The Man at the Gate

Sermon from Luke 16:14-31

At first glance, one’s interpretation of this Gospel passage might be to say that rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven. That’s not what this is saying! Instead, it is a direct follow-up to last week’s Gospel message, which ended with, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (Luke 16:13). It’s upside-down when you take the possessions that were meant to serve you and you serve them instead.

Then the following Gospel passage says that the money-loving Pharisees ridiculed Jesus for this stance, so he doubled down with the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus to reaffirm his position.

Jesus presents the circumstance of a wealthy man, clothed in fine clothing and eating fine food. Sitting outside this man’s gate is a poor man called Lazarus, who is starving and covered in sores. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus tells us the name of the poor man, but the rich man goes unnamed?

This is not the only time that Jesus teaches that at the end there will be a great reversal – those who are last shall be first, and the first shall be last (Matthew 20:16). This parable is another example of that principle.

So Lazarus dies and is carried to the heavenly realms by angels, and the rich man dies and goes down to torment. Notice it’s the poor man who God helped, not because he was poor but because he was humble. The rich man wasn’t condemned because he was rich, but because he was selfish.

Notice that the rich man gives himself away when he is in torment. First, he decides to try to boss around Father Abraham, proving that a person’s selfishness doesn’t go away once they see the torment they will receive in the afterlife. But secondly, he calls Lazarus by name, asking for his help, proving that in life, he KNEW who Lazarus was, the beggar who had been sitting outside his gate for years, and he had declined to help him then.

But Abraham, having none of it, declared what is true. The rich man had received his good things in life, and now Lazarus, who had received bad things in life, was receiving his reward thereafter. Also, just like the rich man had put a gate up outside his house to keep out the dirty beggar Lazarus, now there is a fixed chasm between Lazarus and the rich man, so that even if Lazarus had wanted to help him, he wouldn’t be able to.

The rich man tries a different tack, asking Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers who are still living about the torment that would come. But once again, Abraham states the plain truth, saying that even Lazarus rising from the dead wouldn’t convince the man’s brothers if they are unwilling to believe based on the truth of the Law and Prophets, which they already know.

Through this parable, Jesus is challenging his listeners to be intentional about our material blessings. Our world is upside-down, and the natural inclination is to worship our possessions. Jesus says that path will only end in destruction. If you have been given earthly material blessings by God, do not settle into the false thinking that you deserve those things, and they are meant to serve YOU. They are meant for you to use to serve GOD. He is the one worthy of worship, not us, and not our possessions.

Look around and see who God has placed around you, maybe someone in need right outside your gate. Can you use your own earthly possessions to make an eternal difference in their life? Don’t let your heart get greedy, conceited, or wrapped up in using money as your identity.

I cannot say it any better than the Apostle Paul did in his letter to Timothy:

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs… As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.

1 Timothy 6:6-10, 17-19 (ESVUK)

Kingdom Shrewdness

You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Yes, you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well it may be the Devil
Or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Somebody,” Album: Slow Train Coming, 1979

Bob Dylan got it right in this case. We are made to serve, made to worship, made to be possessed. The problem comes when we take our possessions, the things made to serve us, and we worship them instead. That’s backwards. We are the Lord’s possession, and the things we own are made to help us serve him. We must intentionally make an effort to serve only the Lord, and not give ourselves to other things.

The parable Jesus teaches in Luke 16 about how we use our possessions is one of the most complex and difficult ones to interpret. It sounds at first like he is commending dishonesty and corruption, but actually he’s doing something more clever than that.

In this parable, there is a dishonest manager who knows he is about to get fired, and so he does some underhanded deals with his employer’s business partners in order to ingratiate himself with them and ensure that he will be able to do business with them again in the future. Verse 8 says that the master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness.

If we try to interpret this parable according to other parables about stewardship, where God is the master and we are the stewards, we’re going to be running down the wrong track. That is not the case here. In this case, the master is just as corrupt as the steward. They are both delighting to earn unjust wealth for personal gain. The master doesn’t commend his steward for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness.

What is shrewdness? It’s a practical wisdom, that can judge a circumstance wisely and turn it to your own advantage.

The key to understanding what Jesus meant by this parable is found in verse 8-9:

For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings.

Luke 16:8-9

He wants us to take a look about how the corrupt people of this world can use relationships in the world to secure their own futures. Worldly people are really good at this, but often God’s people are not shrewd enough in their dealings in this world. We need to be shrewd about using relationships and resources in this world, not for personal gain, but to bring about an eternal future and the success of the Kingdom of God in this world.

Jesus is not telling us to be dishonest, but he does want us to be wise. Wealth, politics, and business are in many ways corrupt, unrighteous, and tainted by sin, yet we all have to use it in this world. We have no choice. So be shrewd about using it in an intentional way for the sake of eternity.

Use your possessions, your wealth, your relationships, your talents to build up the Kingdom of God. Don’t keep the rest of your life separate from your faith life. How can you shrewdly use ALL that God has entrusted to you to put it in the service of God and his Kingdom?

Understanding Grace

If you think about it, you would expect that Jesus would be intimidating to be around – I mean, he was perfect! But we see the opposite in Scripture. Sinners found themselves drawn to him, wanting to be around him, even if his message made them uncomfortable. This quality about Jesus baffled the Pharisees and Scribes… They just didn’t get why people loved him, and why he would welcome those undesirable people into his company.

I would like to suggest that this desirable quality about Jesus, that drew people to him, was grace. I think he lived grace, he breathed grace, he spoke grace, he manifested grace tangibly to those around him.

So since Jesus was the living embodiment of grace, if we want to be like him, we need to work to understand grace more.

1. Jesus manifested a desire for the lost.

Unlike the religious leaders of his day, Jesus sought out the least desirable people in his culture. Tax collectors were considered to be the scum of society — those who stole, manipulated, and took advantage of even their own relatives. But Jesus loved them, sought them out, and won them over with his grace. Jesus never wrote anyone off as a lost cause – he desires ALL to come to grace.

2. Jesus was diligent in his focus on seeking the lost.

This week, I lost my keys, and they weren’t just misplaced – they were LOST. That could have been a major inconvenience for a lot of people, and so I got diligent about really searching for them. I tore my house and office apart, and eventually found them inside the couch cushions. But it was an intensive search to FIND what I had lost. And this same intensity is how Jesus wants us to seek out the lost people around us. We don’t just hope they show up sometime. We go to great lengths to find them and bring them to his grace.

3. Jesus felt great delight in seeing the lost found.

When the lost are found, there is great rejoicing in the heavens, much more than how I felt when I found my keys! God loves seeing sinners turn over their lives to him — from tax collectors to clergy!

Let us make an effort to share in Jesus’ expressions of grace: to desire the lost, to be diligent in our efforts to seek the lost, and to take great delight in seeing them found.

The Humility Banquet

Sermon on Luke 14:7-14

Picture the scene: In a religious leader’s home, many people are watching Jesus, but Jesus is also watching them. He sees how they position themselves and posture each other in their personal interactions with each other. All of the social dynamics that we’re familiar with even today – the discomfort of going to a party where we might not know anybody, the desire to make a good impression on others, the fear of being rejected – were present in this scene, and Jesus saw how it dictated their behavior.

There are two kinds of humility: a false humility where we pretend to be lower in order to get more recognition, and a true humility that the Lord is advocating in this Scripture passage.

When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, 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 honored 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.

Luke 14:8-11, NRSV

I have a good example of this from my own life when I was a young seminarian. I was raised to believe there was a hierarchy in grocery stores – some grocery stores were high class, and others were low class. It wasn’t explicitly stated, but it was implied that high class people shopped at high class stores, and if you shopped at a low class store, you were a low class person. When we lived in Florida, I needed to run to a store just for a carton of eggs, and the nearest store to where we lived was a Winn Dixie – the lowest in the hierarchy of grocery stores. I ran in quickly, and immediately found myself uncomfortable, feeling like I was outside of my element. I was the only white person in the store, and I was shaken to find myself a minority. I found myself frightened and judgmental of the other people in the store, and it was disturbing to me all the prejudice and judgment that was revealed in my heart just by walking into an unfamiliar store and being surrounded by unfamiliar people. As I was waiting in the long line to buy my eggs, all of this was still brewing in my heart, when the man behind me asked if I would watch his cart while he stepped out of the line. I begrudgingly agreed, but I was shocked and humbled when rather than disappearing into the store, that man walked up to the end of the checkout counter and offered to bag the groceries of all the people in front of us to help the line move faster. I had been standing there exalting myself in my heart, but I was humbled. That kind man humbled himself by serving all the rest of the people in line, and he was exalted by the gratitude of all the other people in that store.

I encourage you to ask yourself: Is there any grocery store that is beneath you? Is there any seat you wouldn’t sit in? Is there any job that you wouldn’t do? Is there any person you think you are better than?

Jesus says that everyone who exalts themselves will be humbled, and everyone who humbles themselves will be exalted. The Scripture does not give any exception to that statement. One of these WILL happen to you.

Jesus then extends the lesson to those who were hosting the banquet as well, pointing out that we tend to only invite our friends or people who we think can give us something in return. A well-known phrase in our culture is quid pro quo, which means “this for that.” You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Many of our human relationships are based on quid pro quo – we enter into social situations while keeping in mind what we can get from the people around us. We subconsciously gravitate toward people who can give us something in return.

One of the greatest tools we have for the Gospel in our communities is the homes God has blessed us with. But who do we usually invite over to our homes? Our friends, people we already know and are comfortable with. What if we opened up our homes to those in our community who we wouldn’t normally come in contact with? It may be outside our comfort zone, but they need Jesus just as much as anyone else, and their lack of resources may be keeping them from being able to seek Him on their own.

Humble we must be if to heaven we go. High is the roof there, but the gate is low.

George Herbert

The Mirror of the Cross

Luke 12:49-53

Not Peace, But A Sword

Sometimes I hear the words of Jesus, and I’m immediately struck that I think, That doesn’t sound like Jesus. For example, when we call him the Prince of Peace, but then he says, “I have come not to bring peace but division.” And then he goes on to clarify what he means by division, “I’m going to bring division right through the middle of the family unit. Father and son, mother and daughter, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.” How can this be? Well, first of all, you need to know that I do believe these are the words of Jesus. Absolutely.

But we have to wrestle with them, trying to understand what the Prince of Peace is challenging us with. There’s a strong resonance with Jesus’s words when he says, “I have come to cast fire on Earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Strong resonance with the words of John the Baptist earlier in the Gospel of Luke. John the Baptist says, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. Truly his winnowing fork is in his hand. He has come to clear his threshing floor” (Luke 3:16-17). Jesus is saying nothing different than John the Baptist. There is an aspect to the Ministry of the Lord and Savior of the world which is an aspect of judgment and condemnation.

Baptism of Fire

He has come to bring a baptism of fire to this world. As Jesus often referred to his baptism, not only is he referring to the baptism he received in the River Jordan with John, but he looked forward to the baptism which would be the cross.

Remember the conversation that he had with James and John when they said, “Hey, when you get to your kingdom, can I sit on your right hand and you know maybe let John sit on your left hand?” (I don’t know which one was bucking for the left or the right, but they were both wanting to be right there ruling with Jesus.) And Jesus says to them, “Let me ask you guys a question. Can you drink the cup which I am about to drink? Can you be baptized with the same baptism?” They said, “Oh, yes we can.” (See Mark 10:35-39.) But really they did not know what they were saying, because he was speaking about the cross.

For Jesus, the cross was the baptism which he was agonizing over in great distress until it was accomplished. More than that, he would look forward to the baptism which would come through the outpouring of the fire of the Holy Spirit. Baptism would involve death and resurrection.

Parables of the Vineyard

So how is the baptism of the cross a revelation of the fire and the judgment upon the earth? It’s a little bit complex, but stay with me. In the prophet Isaiah, chapter five, we hear a parable of the vineyard where Isaiah the prophet tells what starts off as a wonderfully sweet story about “my beloved” – the Lord – who has who has created this wonderful vineyard for his bride. The vineyard has a nice hedge around it, and it’s got a watchtower, and he’s planning some wonderful vines. But then the stewardship of that vineyard was for naught; it actually was for evil. When the lord of the vineyard comes in, he looks at his vineyard. He sees it not producing sweet wine but wild grapes, and all of the sudden what starts off as a beautiful story turns into one of concern and judgment. The lord of the vineyard destroys the hedges and tears down the watchtower and judges that vineyard as a corrupt and wicked vineyard because of the bloodshed and the unrighteousness of the people of Israel.

Jesus would recast that entire story and tell it again. He would tell about a man who was the owner of a vineyard who went away for a long journey. He decided to send some servants to take account of how the vineyard was doing. He would send one servant, and they would beat the tar out of the servant. So he sent in another one, and they beat him up, too. The owner thinks to himself, I know what I’ll do. I’ll send my son. But instead of the tenants embracing the son as the master of the vineyard, they think to themselves, Here’s the heir. And they decide to kill him in order to have the vineyard for themselves, for their own evil agenda. And that’s exactly what they do.

Jesus would say to the Pharisees and the scribes and the Sadducees, which were basically the various political parties of the day, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” He was telling the story about himself. (See Matthew 21:33-44.)

The Cross is a Mirror

You see, the cross is like a mirror. It reveals just how ugly human beings can be towards their God. Just how evil, and corrupt, and prideful, and self-centered human beings can be in their political agendas and their factions – in their hatred of the ways and the holiness of God.

And when God sends his only begotten Son because he loves his vineyard – he loves the world, instead of embracing him, the political systems of his day (both religious and secular, the Romans and the Jews) crucify him.

So when we when we align our lives with that cross and we say, “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior,” what we do is we lift up the mirror of human sin, and everybody that’s confronted with that mirror has to make a choice about how they’re going to live their life. They will look in that mirror and say, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or they’ll say, “No, that doesn’t apply to me. I’m not that bad.”

There’s no way getting around the baptism by fire that comes from having the cross of Jesus Christ lifted up. What happens as people begin to appropriate Jesus into their lives is that it becomes a dividing line within families.

Divisions

I remember when I became a very strong Christian in college, and I had to tell my father that I was going to go into the ministry. He said, “That’s not the plan that I have for your life.” The plan had been that I would inherit the family car wash business. For three years, my calling became a source of tremendous conflict with my father.

It gets worse than that. That was minor compared to what some have gone through for the name of Jesus Christ. Twenty years ago, I was counselling with this wonderful young couple. I thought that out of all the young couples I had counseled, they were so fun, and they really loved each other. They were just a great match. I was so excited about doing their wedding, and every time we met, I had a great time with them. Then one day they came into my office for premarital counseling, and they were just despondent and in despair. They told me they were calling off the wedding. I asked, “Why? Y’all are great!” It was his family. They were Iranian Catholic, and they looked at her, an Episcopalian. They said, “You cannot marry her unless she becomes a Roman Catholic. And if you do without her converting, we will disown you.” That’s family pressure. Family ties are powerful, and sadly this young man chose to stick with his family rather than embrace the new possibility of a wonderful Episcopalian bride.

But think back to the pressures of the early Church where the powerful ties of ethnicity and Jewish identity were challenged to the core. God was creating this new Church in which racial divisions, socioeconomic divisions, and ethnic identities would all fall away, and the dividing walls of hostility would come down at the foot of the cross. The biggest conflicts of the early church were racial conflicts, ethnic conflicts, socioeconomic conflicts. It’s what all the letters of Paul are about. The cross of Jesus Christ calls you to a new reality which will challenge the old patterns of family tradition and heritage right to the core of their being.

Acknowledging Slavery

Four hundred years ago in 1619, a British ship intercepted a Portuguese ship and captured twenty what they called, “odd Negroes” – twenty Africans that were enslaved to be taken and pressed into slave labor. This British ship landed in Jamestown with these twenty Africans, and they were sold into slavery. This next weekend, we will be commemorating the anniversary of that event. The National Park Service, and especially Jamestown, has invited churches around the country to ring bells at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on the 25th in order to remind us about that first moment where slavery of African-Americans got its seed in this country. It’s going to be a very powerful moment for our country, and we’re going to ring bells here at St. John the Divine.

I want to tell you a little personal story about that. Two years after those Africans landed in Jamestown, in 1621, my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Randall Holt, landed in Jamestown. He was rounded up by the Orphan Act in London and forced to be an indentured servant to Dr. Pott, who was the first doctor of Jamestown. When an indentured servant received his freedom rights, he was given a barrel of corn and a new suit of clothes from head to toe. The Christmas that Randall received his freedom rights, he married the girl next door, who happened to be the heiress of a thousand acres of land across from Jamestown and the James River. (She was a good catch!) The Holts have owned that property for about two hundred years.

As I’ve studied my own genealogy, I think it’s interesting, and I think a lot of people you know maybe have ancestors who were indentured servants. But there is a major difference with Africans. Some of those Africans that were brought over in 1619 were indentured servants and given their freedom rights, but others were not. Institutionalized slavery became a norm for the colonies and eventually the United States of America. The values which we expressed, both in our founding documents like the Declaration of Independence – that all men were created equal and given inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and in the pulpits of our churches, began to support the institution of slavery. I can look back in my own genealogical history and see where Holts left their black slaves to other Holts in their wills. Personally, I’m not at all proud of that history.

Confronting Racial Divisions

One mile away from the church that I was a pastor in Orlando a young man of 17 or 18 years old named Trayvon Martin was shot as he was walking home with a bag of Skittles and an Arizona iced tea and a hoodie on, looking a little scary, apparently. A man named George Zimmerman overreacted, to say the least, and a conflict ensued, and the result was that Trayvon Martin was shot. That happened right across the street from my daughter’s elementary school. As the environment of the news and the politics of all of that started to really heat up in that area and around the national news and even around the world, there was a part of me that said, Stay out of that; don’t get involved. But I called up one of my black pastor friends named Lowman Oliver and I said, “Lowman, I was driving my daughter to school, and she pointed at the memorial to Trayvon Martin, and she said, ‘Is that where that young boy got shot?’ And I realized that I couldn’t stay out of it. I would like to go to lunch with you, Lowman.”

That started a conversation between me and Lowman, and we decided between the two of us to invite all of our clergy friends to come to Holy Cross Episcopal Church in Sanford, Florida, on Good Friday to pray for our community. Black and white, we had an equal representation at the front. All of the clergy of Seminole County that came to that gathering stood facing the four walls of our church, and we prayed for our country and for our nation and for our community, that the Lord would protect us from the political agendas and divisions that were happening and lead us through a very complicated and complex time.

Another day, Lowman and I were walking out of a meeting together, and he said, “You know, Charlie, I’m a descendant of a slave.” I said to him, “You know, Lowman, I actually am a descendant of an indentured servant myself.” He replied, “Those two things are different.” And I said, “Yes, I know they are. But listen to me. I want you to also hear this. I’m also a descendant of slave owners.” That little conversation started something a little bit deeper for the two of us. It’s very complex, and I don’t know what all the answers are to the challenges that we face in our country.

Hard Conversations

But I do know that almost 80% of African-Americans in this country are descended from slaves. That’s a very significant fact that we have to wrestle with. I also know that we must begin to look inside and confront the challenges that run deep within our very family lines. I could tell you things about my family from a bigoted and racial standpoint that I would be ashamed about and embarrassed about, and I would also embarrass a lot of my family members.

But we nevertheless have to have the hard conversations. Some of those difficult conversations will divide our families in two, and some of those conversations will cause us to look at ugly parts of the inside of our hearts and our lives. Jesus said, “I’ve come to bring fire to the earth.” There’s an aspect in which the unity which God is calling us to will also cause divisions as political agendas, family traditions, and heritages which we have passed down from generation to generation are confronted by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And this is a day in which we have an opportunity to embrace that Gospel.