned that life is hard and cruel and that some things are simply impossible. He left the community, and the woman he loved, and poured all of his attention into his work. While he flourished professionally, eventually marrying and gaining a regular place on the royal court, he felt like his life had been unnecessarily hardened because of his time in the midst of this religious community. However, in spite of his wordly success, he was not sure that his spirit had been tended to properly. He had traveled back to the small community to settle an old argument with himself, to see if he had truly made the right choices in his life. He became the twelfth guest at this rich and surprising dinner.
He loved it. He delighted in the rare wines and complicated hors d'oeuvres. He was overjoyed by the turtle soup, tipping the small bowl up into his mouth so that he would not miss even one drop. Even though he participated in the storytelling about their pastor, he did so not as a distraction from temptation, but as a participant in a holy meal, using the stories to connect to the people around him. As the entrée was placed before him, he tasted it and smiled. He shared one more story, this time of his days in the military when he was once invited to the best restaurant in Paris. He ate an amazing feast there, all cooked by a chef who he was surprised to learn was a woman. She was a genius, a true artist who's palette was food, not paint or charcoal. He had been told that every meal was an expression of love, making no distinction between bodily and spiritual appetite, sharing with all who came to her restaurant a little piece of the Divine with every bite. One dish in particular shined above the rest, quail lovingly and richly prepared. The dish that they were eating was that quail. Quite suddenly, anyone watching the film realizes that Babette was that chef. When one of the other diners whispers "hallelujah," we agree. Another diner quotes the pastor, "The only things we take from this life on earth are the things we give away." And, suddenly, it seems clear why Babette has made this great meal. And, why, we would soon find out, she spent every cent she had on it... $10, 000 francs.
Jesus once said that God is like a shepherd who foolishly leaves ninety-nine sheep vulnerable in the wilderness while he goes looking for the one who has wandered away. When he finds the silly sheep, he runs home and calls all of his buddies in for a party to help him celebrate. He has found his lost sheep. He must rejoice. Jesus also said that God is like a woman who has lost a day's wages somewhere in her home. It's a fair amount of money, but, it's not all she has. She has another nine days wages stored up. Still, she searches for what has been lost. She turns over every couch cushion and checks in the washing machine. When she finds the cash balled up in a lonesome sock at the back of one of her drawers, she calls all of her friends to come over for a party. She has found the coin she was looking for and wants to celebrate. She then spends more than the coin was worth to throw the party. I wonder if Jesus might also say that God is like a refugee chef who feeds the best food in the world to people who thought they only deserved salted fish. How foolish... and extravagant... and loving... and divine.
God who is foolish and extravagant and loving... that is the God that we have come to know through Jesus. This is God who loves enough to follow after each person when they are lost... extravagant enough to waste more than what was lost in the search... foolish enough to chase after every single lost one, even when ninety-nine more are back in the woods just waiting to go back to the barn for grain. God is always seeking and always celebrating the ones who have been lost but now are found. But, God will keep on doing it anyway, looking right past the ones who have already been found, to the next one who is lost.
In the film, the extravagance in the food and love in the stories shared, finally seems to do the holy work of seeking out the ones who need to be tended to. Babette is finally able to soften the fears of the diners, helping them to live into a faith that had become rigid and stale. We see inklings of renewed divine relationship as they finish their meal. People who had been arguing make amends. Everyone sings in praise to God together. At last, they begin to offer thanks for the wonderful food. They return to their simple homes, saying "God bless you" to one another as they leave. Even Lorens, who once saw the world as a cold, hard place, saw a new vision of a world of blessing where "anything is possible." The sisters even thank Babette for her extravagant, delicious, and foolish gift. And, as it turns out she won't be going back to Paris. She knows that she is home. And, thanks to her meal, her neighbors know something more about God's extravagant, unconditional grace. I pray that we can all remember this kind of loving extravagance. And, I pray that we can be like Babette and pass some of that grace along to people who need it.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon:
David Schnasa Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2959
Pulpit fiction podcast: http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/184-proper-19c-september-11-2016
The film Babette's Feast, directed by Gabriel Axel: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092603/
Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.
Counting the Cost- Luke 14:25-33
On our recent trip, as we walked into the Old Town Square in Prague, we noticed a couple things. First, it was lovely. Many of the buildings that line the crowded little streets around the square date to the Middle Ages. There is a tower with giant astronomical clock on one side of the square. Statues of twelve Apostles rotate through a slot on it's face. There are two enormous, beautiful churches on the square. Between the cobbles stones and the Baroque architecture, we felt absolutely surrounded by beauty. The second thing we noticed was that we were also absolutely surrounded by people, scores of them. I can only count a couple of times when I have been in a city so full of people. Herds of tourists cruised by on those weird Segway scooters. Silver-painted people popped and locked, pretending to be robots to amuse little children. Visitors crowded up to food vendors, anxious to eat real, official Czech food and drink Czech beer. And, all of this joyful activity swirled around one large, haunting monument in the middle of the square, a monument to the Christian reformer, Jan Hus.
Hus seems to be rising out of the middle of the monument, face serious, looking towards the church that would become the spiritual home to the people who followed his teaching. On one side of him are the so-called Hussite warriors, Bohemian soldiers who helped defend Prague from four different Crusades that sought to destroy their religious movement as well as wrest political control of the area. On his other side are the descendants of these Hussites who were driven from their country in the 1620's by people who, yet again, saw their religious beliefs as a threat to the political order. Etched in Czech around the tall base of the monument are some of Hus' words, including the line, "Love each other and wish the truth to everyone." Hus was burned alive as a heretic in 1415.
What, might you ask, did he do to deserve such horrible treatment. According to historians that I read this week, not as much as you would imagine. In some ways, he had the misfortune of being a reformer in a time of great cultural change. He began his education right on the heels of major conflicts in the Catholic Church and in the Holy Roman Empire, the empire in which he lived. There was great political tension within the Empire, with two brothers both claiming to be the rightful emperor. and also in surrounding territories, with Italian politics being particularly rocky. Right around the same time he began preaching, there were three different popes floating around Europe, one in the French city of Avignon, one in Rome and one in Pisa, each once claiming to be the only legitimate Holy Father. The church was also trying to sort out both how much power the Pope should have over Catholic kingdoms and how much power the Pope should have in the church. Some believed that he should have a lot of both. Others believed that there should be a council of Bishops who actually were more powerful than the pope. These tensions helped to create a church with little patience for critique, kings anxious to find something to give them a political edge, and a laity with little confidence in either their religious or political leaders, ready for reform.
Into this tense situation walks Jan Hus, a hard-working and talented preacher and college administrator who mostly wanted to tell the truth and seek greater knowledge. He regularly preached about much needed reforms in his church, targeting corrupt clergy in particular. He had no patience for greedy, lascivious, and neglectful priests, or for the actions of his bishop (he had bought his religious title rather than earned it). What is interesting is that, according to historians, these kinds of reforms were actually very much in line with reforms already being called for in certain parts of the church. His reforms were not particularly radical. However, he was still accused of heresy. A primary reason that Hus was targeted was because the bishop did not like that a local priest was being so critical of him, The Bishop appealed to one of the popes for help making Hus stop preaching. The pope tried. However, despite having the local bishop angry with him and one of the popes trying to silence him, Hus would not stop. Even his eventual excommunication did not stop his preaching, though it should be noted that he was only able to do so because his Queen and King supported him and didn't have him removed from his post.
As I have said, up to this point, Hus wasn't preaching anything too radical. He was mostly calling out shady colleagues and superiors and supporting the freedom to read a variety of scholars at the university. However, he grew tired of being targeted for speaking the truth. He began to believe that Christians were under no compulsion to obey an unworthy Pope and it seems clear that he thought this pope was unworthy. He thought that all Christians, including the pope, must live up to the standards set forth in the Bible. If the pope was not living up to that standard, then he should not be followed. For Hus, one of the pope's actions in particular, did not live up to biblical standards. The pope from Pisa, the one who had been helping the local bishop target Hus, decided to send a Crusade to Naples. According to Hus, this Crusade had far more to do with the pope's involvement in Italian politics than any matter of the faith. The pope also decided to pay for that war by selling indulgences, that is by selling forgiveness. Hus, who had one bought an indulgences for himself but had come to see them as a usurpation of God's power, was appalled and said so in his sermons and writings.
This was one step too much. The pope could not let Hus go on preaching like that. Unfortunately, Jan could no longer count on his king supporting him. At that point in time, the king needed the pope more than he needed an annoying preacher. Hus was ordered to be silent and was again excommunicated. This time, he left. The fight was getting bigger and threatening his entire country at this point. So, he left Prague and went to the countryside. But he continued to write about the reforms that he knew were necessary in order for the church to fulfill it's Gospel calling. When he was invited to speak at the Council of Konstanz, under the assurances of the emperor Sigismundi that he would be safe, he went. One of the stated goals of the council was reform. He thought he could make a difference. But, that is not what would happen there. He would be put on trial.
At the council, he would be ordered to recant his heresy, to which he responded that he would do so happily if they could point to any of his teachings that were actually heretical. It was a difficult examination, but Hus stood his ground. He would not admit to a heresy that he did not believe. Then, for other reasons than Hus' trial, the whole Council ending of going kind of sideways. The pope ended up fleeing. As he left, he seemed prepared to free Hus. However, the emperor Sigismundi,brother and rival of the king who had once supported Hus, realized that he could use Hus' trial to further his own political ambition. The council came to the same conclusion. According to historians, both the king and the council wanted to be understood as "stern defenders of orthodoxy." They wanted Hus to submit to their authority. If he did, they would look powerful.
The council continued to accuse Hus of heresy, to which he continued to reply that he had never actually held any of the beliefs of which they were accusing him. He finally realized that he could not receive a fair hearing. He said to the council, "I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and just. In his hands I place my cause, since he will judge each, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice." He would eventually be stripped of his priestly robes, have his head shaved to remove the unique priestly haircut that he sported, and be turned over to be killed. He would be burned atop the books that he had spent so many years writing. He is said to have recited the Psalms as he died.
"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." This week, as read Jesus' words, I thought of Jan Hus, and that beautiful, somber monument to his faith. I think he knew something about the cost of discipleship. When it became clear that he would need to put his faith in action, he sat down and tallied out what resources he had a hand and saw the projected cost of the reformation project, and he reckoned that it was worth spending all he had to try to rebuild something glorious with God. He spend it all. The legacy of his generosity is 200 years of freedom to worship for people who found his ideas about church and God compelling. And, even when those these folks were run out of Prague, their descendants carried on his faith legacy, especially in the denominations called the Church of the Brethren and the Moravian Church. He spent all that he had, but, I think it was worth the cost. His life was richer, and probably harder, for it.
Everyday we are asked to make a choice for God, though rarely with as much at stake as our brother Jan. And yet, even though the choice may not mean life or death, we are still asked to make a choice. Is our allegiance to the radical mission of Christ is actually our primary loyalty in our life? Is our work with Christ, our bringing of good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, and letting the oppressed go free, actually the most important thing in our lives? Daily we are asked to make a tally of our own lives: our own fears, our own wants, and needs, and see if that list measures up to our call from Christ. Is our allegiance to Christ greater than everything else? If it is, how is our life changed by it? It is clear from our reading, from the record of Christ's own life, and from the witness offered by Jan Hus' story that the discipleship that we are seeking is costly. It will change us and our relationships if we actually enter into it. Thank God that Christ is present in this work with us, reminding us that, yes, it is actually worth the cost.
Sources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
I am particularly indebted to the following two history books for providing helpful context about Jan Hus' life:
David Schnasa Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2958
Jeanine K. Brown: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=667
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706
Info about Jan Hus memorial: http://www.prague.cz/jan-hus-monument/
Luke 14:1, 7-14
On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.
When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’
Seats At the Table: Luke 14: 1, 7-14
A Sermon for Our Blessing of the Backpacks and Lesson Plans
Everyone grab a pencil and your bulletin. Or, if you don't have a bulletin or a pencil, use your imagination. Imagine that you are going to throw a party or go out to dinner. You can invite five people you know. People that you go to school with or work with. Maybe even people that you go to church with. Pick five people. You don't have to tell me who you would pick. I'd like to ask a different question: How did you decide who to pick? The congregation shared some of their criteria for who they pick. Some picked friends who they know enjoy one another's company. Some picked people that they don't get to see very often. Others picked people who they knew would bring a positive spirit to the dinner. Great! Those are very good ways to decide to invite people to dinner. Now, remember who you picked, and set it aside for a second.
I have a second question for you. Imagine that someone has invited you to a party or out to dinner. You know that usually the most important guests sit next to the person throwing the party or maybe, if it's a wedding, the guests closest to the person throwing the party sit at a special table. So, you walk in the party or the restaurant, and look around. Where do you sit? Next to the person throwing the party? Somewhere in the middle? In that tiny, rickety table over by the kitchen? How do you decide where to sit? The congregation answered. Some said that they chose to sit with people they know. Some people chose to sit with people they don't know so they could make a new friend. Those are all smart ways to decide where to sit. Now, remember where you think you would sit, but put that aside for the moment, too.
In today's story from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was having Sabbath dinner with some Pharisees. What do we remember about the Pharisees? They care a lot about their religious laws and try to help everyday people figure out how to live according to how God asks them to live. They are well respected. They know a lot about the Bible. In some books of the Bible, they try to get him trouble. In Luke, they've helped him a couple times. Mostly, though, we see them arguing with Jesus. This story says that one of them invited Jesus over for dinner and everyone was watching Jesus really closely. Why do you think they were watching him so closely? I think they were waiting to see if he messed up... if he said something wrong or silly. They wanted to try to outsmart him or at least maybe see if he was really as good as people thought he was.
They talked about all kinds of stuff. First, a guy who was sick wandered in and Jesus asked aloud if everyone thought it would be ok to heal someone on the Sabbath. He talked about that in our reading last week, too. He helped this guy like the helped the woman in the earlier story. Then, Jesus wanted to talk about how people act when they get invited to dinner. It seems funny, right? Why would he want to talk about that? It says in the story that Jesus was paying attention to how people chose where they sat at dinner. It was the kind of dinner where people who were special in some way got to sit in certain places. Jesus noticed that people were picking seats according to how important they thought they were. When Jesus taught people, he often used examples from everyday life to try and show people something about God. He decided that since they were at a dinner together, he would use the things they did at the dinner party to teach them something about God. That's why he ended up talking about table manners and party invitations.
Ok, let's try to remember some of the ways we said we would use to figure out where to sit at a party. Does anybody remember how Jesus said to try to figure out where to sit? Right. He said don't pick the best seat unless somebody invites you to take it. It's important for us to remember that he doesn't want you to take the bad seats because you did something wrong. He just thinks it's more important to make sure everyone has a seat. And, he thinks it's important to worry more about how other people are doing than to make sure you always get the best stuff. He talks about being humble. What do you think he means when he says it is good to be humble? I think at least part of what he means when he asks them to be humble is don't try to get the best stuff for yourself all the time.
After talking about this with everybody, he turned around to the person who invited him to dinner and gave him a specific example of how he can think more about what other people need and less about getting all the good stuff for himself. He said that the guy might need to invite different people to dinner. Remember all of those reasons where shared for inviting people to dinner. They are good reasons to invite people over. There are some other not-so-good reasons for inviting people to dinner. Jesus knew that sometimes people invite others over so that the other people might do something nice for them in return. Like, if I invite this person to dinner, maybe they'll invite me to go to a concert with them next week. Or, maybe if I'm really nice to my boss at work, they will give me the promotion that I want. This way of being nice to people is less about actually being nice and more about finding a way to get stuff that you want. Jesus said that's not the best way to throw a party.
Here's what he said to do instead. He said not to throw big celebrations for people who will do stuff to pay you back. He said, instead, when you have enough food and money to through a big party to celebrate, invite people who can't throw big parties themselves. Invite people who probably won't be able to pay you back with something you really want. Practice doing something for people without thinking about whether or not they can pay you back. God helps people and creates stuff and knows that we can never repay God for how awesome our lives our. So, we should try to pass that goodness on to others. We should help people without hoping for something in return. That's the way that you can put your faith into action.
So, what does that mean for us, especially for those of us who are heading back to school and back to work over the next week or so. How can we practice living the way Jesus says is the best way to live? I have one idea that I'd like to share I learned from a teacher named Carolyn C. Brown. Look back at or remember those five people you wanted to invite to your party. Now, see if you can think of two people in your class or at work or who live on your street and who don't seem to get invited to play at people's houses very often. Do you know anyone like that? Now, imagine what it would be like if you invited them to your party. How do you think it might go? Now, imagine how that person might feel about being asking to come to a party. Do you think they would feel good about being asked?
Now, I think it's also important to remember one other thing. It doesn't actually help if you invite people who don't usually get invitations and then tell them that they should be happy that you invited them. That is kinda of like doing a good thing and hoping they will do something good for you in return. Also, it's probably not helpful to pretend to be really humble so people will say nice things about you, but to not actually be humble. That's not what Jesus said we should do either. But, I don't think anyone here would do those things. I think you'll try to think of others first and try not to worry so much about always getting the best stuff and I think the beginning of the school year is the perfect time to practice. So, good luck. I hope that you can find some new and fun people to sit at the table with you. You never know. You might end up hanging out with somebody who is like Jesus.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted to write this sermon:
David Schnasa Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2957
Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4700
Carolyn C. Brown, Worshiping with Children: http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2016/07/year-c-proper-17-22nd-sunday-in.html
Emerson Powery: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1754
Fred B. Craddock, John H. Hayes, Carl R. Holladay, Gene M. Tucker, Preaching The New Common Lectionary: Year C, After Pentecost (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1986).
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.