Sunday, September 26, 2010


Text: Luke 16:19-31

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Entitlements. We do like our entitlements. If we're poor, we deserve welfare. If we're rich, we deserve a tax break; if we are workers, we deserve better fringe benefits; if we are international bankers, we deserve a bailout; if we are a special interest, we deserve a special hearing. Everyone wants an entitlement. But what are we really entitled to according to the scripture? That is what we will consider this morning and there is no better text for this topic than the story of the rich man and the beggar as told by Jesus in the 16th chapter of Luke.

"There was a certain rich man," Jesus said, "who was splendidly clothed and lived each day in mirth and luxury." One day Lazarus, a diseased beggar, was laid at the rich man's door. As Lazarus lay there longing for scraps from the rich man's table, the dogs would come and lick his open sores. Finally Lazarus died and was carried by the angels to be with Abraham in the place of the righteous dead. The rich man also died and was buried, and his soul went into hell. There, in torment, the rich man saw Lazarus in the far distance with Abraham.

"Father Abraham," the rich man shouted, "have some pity! Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in these flames." But Abraham said to him, "Son, remember that during your lifetime you had everything you wanted, and Lazarus had nothing. So now he is here being comforted and you are in anguish. And besides, there is a great chasm separating us, and anyone wanting to come to you from here is stopped at its edge; and no one over there can cross to us."

Then the rich man said, "O Father Abraham, then please send him to my father's home for I have five brothers to warn them about this place of torment lest they come here when they die." But Abraham said, "The Scriptures have warned them again and again. Your brothers can read them any time they want to." The rich man replied, "No, Father Abraham, they won't bother to read them. But if someone is sent to them from the dead, then they will turn from their sins." But Abraham said, "If they won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they won't listen even though someone rises from the dead."

Can you see the picture? The rich man thinks if he wants something, Lazarus ought to fetch it. "Father Abraham," the rich man shouted, "have some pity! Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. . . O Father Abraham. . . please send [Lazarus] to my father's home. . ." What arrogance. The rich man thinks even in hell he's entitled to have somebody serve him. That demonstrates a false sense of entitlement.

According to the scripture we are entitled to a few things. For one thing, we are entitled to the opportunity to serve others. A farmer whose corn always took the first prize at the state fair had the habit of sharing his best corn seed with all the farmers in the neighborhood.

When asked why, he said, "It is really a matter of self-interest. The wind picks up the pollen and carries it from field to field. So if my neighbors grow inferior corn, the cross-pollination brings down the quality of my own corn. That is why I am concerned that they plant only the very best." (Anthony De Mello, The Heart of the Enlightened, p 133.)

All that you give to others you are giving to yourself. That truth is seen in nature and in our bodies as well.

Once upon a time the members of the body were very annoyed with the stomach. They were resentful that they had to procure food and bring it to the stomach while the stomach itself did nothing but devour the fruit of their labor.

So they decided they would no longer bring the stomach food. The hands would not lift it to the mouth. The teeth would not chew it. The throat would not swallow it. That would force the stomach to do something.

But all they succeeded in doing was make the body weak to the point that they were all threatened with death. So it was finally they who learned the lesson that in helping one another they were really working for their own welfare. (Anthony De Mello, The Heart of the Enlightened, p 133-134.)

We are entitled to the opportunity to serve others. Yet, it is impossible to help another without helping yourself.

In our parable today the rich man could have helped himself by helping Lazarus but he chose not to help Lazarus when he could have and ended up hurting himself. The parable never mentions it, but I can't help but wonder if Lazarus felt angry at the rich man. First, Lazarus may have felt angry at the rich man for not helping him when he was in need. Then, Lazarus may have felt angry when the rich man wanted him to come help him in his time of need. I can imagine Lazarus becoming angry thinking, "Rich man, you wouldn't help me in my time of need but now I'm supposed to leave heaven and come serve you in hell?!"

Just like our organs, our anger is part of us. When we are angry, we cannot say, "Go away anger, you have to go away. I don't want you." When we have a stomachache, we don't say, "I don't want you stomach, go away." No, we take care of it. In the same way, we have to embrace and take good care of our anger.

This does not mean that we have hide our anger. We have to let the other person know that we are angry and that we suffer. We have to express what we feel. This is true love. "Honey, I am angry at you. I suffer." When you suffer, tell your beloved one about your suffering. Even if you think your anger was created by him or her, say it calmly.

We must do this as soon as possible. We should not keep our anger, our suffering to ourselves for more than 24 hours. Otherwise, it becomes too much. It can poison us. This would prove that our love, our trust for him or her is very weak. So we have to tell him or her about our suffering, our anger as soon as we can. Twenty-four hours is the deadline. (Thich Nhat Hanh, Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames, 53-57)

Entitlements. According to the scriptures, we are entitled to the opportunity to serve others and we are entitled to share our anger in appropriate ways with those we love and there is one more entitlement I'd like to mention this morning. We are entitled to the chance to start over.

Here is some good news for the day. We are entitled to begin again. Would you want to reap every thing you sow? There is an old saying about the person who sows wild oats and then prays for a crop failure. We don't want to reap everything we sow. We sometimes do stupid things. We act impulsively. We leap before we look, talk before we think, give in to the worst that's in us rather than the best that's in us, blow it big time. At such times we would like to suspend the law of sowing and reaping. That's what grace is all about.

Even more damaging is the good seed we neglect to sow. We sometimes choose not to sow seeds of compassion, seeds of kindness, seeds of love, seeds that will live on after we are gone, seeds that may accompany us when we leave this world.

As we see in Jesus' parable, at any point in his life the rich man could have changed his priorities. At any point he could have taken his eyes off his money and let them fall on the man at his door. But he waited too late. Even in the afterlife he did not see Lazarus as a fellow child of God but only as a servant, a convenience, an object. This is insensitivity at its worst and it came out of a lifetime of spiritual neglect.

Everyone is entitled to a chance to start over, but it is possible to wait until it is too late. Life habits can grow so strong that they are like chains upon our soul.

And so the haunting cry of the prophet and the evangelist comes to us: "Repent now. Repent now before it is too late."

Is there someone to whom you are insensitive, someone you are neglecting? It need not be a beggar on the streets. It may be someone in your own family. A neighbor, a coworker, even a spouse. Everyone is entitled to a second chance, but it is possible to wait until it is too late.

So, there you have it. We are entitled to the opportunity to serve others and we are entitled to share our own with those we love and we are entitled to the chance to start over.

How would you like to start over today? Would you like to start over in your attitude toward to serving the poor? Would you like to start over in how you share your anger in a relationship? Look inside your soul this morning and see how the Spirit may be nudging you. There, you see it now, that is how you can better serve others. There, that is it. That is how you can deepen your relationship with those you love. Wherever the Spirit may be leading you to ponder at this moment. That is where you may need to start over today. You are entitled to that according to the scripture.

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Dr. Jon Burnham preached this sermon at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas on September 26, 2010

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Green)

Sunday, September 05, 2010

He Fumbles at Your Spirit

Many of the Psalms are personal—"The Lord is my shepherd . . . I lift my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come." Psalm 139 is intensely personal, an intimate confession of a person whose life-long relationship with God was a result of God's persistence, God's search and pursuit, and ultimate finding of the individual.

That is a very different idea of God, one that puts religion in a whole different light. Instead of the human pursuit of God, religion becomes the activity, the place and way human beings respond to God's initiative.

Does any of that sound familiar to you? We Presbyterians are not very good at talking about our personal religious experiences. We're far better at discussing ideas about God than describing personal experiences of God. And, as far as conversion, a topic Martin Marty recently described as "one of the most private acts in life . . . which occurs in the deepest recesses of the heart . . . ," we aren't at all comfortable talking about it.

And the reason is that for many of us, at least, we cannot pinpoint a time or date, there was no singular moment, but rather a life-time of moments, a long and slow process, both hot and cold, including times of certainty and times of doubt. Psalm 139 suggests that our conversion is, in fact, a process, and that God has been pursuing us across the years.

People who think and reflect about their religious experience are helpful. Writer Anne Lamott describes it in terms of a slow, gradual return to church and faith out of a life that was falling apart at the seams, standing outside a little Presbyterian church, looking in, listening to the singing, one day stepping through the door and acknowledging that God had been pushing, nudging, prodding. Finally she said simply, " 'I quit.'" Actually she punctuated it with an earthy phrase that is not "pulpit friendly." "I took a long breath and said out loud, 'All right, you can come in now.'" (Traveling Mercies, Some Thoughts on Faith, p.50)

Kathleen Norris, raised in the faith, but self-exiled from it for years of seeking, searching, dabbling here and there and finally, returned to her family's farm and went to church in Lemmon, South Dakota, writes: "I came to understand that God hadn't lost me, even if I seemed for years to have misplaced God." (Amazing Grace, p.104) Kathleen says that suspicion of religion ran so deep in her that she feared conversion, thinking it might silence her as a writer. She credits several unconscious mentors who nudged her gently, without even knowing they were doing it. But her observation that God had not forgotten her even though for years she seemed to have misplaced God, sounded familiar. Or, as someone said, "If you don't feel as close to God as you used to, who do you supposed moved?"

Perhaps it's because it sounds so familiar, but Frederick Buechner's story is my favorite. It's in a book he wrote years ago entitled, The Sacred Journey. Life, according to Buechner, any life, his or yours or mine, is a sacred journey into which God speaks and comes. That's what makes it sacred.

Buechner's was not a church family. What religion he had came in bits and pieces from occasional visits with grandparents. After college, he taught English for a while, joined the army, and ended up in New York trying to be a writer and discovering that he could not write a word. He tried a number of options, including a love affair that failed.

He wrote, "Every door I tried to open slammed on my foot. It all sounds like a kind of farce when I try to set it down . . .Part of the farce was that for the first time in my life that year in New York, I started to go to church regularly, and what was farcical about it was not that I went, but my reason for going, which was simply that on the block where I lived there happened to be a
church . . . and I had nothing all that much better to do with my lonely Sunday . . ."

I can't improve on the way Buechner tells it.

The church was Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church. The minister was a man named George Buttrick. Sunday after Sunday Buechner went. "It was not just his eloquence that kept me coming back." He writes:

"What drew me more was whatever it was that his sermons came from and whatever it was in me that they touched so deeply. And then there came one particular sermon with one particular phrase in it that does not even appear in a transcript of his words that somebody sent me more than twenty-five years later so I can only assume that he must have dreamed it up at the last minute and liked it—and on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of all of us. Jesus Christ is King, Buttrick said, because again and again he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that inward coronation takes place, Buttrick said, among confession, and tears, and great laughter.

It was the phrase 'great laughter,' that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hiddenly in the doing all the years of my journey up till then. It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon." (p.108/109)

"Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?"

And so, just on the outside chance that you may be fleeing from God, living your life in what seems to be a normal, ordinary way, but is actually a way of holding God at arm's length, this idea of God's persistent pursuit should be at least tantalizing.

And if your life is so full; full of job and family and complicated relationships, professional demands and tight schedules, your bosses' expectations which regularly exceed the number of hours in the day, and long days with no time for leisurely lunches or even pleasant human conversation, not to mention praying, you just might find intriguing the ancient suggestion contained in these words:

"You know when I sit down and when I rise up,
You discern my thoughts from afar."

And the next time you have to hurry to catch a plane after a busy day and a stressful trip to the airport, fighting crowds, escalators, ticket counter, falling into your seat and, after the irritatingly inevitable wait out there at the far reaches of Intercontinental finally take off, and reaching cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, you might find interesting and comforting and maybe even provocative, these ancient words:

"If I ascend to heaven, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning
and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall hold me fast."

And tonight, or tomorrow night, when you fall exhausted into bed, you might be intrigued by:

"You search out my path and my lying down."

And if your life can only be described as hellish: if nothing is working, if it all seems tragically empty and lonely, if relationships are sour and work is boring—and there is no light on the horizon—no promise, no hope—hear these words:

"If I make my bed in Sheol," which is another word for hell, "You are there."

And if you find yourself thinking a lot about your own finiteness, if the recent death of a loved one, a close call, a dreaded lab report, the worst diagnosis you could imagine, if you find yourself thinking about what someone called "the insult of our mortality," hear these words which I think should be the very last words any of us is privileged to hear:

"If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me
and the light around me become night,
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day,
for darkness is as light to you.'"

"He fumbles at your spirit," Emily Dickinson wrote.

And Frederick Buechner, again:

"What I found was what I had already half seen, or less than half, in many places over my twenty-seven years without ever clearly knowing what it was I was seeing or even that I was seeing anything of great importance. Something in me recoils from using such language, but here at the end I am left with no other way of saying it than what I finally found was Christ. Or was found. It hardly seems to matter which." (p. 110)

I love that tiny vignette in the first chapter of John—John's different version of the call of the disciples, Philip and Nathaniel. Nathaniel is, apparently tending to his own affairs, living his life, going to work, paying his bills, taking care of business—and Jesus sees him and approaches him, and Nathaniel says—"How do you know me?" and Jesus says simply, "I saw you under the fig tree."

That, I submit, is how it happens and how it is. Into our lives Christ comes. Into our lives God speaks our names, doing what we do, sitting where we sit . . . and waits, doesn't force the issue; speaks our name and waits as long as it takes . . . for our response, our faith, our trust, our love, our 'yes.'

"If I take the wings of the morning, and settle at the farthest limit of the sea, even then your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast."


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~Adopted from a sermon on Pslam 139 by John Buchanan, Pastor, The Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago