The Rich Man and Lazarus

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 16:19-31.

This week the South Shore Family will be joined in worship leadership by Rev. Josh Bell. Josh is an elder-in-full-connection in the Florida Conference. He serves in extension ministry, meaning that he serves beyond the local church while maintaining his ordination credentials. Josh is a grant writer for the incredible Community Hope Center in Osceola County – an organization that serves daily to eliminate poverty through proactively addressing justice issues faced by persons experiencing homelessness. One of Community Hope Center’s present initiatives is transforming the property of a closed United Methodist Congregation into affordable, purpose-driven, community housing!

Learn more about the Community Hope Center’s amazing work by visiting www.hope192.com.

Josh also serves as adjunct Religion faculty at Valencia College in Orange and Osceola Counties. He teaches classes in World Religions and in inter-religious dialogue. Josh has a true passion for gathering with folks around tables for engagement, encouragement, and enrichment.

He also has three of the most precious boys ever!

Thank you, Josh, for sharing your gifts and leadership at South Shore this Sunday!

Sometimes our faith is confusing. Sometimes the holy text we use to guide and shape and ground our faith is confusing.

There are many Scriptures that could be drawn upon that affirm these paradigms:

Wealth + Health = God’s Favor and Prosperity

Poverty + Disease = God’s Disfavor and Punishment

A person beginning his or her reading of this Sunday’s text could acknowledge the presence of these paradigms. The rich man prospers. The poor man suffers. And it is well. It is – the people believed – as a result of generations of Scripture reading and interpretation in conversation with life experience – as God intended.

Until it isn’t.

Because Jesus is Jesus and in being Jesus completes a total role reversal. The one who prospered in this life is in agony in the next…the one who was lying among the dogs now sits an as honored guest at a royal feast.

Upon seeing Lazarus the Rich Man – because of these present paradigms – could have passed Lazarus by because of the notion “This is what God intends. Who am I to interrupt what God is doing?”

Pastor and theologian Fred Craddock observes that some church people have used this same reasoning to refrain from helping those experiencing hunger and homeless.*

Friends, that is not the Kingdom of God. That behavior is not becoming of residents in God’s Kingdom. I agree with Craddock, “Wherever some eat and others do not eat, there the kingdom does not exist, quote whatever Scripture you will.”**

I am grateful for agencies, organizations, and ministries that actively serve to eliminate the gap between people and resources – between people and basic human rights. Agencies like our United Methodist Committee on Relief. Organizations like Community Hope Center. Ministries like Backpacks on a Mission. These initiatives help us tell the world a different story. These initiatives help us tell the world God’s true story – where the lowly are lifted, where the last are brought to the front, where the least are drawn to the center as Christ’s circle of friends ever-expands.

Prayer: “Oh, fix me, oh, fix me, oh fix me; fix me, Jesus, fix me. Fix me for my journey home, fix me Jesus, fix me. Fix me for my dying bed, fix me Jesus, fix me. Oh, fix me, oh, fix me, oh fix me; fix me, Jesus, fix me.”*** Amen.

*Int: Lk196.

**Int: Lk197.

***“Fix Me, Jesus,” The United Methodist Hymnal 655.

You Might Be A Christian If…You Believe ‘Love, Baby; It’s All About Love.’

Sunday’s Scripture ~ Luke 10:25-37.

Early on in my homiletics course in seminary my professor admonished our class, “Not every sermon is about love. Do not make every sermon about love!”

Pardon me? What did you just say? Isn’t that the preacher’s bread and butter? Love!?

Dr. Tom Long was in the midst of lecturing on the importance of each sermon having a focus and a function. Both can be (and should be!) distilled one-sentence statements. The focus captures the subject of a sermon while the function directs the hearers – including the preacher! – in what they are to do because of their hearing.

To drive home his point further, Dr. Long proceeded to show the class a number of commercials – one from an automobile manufacturer, another from a grocer, and the last from an insurance company who’s mascot, if you will, is always up to shenanigans of the mayhem variety. Our assignment: write distilled one-sentence focus and function statements for each commercial. When we finished Dr. Long said, “Did any of your focus or function statements include or result in love? No? No. Then neither should the bulk of your sermons.”

As much as I felt agony in that moment – I will never preach on love! – I have grown in understanding to see the wisdom behind Dr. Long’s counsel. Firstly, harm can be done to our sacred text as well as to those who hear it if misrepresentations are made to and about that text – for example – making a text about love when it is not actually about love. Secondly, when preaching about love becomes a delight rather than a default, those occasions are all the more important, all the more special.

I think what Dr. Long was really saying was this, “Do not make every sermon about love. But if the sermon is about love, make it a good one.”

(Here’s hoping this Sunday’s is a good one, Dr. Long!)

Jesus uses the Parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate The Greatest Commandment. The Greatest Commandment is a marriage of two commandments in the Torah. The first is from The Shema found in Deuteronomy 6, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (v. 5). The second is from the Holiness Code in Leviticus 19, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (v. 18). Jesus affirmed for the questioning lawyer, for his disciples, for the people that followed him then, and for the people that follow him nowthat we show our love and knowledge of God through our acts of love and behaviors of kindness towards others.

I adore the series Downton Abbey. I watch it again and again and again…when I grow up I want to be the Dowager Countess Lady Grantham. She is both my patronus and spirit animal. Spoiler Alert: At Edith’s wedding at the close of Season Six, the priest says these words concerning the covenant of marriage, “which is an honorable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly and in the fear of God.” I believe it is with that same spirit that we show our love and knowledge of God through our acts of love and behaviors of kindness towards others – it is “an honorable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency, and therefore is not by any to be enterprised, nor taken in hand, unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly and in the fear of God.”*

Love – this is our most important work, our most important responsibility.

Love – it is our delight as disciples!

Prayer: “Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart, in my heart; Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart. In my heart, in my heart, Lord, I want to be like Jesus in my heart.** Amen.

*Downton Abbey Season VI Episode IX.

**“Lord, I Want To Be A Christian,” The United Methodist Hymnal 402.

You Might Be A Christian If…You Have A Weird Thing For Calling People ‘Ministers’

Sunday’s Scripture ~ I Peter 2:1-10.

This is my tenth year under pastoral appointment. This means – to date – I have written somewhere in the realm of 520 Sunday sermons.

Woah!? That does not seem possible.

But it is.

While I continue to find Scripture passages I have yet to explore for preaching, I am also now to a place in my preaching where I have already preached particular texts on one or more occasions. I like to return to these sermons as a way to reflect and remember…and to also rejoice because some of my earlier sermons…

Woah…

And not “Woah! That was great.” More “Woah…that was a nice effort…?”

My congregation’s were (are!) super gracious.

The last time I preached this text from I Peter I was appointed to a congregation in downtown Orlando. With this text I encouraged and exhorted. I impressed upon them the significance of their presence in and participation with the Body of Christ.

I affirmed them as living stones!!!

And two years later – almost to the day – the church closed.

Learning of that closing caused me to experience a scattering silence.

Luke 19 describes Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The faithful and hopeful surround him; joyfully they “praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the LordPeace in heaven and glory in the highest” (Lk 19:37b-38). Some of the Pharisees admonished the crowds’ praise of Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “‘I tell you,’ [Jesus] replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out’” (Lk 19:39-40).

Jesus said the stones would cry out – in hope and praise and assurance – of him as King and Messiah. In I Peter the Apostle also called the church – God’s holy nation and royal priesthood – stones. The same Greek word – lithos – is used in both places. While Jesus anthropomorphizes stones by giving them human qualities in praising and crying, Peter likens humans to stones hewn together for strength and stability as God’s kingdom is built with us and before our eyes.

With Reeves Memorial UMC closing…I felt the stones had been scattered and silenced. I experienced a scattering silence. And the effect was sobering.

I went into a time of mourning and grief. I questioned what I had done. I questioned what I left undone. I hoped the good I offered far outweighed any harm I committed.

Ultimately, I felt like I let them down.

In time God met me in the scattered silence and reminded me that the church did not close. The building closed but not the church. Yes, indeed, the stones were scattered from that locale…and they were still speaking testimonies of God’s goodness and grace.

I know there were also words of grief and grimace peppered among the words of goodness and grace. In fact, I heard some of them personally! And that is okay. They are human. We are human. That behavior is human. Telling that story – of goodness and grace alongside, speaking louder, and/or resulting from grief and grimace – is one way God does what God does in transforming scattered stones into seeds.

Seeds that root and sprout.

Spouts that rise and bloom.

Blooms that bring beauty and joy.

The timing of this transforming is something God alone can see. The testimony of that transformation is a gift for all the world to see.

I do not think I will ever read this text from I Peter and not think of my time with the Reeves congregation. I am grateful for the opportunity to have shepherded them and to have been shepherded by them. I am hopeful for the ways God continues to use the faithful stones of that congregation to cry out in prayer and praise. I pray those stones have found their way into new congregations so that their faith is strengthened through proximity relationship to Christ and neighbor.

I trust God is making seeds of those stones – that with God’s help they are rooting and sprouting, rising and blooming, bringing beauty and joy as they testify to God’s enduring faithfulness.

God knows the timing of their transformation. God gifts these transformations to us as testimonies of lives lived in faith.

Prayer: “There’s a song in every silence, seeking word and melody; there’s a dawn in every darkness bringing hope to you and me. From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.”* Amen.

*“Hymn of Promise,” The United Methodist Hymnal 707.

 

You Might Be A Christian If…You Are Kind of Weird At Biology

Sunday’s Scripture ~ I Corinthians 15:12-23.

Aslan has died. He sacrificed himself on the stone table in place of the traitor, Edmund. Bound and shaved, the great King of Narnia lays disgraced without breath in his body. Lucy and Susan, much like the women at the foot of the cross, weep uncontrollably. Their beloved friend is gone, along with their hope.

Then, CS Lewis “breaks” the “fourth wall” – a characteristic of his writing. He pauses the activity of the narrative and turns to speak directly to the reader:

I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been – if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you – you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again.*

That chasm of quiet swept over Jerusalem after Jesus’ body was taken from the cross, swaddled in cloth, and laid in a borrowed grave. That chasm of quiet sweeps over any person and any house where the voice of a loved one used to be heard, but now is heard no more.

Sometimes the quiet is a welcomed relief. There is so much activity following a death that there is comfort to be experienced in the silence.

That silence…is also pregnant. Expectant. Full of energy as it anticipates being broken. What will be the first word? What will transform the silence into song?

The Rev. Jan Richardson is a writer and an artist; her chosen mediums are collaging, oils, and words. She is also a friend. I often turn to Jan’s art when I find myself in expectant silence. Below is a poem she wrote, I am sure, as she imagined the dew settling in the garden as day broke on the Third Day.

For Jan – the first word after the quiet that follows a night of mourning is blessing. Blessing accompanies the dawn.

Risen by Rev. Jan Richardson**

If you are looking for a blessing, do not linger here.

Here is only emptiness, a hollow, a husk where a blessing used to be.

This blessing was not content in its confinement.

It could not abide its isolation, the unrelenting silence, the pressing stench of death.

So if it is a blessing you seek, open your own mouth.

Fill your lungs with the air this new morning brings

And then release it with a cry.

Hear how the blessing breaks forth in your own voice,

How your own lips form every word you never dreamed to say.

See how the blessings circle back again, wanting you to repeat it, but louder,

How it draws you, pulls you, sends you to proclaim its only word:

Risen. Risen. Risen.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

*The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe 158.

**Circle of Grace 151-153; explore also janrichardson.com.