Open our eyes, Lord

Audio will come, but for now, you an read today’s sermon below.
 I don’t remember much about the first few months of life for either of our girls. As many of you are aware, life gets complicated with a newborn in the house. Between washing bottles, never ending loads of laundry, being generally in awe of the miracle of life, and a total lack of sleep, it is hard for the human mind to create long term memories in those moments. They say that is why women decide to go through childbirth more than once, they honestly can’t remember how bad it really was. All joking aside, one of the random things I do remember from those early days is the pediatrician telling us that babies have to learn to see much like they have to learn to walk. It takes time for them to learn how to use their eyes: how they move side to side and up and down; how to make them focus on something close; how to be translate what they are seeing into near and far. It takes almost two full years for a baby to learn to really see the world around them. As I read the Gospel lesson for this week, I couldn’t help but think that maybe the process of learning how to see the world doesn’t end at age two. In fact, I am more and more convinced that learning to really see is a key piece of spiritual development. I think that is what Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees in this parable about Lazarus and a rich man.

 There was a rich man. Usually here I would try to remind us that compared to the rest of the world, we too are rich, but that isn’t what’s happening here. This guy wasn’t middle class American rich. He was Richie Rich rich, Warren Buffet rich, Saudi Royal family rich. Jesus tells us he wore purple clothes. These days, purple shirts are sold everywhere. You can get a purple polo from the Rescue Mission for less than $2. There was a time, a long time in fact, when purple clothing was exorbitantly expensive. The dyes used to make a purple shirt were hard to come by and the color was even harder to set. This man, who wore purple, was exceedingly rich, and more than likely a member of some royal family. Not only did he wear richly colored fabrics, but Jesus says this rich man had access to linen as well. Like purple dyes, linen was (and still is) very expensive to obtain. To say he was well dressed would be an understatement. Every day this man was dressed in a sixty-thousand dollar Italian suit while he feasted sumptuously. The Greek here literally means that he “made merry brilliantly”, or to use a more modern phrase, this guy partied hearty every day. Every day was Super Bowl Sunday and every meal was a Thanksgiving feast for this rich man in well-made clothing.

 As he would go back and forth from his mansion, the rich man would pass through a large gate. Plopped down near the gate was a man who was exceedingly poor. Lazarus was his name, the only person to have a name in one of Jesus’ parables, it means “God has helped,” but it doesn’t seem like God had helped Lazarus very much. While the rich man wore purple and linen, Lazarus was covered only in sores. While the rich man feasted sumptuously, Lazarus coveted the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. While the rich man’s life was full of business partners, servants, and family, Lazarus’ only companions were the dogs who licked his sores. Back and forth the rich man would go. At the very least he had to have noticed the stench of Lazarus. Occasionally, he would have had to shoo the dogs away. He’d likely stepped right over him a time or two. The rich man knew Lazarus was at his gate, but he made the choice not to see him.  

 The rich man spent his life building a chasm between himself and Lazarus. One day, they both died, and suddenly, that chasm that had been growing for years became fixed. The rich man was stuck in Hades while Lazarus was carried to heaven. We come to realize the active nature of the rich man’s ignorance of the plight of Lazarus when immediately he calls out to Abraham and asks for Lazarus, by name. It wasn’t that he had never noticed Lazarus at his gate, but he chose not to see him. The rich man had seen Lazarus, he even knew his name, but instead of seeing Lazarus as a human being, the rich man saw a smelly, beggar who was covered in sores. Lazarus didn’t fit into the rich man’s well-manicured life, and so he ignored him. His sin wasn’t things left undone. His sin was a thing he did; he actively and purposefully chose not to see the poor man at his gate.

 In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus defines his ministry during a sermon in his hometown of Nazareth. After his baptism and forty days of temptation in the wilderness, Jesus went throughout Galilee, empowered and encouraged by the Holy Spirit. He preached in Synagogue after Synagogue until he finally arrived back where he grew up. There, in the Synagogue at Nazareth, he preached from the prophet Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In Luke’s Gospel, more than the other three, the ministry of Jesus is about seeing, about having compassion, and about caring for the poor. The rich man had failed at all three, and as the flames licked his heels, he realized, too late, the error of his ways.

 “I beg you, Father Abraham, to send Lazarus to my father’s house – for I have five siblings – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” Here, I think, is where we find our place in this story. We are the rich man’s siblings, still on earth, still making choices about who we see and who we don’t see every day. Because they don’t fit comfortably in our lives, it is easy to ignore the homeless children who make up as much as 10% of Foley schools. It is easy to bypass the poverty-fueled drug problem in the historically black neighborhoods around here. It is easy to disregard the modern day slavery that keeps our Latino brothers and sisters packed into trailers tucked deep in the woods. Alternatively, it might be those we do see that cause us the most consternation. When we see those people who challenge our comfortable lives, how do we choose to see them? When we see a black man with his hands raised on a road in Tulsa do we see a man who needed help, or, as the police helicopter pilot called Terence Crutcher, do we only see “a bad dude”? When we see protests over more unarmed black men dying at the hands of police officers, do we see a people crying for justice or thugs hell bent on violence? Jesus is very interested in who we see and how we see them.

 Abraham denied the rich man’s request to send Lazarus to his brothers and sisters saying, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them, and if they don’t, they won’t even be convinced by a man who has risen from the dead.” We have Moses, we have the prophets, we even have one who has risen from the dead who calls us to have our sight restored – to see those who the rest of the world ignores as beloved children. Spiritual maturity comes as our eyes come into focus and we learn to see those who are inconvenient, those who are disturbing, and even those who might be frightening. We learn to see Christ in them. We learn to see them as beloved of God. And when we learn to see, we learn compassion, we learn to care, and we learn to love. Open our eyes Lord, and teach us to really see the world around us. Amen.

Who and What Do You See

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My first year of undergrad was spent at the University of Pittsburgh.  Pitt is located in an urban neighborhood called Oakland, and, like many densely populated areas where people travel by foot, was home to several panhandlers.  By the time Christmas rolled around, I had already figured out how to be like the rich man in Sunday’s Gospel lesson and not see the beggars who sat at the proverbial gate of campus.  They were passive annoyances, easy to pass right on by as if they never existed.

There were a few who were more engaged in their craft. One guy stood at the door in front of the Rite Aid store in such a manner that only he could open it.  Whether you were coming or going, you were at this man’s leisure to let you in or out.  He had a white Styrofoam cup in hand.  It would jingle with a few coins as he reached to open the door.  it was clear that he expected to be paid for the service he rendered, whether you asked for it or not.  He wasn’t as easy to ignore.  You saw this man, but what I saw was simply an annoyance I had to get past.  I never saw him as a human being upon which I should have compassion.

It isn’t hard to be like the rich man.  Whether our ignorance of someone is active or passive; or if we see them, judge them, and cast them aside, we are no better than the rich man, no matter how poor we might be relative to his purple robes, linen suits, fatted calves, and fine wines.  And while it suits Luke’s theological narrative to have this be about rich and poor, I don’t think it is only about that.  Our inability to see another as beloved of God happens again and again, everyday, in every aspect of life.  We see the Republican is a xenophobic rube.  We see the Democrat as a bleeding heart sap.  We see the Terence Crutcher and other big black men as “bad dudes.”  We see police officers as trigger happy symptoms of systemic racism.

Every time we fail to see another human being as beloved of God, we sin in the same way the rich man did.  As his siblings still on earth, we have a chance to repent.  We have Moses.  We have the prophets.  We even have someone who rose from the dead.  We have eyes to see. We have hearts to love.  Who and what do you see?

Who are you?

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There is a natural tendency to place oneself inside a story.  This is perhaps especially true in the parables that Jesus tells.  I suspect it is because they are both generic and hyperbolic, it is easy to read oneself into the story, to stay there for a while, and to feel what is happening.  Of course, who we think ourselves to be in the story will have a large impact on how we interpret it.  In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the meaning of the story can change drastically if you think of yourself as the injured traveler or the Levite, rather than everybody’s favorite Samaritan.

As we read the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man this week, I can’t help but think that the gut reaction of most listeners will be to place themselves in the role of Lazarus.  Very few people actually consider themselves to be rich.  It is very easy to push that title at least one tax bracket above our own, and given the erosion of the Middle Class and the ever-widening chasm between the haves and the have nots in the last 40 years, it isn’t too difficult to place oneself as a beggar, lying outside the gates of those who wear purple, and step over you in order to feast sumptuously everyday.

Very few of us will place ourselves in the position of the rich man, and to be Abraham would be awfully presumptuous, but this morning, as I read my usual preaching resources, I realized that I’ve always missed a character in this story.  Barbara Rossing, Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, points out in her commentary that maybe our place in this story is the brothers and sisters of the rich man.  We have Moses and the Prophets.  We even have one who proclaimed a ministry of compassion and rose from the dead.  Do we have ears to hear?  Do we have eyes to see?  Or, are we too busy making excuses for our lack of compassion; pretending  instead to be the sore-covered beggar by the gate?

Who are you in this story?  The answer seems to be of eternal consequence.

Contentment

The Acts 8 BLOGFORCE makes a rousing return this week with a question that is both timely and applicable.  In the life of the Church as well as in the Revised Common Lectionary, we are rapidly approaching stewardship season, and as such, it is time, once again, for all of us to listen for God’s call upon our checkbooks.  As such, Acts 8 has invited all of us to consider this question: “How has financial giving affected your spiritual life?” For more information on how to offer your own response, click here.


I can’t remember when it happened, but I distinctly remember the feeling.  It must have been around a big football game: Black Friday before the Iron Bowl or the Saturday before the Super Bowl; as I drove around my neighborhood of modest starter homes, I began to notice lots of large, rectangular boxes sitting on the curbside.  At first, I didn’t  pay any attention to it, but by the time I passed the third box, I could feel the envy welling up inside me.  I wanted a big, fancy, new TV to watch the game with too!

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The problem was, unless I wanted to go into $500 worth of debt on my credit card, there just wasn’t the disposable income to cover a sweet new TV.  With a relatively new baby at home and my wife not working at the time, we were prepared to make sacrifices, but it was in that moment, driving through our neighborhood on trash day, that I realized that part of the sacrifice of giving to God is being content with what you have.

At the time, the Pankey family was still relatively new at tithing.  Even as late as seminary, we had subscribed to the left over model of giving to the church.  Of course, it was easy to justify the $2,400 a month we spent on rent and tuition to go to seminary in one of the most expensive metropolitan areas in the country.  Once I was ordained, however, we knew that if we were going to ask people to give sacrificially, we had to as well.  And so, on day 1 of my first call out of seminary, we gave 10% of our income to the glory of God. There is a difference, however, between giving because you feel like you have to and giving out of contentment.  It took me several years to learn that lesson.

In Sunday’s New Testament lesson, the author of 1 Timothy tells the young leader that there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.  He warns Timothy of the trap of riches.  The temptation that comes with a lack of contentment takes our attention away from God.  Envy leads to ruin and destruction.  As I rode through my neighborhood that afternoon, those empty TV boxes pulled me to the edge of the root of all evil: the love of money.  Thanks be to God, the temptation of a shiny new TV for the big game didn’t win out.  In coming to grips with the opportunity cost of tithing, I realized that sacrificing for the Kingdom is something that should bring joy.  I’ve learned to give thanks for what I have, to be joyful in the building up of the Kingdom, and to be content in all circumstances.  Of course, I’m not always successful at it, but God continues to work on me.  The Spirit continues to call me to righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness.  All these years later, I’ve learned the power of intentional sacrifice: a spiritual lesson that is helpful not just in financial giving, but in prayer, in time, in service, and in life.  I’ve learned to set my hope on God, who, as the author of 1 Timothy says, “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.”

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1+1 isn’t always 2

This week’s Gospel lesson might be the most dangerous one in the three year lectionary cycle.  It is the early days of Stewardship season, so there will be a strong temptation to make the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man about giving money to the Church.  The problem with that analogical approach is that not a few congregations and likely all national and multi-national denominations are more like Dives (the pseudonym for the Rich Man) than they are Lazarus.  If you are going to make it about giving, then it ought to be about caring for the poor, rather than keeping the lights on, the doors open, and the clergy person’s pension funded (Says the clergy person with a really nice pension plan).

The risk in making it about caring for the poor is, of course, preaching a sermon on work’s righteousness.  This parable feels like the lesson is that rich people go to hell and poor people get into heaven, but rich people can make up for their richness and find rest in the bosom of Abraham by giving to the needy.  This is, of course, patently untrue and verging on the heresy of Donatism.  When it comes to parables 1+1 rarely equals 2.

Even as we wish to make Lazarus the hero in our story, Jesus is clear that he too is not without sin.  While Dives fails to love his neighbor through choosing to serve mammon instead of God, Lazarus is said to have “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”  Literally, he coveted the rich man’s crumbs, which, while a sad commentary on the stark division between rich and poor, is a clear violation of the 10 Commandments.  Lazarus was a sinner, but by the grace of God and his usefulness for a parable illustration, he goes to heaven where he serves as a foil for Father Abraham to teach about the Kingdom of God.

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The Kingdom of God is a place where those who have suffered on account of their own failings, the failings of others, and sometimes, just downright bad luck, feel the warmth of God’s loving embrace.  And, despite what this parable might seem to indicate, the Kingdom of God is also a place those who have made others to suffer based on their own arrogance and greed have the opportunity to feel the warmth of God’s loving embrace. On the other side of the River Stix, the chasm may be fixed and unable to be crossed, but the love of God is bigger than anything I know.  Just like in the parables, the Kingdom of God is a place where 1+1 isn’t always 2.

Powerless over anxiety

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I suspect it would have happened no matter what career path I’d followed, but since my ordination to the priesthood 8+ years ago, I’ve been diagnosed with three medical ailments with stress markers.  I’m honestly not sure what there is in my life to be so stressed about.  I have a solid family, a good job in a good church, and, by and large, things are good.  And yet, my body reacts as if I’m making multi-million dollar decisions on a regular basis; like I’m a brain surgeon working on Stephen Hawking; or the guy who decided to give RGIII another chance.

I am, like most modern Americans, powerless over anxiety.  It is as much a personal issue as it is a societal one.  Yesterday, for example, I spent some time in an outpatient surgery waiting room.  As is the cultural expectation, there was a TV hanging on the wall with one of the 24 hour news networks playing at a reasonable volume.  As I sat there listening to talking heads discuss the Presidential election, I realized that the 24 hour news cycle is designed to make us addicted. They create stress, even when there is none to be had, and let our bodies do its thing.  Eventually, we become so addicted to the cortisol reaction, we can’t look away.  As the 12 Step community would say, we are powerless over anxiety.

The Collect for Proper 20 hits that powerlessness head on.  We ask God to “grant us not to be anxious about earthly things,” but we can’t stop there.  As the old joke goes, you can pray to God to win the lottery all you want, but you have to buy a ticket to have a chance.  We can pray for an end to our anxiety, but part of that prayer has to be about changing our own behaviors as well.  Can we turn off the TV?  Can we step away from the balance sheet?  Can we stop focusing on those things which we cannot change, and instead take the initiative to move the needle where we can?  Can we, in the midst of things that are passing away, turn our focus to things heavenly?

Ask any addict, it is easier said than done, but perhaps this Sunday can be a start.  Maybe I can take this prayer more seriously this week, and begin the process of being set free from my stress and be made alive again in God.

Pray for your Leaders

The Track 2 Old Testament lesson, the Track 2 Psalm, and the New Testament lesson for Sunday seem to be tied together thematically.  Or at least they seem to be related in this heightened political season in the US.  So much of the rhetoric around the American Presidential election has to do with caring for the poor.  The right suggests that the best way to care for the poor is to invest in businesses so they can hire more employees, pay them better wages, and lift them out of poverty.  This is a good theory, and certainly there are many business owners who do their best to take care of their employees, but it seems that even in the days of Amos, it didn’t always work.  For as long as there have been humans, there have been those who “trample the poor” and “sell the sweepings of wheat.”  To them, the word is clear, “God will not forget how you treat the poor.

On the other hand, the left suggests the best way to care for the poor is to create safety nets that keep them from falling through the cracks.  This has its merits as well, and the latter half of the Psalm for Sunday seems to indicate that it is the will of God that we care for the poor through charity.  “[God] takes up the weak out of the dust * and lifts up the poor from the ashes.  He sets them with the princes, * with the princes of his people.” Though as we have seen in this country, when the responsibility for safety nets left the confines of the Church and became the government’s responsibility during the Great Depression, it became susceptible to fraud and pork spending.  Who indeed is like the Lord who sits enthroned on high, but stoops to behold the earth?.

The battle lines having been drawn between right and left, the American public has been convinced that we exist in a zero sum game.  One side agrees that to invest in business means to leave the poor to fend for themselves.  The other says that to offer safety nets creates a culture of laziness that kills the economy.  Both are, of course, wrong.

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So what are we to do?  We who live in this world of competing goods, how can we ensure that somewhere in the midst of all the rancor and wrangling, we are living up to the call of Jesus to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans, the oppressed, and those in prison?  Aside from revamping the US tax code to return to the Church these responsibilities, our task is, as Paul tells Timothy, to pray that our leaders make wise decisions and live lives of godliness and dignity.  Thankfully, the Book of Common Prayer has all sorts of prayers to help with such praying.  Here’s but one example, a Collect for the President of the United States and all in Civil Authority.

O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that, being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to the President of the United States, the Governor of this State (or Commonwealth), and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Pray for your leaders today, and everyday, for it is right and acceptable to God.