Thursday, October 17, 2013

Breaking Boundaries

Breaking Boundaries
Lk. 17:11-19[1]
  Boundaries can be an important part of a society that functions smoothly.  For example  there are important reasons why we make laws that set minimum age limits for driving, buying tobacco products, and drinking.  Similarly, we expect certain professions--like physicians, lawyers, accountants, teachers, and even ministers--to have certain minimum credentials in order to be qualified to do their jobs.  These are boundaries that we as a culture have agreed on in order for our society to operate well. But there are other boundaries out there that aren’t so healthy.  Typically, they are the unspoken boundaries, the assumptions and prejudices that we make but that tend to be unsupported by facts.  These kinds of boundaries are not only unhealthy, they can be positively destructive to individuals, communities, and our society as a whole. 
  One of the major themes of Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus came bringing the gracious kingdom of God that breaks through all our boundaries.  Make no mistake:  the people of Jesus’ day had as many destructive boundaries as we do.  In our Gospel lesson for today, we see one of those boundaries played out: the animosity between the Jewish people and their half-cousins, the Samaritans.  I say “half-cousins” because the Samaritans were descended from the Jewish people who were left behind when Northern Kingdom of Israel fell.  But they were also descended from the gentile peoples that the Assyrians conquerors brought in to solidify their hold on new territory.  That took place 700 years before Jesus’ day.  And the bitterness between the Jewish people and the Samaritans hadn’t diminished one bit over all that time.  In fact, I would say it had only increased. 
  I find it interesting that when we meet the group of “lepers” in this Gospel lesson, there’s no initial mention of ethnic distinctions.  Their common illness made them all unclean and outcast.[2]  And like many who are outcast, they bonded together despite the boundaries that might otherwise have kept them apart.  Because all of these men were ritually “unclean” and therefore socially outcast, they were excluded from all the normal activities of life--from family to community life to worship.  And so they formed their own “community” of sorts, one that ignored the boundaries of their day.
  When they cried out to Jesus for mercy, they were obviously asking him to heal them from their disease so that they could re-enter their lives, their families, and their communities.  His response that they go show themselves to the priest might seem strange, but when someone was healed from a skin disease, that person was to appear before the priest.  The priest was to examine them, and if there was no further sign of the disease, he declared the person to be “clean.”  That meant being accepted once again in to the normal activities of life--family, community, and worship. 
  I would think that at first the ten men might have looked at their mutilated skin, and then back to Jesus.  I would imagine the thought may have crossed their minds that he had forgotten something:  the part where he heals them.  But he said “go,” and they went.  In doing so they displayed just enough faith that their skin was restored.  The lesson says that one of them, when he saw that he was healed, returned praising God with a loud voice, and fell at Jesus’ feet thanking him.  It’s only at this point that we learn he was a Samaritan.  As a Samaritan, no Jewish priest anywhere was going to pronounce him clean.  Because of who he was, simply because of the fact of his birth and his heritage, he would always be viewed by any Jewish person as “unclean” and therefore outcast.[3] 
  But it was this man, this man who had lived his whole life on the wrong side of the boundaries of his world, who had the ability to “see” that he had been healed by Jesus.  I think what he saw in his healing was the fulfillment of what the Scriptures had promised would happen when God’s kingdom had come.  And he had the faith to see that it was through Jesus that the healing grace of God’s kingdom had come to him.  And so Jesus says to him, “Your faith has made you whole.”  In a very real sense, his ability to see beyond the obvious fact of his healing and to recognize the grace of God at work through Jesus revealed a level of faith that went beyond the others.  His faith not only made him physically well, it made him spiritually whole--it “saved” him.[4]
  I think this story provides us with an interesting paradigm for how we view matters of faith in our day.  It has typically been the case that those who have lived on the wrong side of the boundaries of our world are more sensitive to the presence of God’s healing grace than those of us who are “respectable.”[5]  In the Gospel lesson, Jesus asks where the other nine were.  I think the answer is obvious: they were so excited about being healed that they didn’t walk but ran to the priest.  They couldn’t wait to be declared “clean” so they could be respectable again, so that they could re-enter their lives on the right side of the boundaries. 
  Unfortunately, that may very well be a parable of where the church is today.[6]  We can still be so caught up in living our lives on the right side of the boundaries in our world that we miss the fact that God is out there working with the outcasts.[7]  In fact, Jesus said that’s where he would be, among the hungry and the strangers and the outcasts (Matt. 25:40).[8]  I think if that’s where Jesus is, then that’s where we should be.  It seems to me that if we want to experience the new life of God’s kingdom in our churches, if we want to see revival and renewal, we need to be out there breaking the boundaries, working among the people on the wrong side of our prejudices.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/13/2013 at First Presbyterian of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 203.
[3] Cf. Maggi Dawn, “The Untouchables,” in The Christian Century (Oct 2, 2007):18.
[4] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 203.  Cf. also Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Luke X-XXIV, 1152, where he points out that the “seeing” is decisive in this story, not the healing.  All ten experienced healing, but because the Samaritan “sees,” he also receives salvation. He adds (p. 1155), “this is an awakening, his eyes of faith were opened.”  Cf. similarly R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke,” New Interpreters Bible IX:327.  He says, (p. 328) “For those who have become aware of God’s grace, all of life is infused with a sense of gratitude.”
[5] Cf. Jon Sobrino, Where is God?, 7, where he says that the poor and the powerless “fulfill the primordial purpose of creation: God’s call to live and give life to others, even in the midst of catastrophe.”
[6] Cf. Paul D. Duke, “Down the Road and Back,” The Christian Century (Sept 27, 1995): 883.
[7] Cf. John T. Carroll, “Luke 17:11-19,” Interpretation 53 (Oct 1999): 408, where he points out that Protestant churches in North America have focused their efforts to survive on making and enforcing clear boundaries regarding the issues of our day.  He asks, “When we are yearning for clear structures and boundaries, how will we serve a Lord who subverts them and extends compassionate care to the most unlikely of persons?”
[8] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, Church in the Power, 126-29, where he argues that Jesus’ presence is to be found among “the least of these” according to Matt. 25:40: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Faith You Can Muster

The Faith You Can Muster
Lk. 17:1-10[1]
  Just as there’s a fine line between honesty and dishonesty, so I think there’s a fine line between faith and unbelief.  You might think that they are poles apart, opposites on the ends of a very long continuum.  But I don’t think so.  In my opinion, that makes faith into something complicated, something we have to create on our own, and perhaps even something that is within our ability to control.  But I would say that faith is at once simpler and more profound than that.  As the twelve-step movement reminds us, faith can be as simple as surrendering, as simple as “letting go and letting God.”  And yet, maintaining even that simple faith is something that can test us to the very core of our being.  At times, it can be beyond our grasp, something that seems impossible for us to muster.[2]  Even then, the Scriptures remind us that “nothing shall be impossible with God”!
  In our Gospel lesson for today we find Jesus instructing the disciples about some of the ways in which their life together could get sticky.  Especially in the time when Luke was composing this Gospel, every community of Christians would experience the tension that results from having persons at various stages in the faith journey.  Unfortunately, sometimes those who are just beginning the journey can go too far in their zeal, and can look down on the more mature faith of those who have been walking the path for many years.  But the opposite can happen as well, sometimes those whose faith is deep enough to allow them the freedom to find joy in all aspects of life can forget that new Christians may be offended by their freedom.  In fact, they may even stumble so far as to seemingly “lose” their faith.  Jesus insisted, as did St. Paul, that those who are more experienced with the Christian faith and with their discipleship to Jesus must consider the effect of their conduct on those whose faith may be more fragile.[3]
  Another sticky situation in the community of those who seek to follow Christ is when one person positively sins against another.  Perhaps it’s a matter of someone taking what is not theirs.  Or we may lose our temper with a Christian brother or sister and let hurtful words damage the relationship.  Or, as can often happen, perhaps one person may be guilty of publicly slandering another.  All of these situations create a potential rift in the body of Christ, which is supposed to be united.  So Jesus urged his disciples to correct those who sin against them, and when they repent, to forgive them.  In fact, he wanted them to know that this was so important to the community of faith that he instructed them that even if someone sinned against them in the exact same way seven times in one day, when they returned and repented, the disciples were to forgive.
  Now, we’ve been following Jesus and his disciples in the Gospel of Luke as they’ve been making their way from Galilee to Jerusalem.  And we’ve listened in to the extended “Sermon on the Way to Jerusalem,” and all that Jesus has said to them about what it means to follow him in discipleship.  We’ve heard him warn them to let go of their pretension about their own righteousness, to let go of their expectations for any recognition or reward for following him, to let go their compulsion to fill their lives with “stuff” instead of God.  We’ve heard Jesus call the disciples to persevere in living out the values of God’s Kingdom in the face of the contradictions of the other loyalties of our world.   We’ve heard him challenge them to recognize the humanity of every face, especially the poor and needy, and to recognize the injustice that oppresses them.  And we’ve heard him insist that those who follow him must include everyone they meet in the grace and mercy of God.
  It’s no wonder that when Jesus added to all that the demand that they see themselves as responsible for the well-being of other disciples they cried out, “Increase our faith” (Lk. 17:5)!  And yet, Jesus’ somewhat strange response makes it clear that they were approaching it from the wrong perspective altogether.[4]  They were assuming that their ability to live out their commitment to following Jesus was ultimately dependent upon their own strength, their own abilities, and their own faithfulness.  From that perspective, fulfilling the demands of discipleship might seem as impossible as commanding a mulberry tree to be uprooted and plant itself in the sea!  But Jesus knew something they seemed to forget often: with God all things are possible.  If they could just muster enough faith to let go and let God take care of the “impossibilities,” they would find they had all the faith they need.[5]
  For some of us, faith comes easy.  It’s as natural as a fish swimming in water, or a bird flying in the air, or a horse running through a pasture.  For others of us, faith seems like a wall that is impossible to climb.  For all of us, Jesus encourages us to think outside the box of our own abilities.  When we let go and let God, when we stop holding on so tightly and simply open our hands and let go the illusion that we’re in control of our lives, then we can walk the path of following Jesus. [6]  And as we walk the path, seeking our lives in God and not in the stuff around us, loving those around us, all those around us, living in the imperfect community of those who are striving to follow Jesus, the farther we go the more we find that the faith that once may have seemed beyond our grasp is really quite simple after all.[7]  All it takes is all the faith we can muster.  And whether all the faith we can muster is a lot or a little, it’s enough.[8]

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 10/6/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, where he says that a religious sense of life moves us “past the manageable prospects of the present, beyond the sphere in which we have some mastery, beyond the domain of sensible possibilities that we can get our hands on” and into “the sphere of the impossible, of something whose possibility we just cannot conceive” where “only the great passions of faith and love and hope will see us through.”
[3] Cf. Clark Pinnock, Luke, 199: “Paul states what Luke 17:1-2 implies: there is a law higher than the law of freedom and that is the law of love.  In the fellowship of believers, disciples are to be responsibly considerate of one another.”
[4] John Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 839: “For those who have been touched by the coming of the kingdom of God in connection with the ministry of Jesus, what is needed is not the increase of faith, but simply the active exercise of faith.”
[5] Cf. John Rollefson, “The Measure of Faith,” The Christian Century (Sept. 21, 2004): 21: “Faith is ever and only a response empowered by an amazing grace originating from outside of our own efforts that enables us to entrust ourselves willingly to One we have found trustworthy.”
[6] Cf. Pinnock, Luke, 200: “Faith lays hold of God with whom nothing is impossible, and it is God who empowers the life of discipleship.”
[7] Cf. William Willimon, “Doing Faith Until You Have It,” accessed at  He says, “More faith comes through faithful living. Just do it; your faith will be increased, not as a personal achievement, but as a gift of God.”
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:233.

Blind and Deaf

Blind and Deaf
Lk. 16:19-31[1]
  It’s so easy to grow complacent in our world of abundance.  At least for those of us who are comfortable and satisfied.  By that, I mean those of us who have a roof over our heads and food on our tables, and we have no reason to worry about whether we will have those things next month or even next year.  One of the inevitable side-effects of that complacency is an unusual blindness.  We find ourselves less and less able to even see those who are struggling in our community.  Eventually we become so accustomed to overlooking them that they become invisible to us.  A related side-effect of our complacency is a kind of deafness.  As we settle into the comparative ease of our lives, it becomes harder and harder for us to even hear the call of the Scriptures not only to care about those who are hurting, but to do something about it.[2]
  I believe this is the point of Jesus’ parable about a rich man and Lazarus.   Those of us who have enough tend to become blind to those around us who are in need and deaf to the call of Scripture.  What we have to understand about the rich man is that he is not only rich, he’s very rich.  He wears clothing that only kings could afford.[3]  He eats all he wants of the finest and richest foods.  And what is obvious to those who have any shred of human compassion is that Lazarus is not only poor, he’s completely destitute.  He is so hungry he doesn’t even want the food from the rich man’s table, he just wants the scraps that fall on the floor.  And he’s apparently been in this condition for so long that his physical condition has severely deteriorated. He’s so weak that he can’t even fend off the dogs that are looking at him as if they are preparing for a meal!
  In the story, their situations are radically reversed.  Both men die, and fate of the rich man, who was very likely a “pillar” of the community and a leader of the local synagogue, is shocking in the extreme.  Instead of being rewarded in the afterlife, he finds himself in torment.  On the other hand, Lazarus, who would have been despised by anyone who actually noticed him because they would have assumed that he was a “sinner” getting what he deserved, winds up in paradise, in the “bosom of Abraham.”[4]  I’m not sure we could imagine a more radical reversal of fortunes.  It is a dramatic illustration of the first becoming last and the last becoming first.[5]
  I don’t really think that was the point of this particular parable, however.  It seems to me one of the main points is the fact that this man who had incredible wealth ignored Lazarus, a man who suffered terribly right at the very gate to his household.  How many times did the rich man ignore Lazarus?  It’s hard to say.  Did the rich man ever find himself in a position of actually stepping over Lazarus.  I would say that’s very likely.  Do you think the rich man ever once actually looked Lazarus in the eyes.  I don’t think so.  The rich man had become so complacent with his wealth and his comfortable life that he could no longer even see Lazarus.  What a travesty of the mercy and compassion of God that this rich man doubtlessly saw as the source of his good fortune. 
  After the drastic reversal of the two men’s fortunes, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers, to warn them not to make the same mistake he had made.  Abraham’s reply is simple and to the point: “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them” (Lk. 16:29).  The Scriptures have all the warning they need to learn what it means to truly receive God’s mercy and to share it with others.  But the rich man’s response is equally simple and blunt, “No, father Abraham” (Lk. 16:30).  The rich man knew that they wouldn’t pay any more attention to Moses and the prophets than he had.  And I think this is another of Jesus’ lessons in this parable.  This man would have been respected by his community, even by the synagogue, since wealth was viewed as a blessing from God for one’s personal righteousness.  And yet, in reality, his great wealth made him deaf to the clear and repeated call of the Scriptures to share what we have generously.[6]  This is a call that is not just an occasional feature in the Scriptures.  This call is woven throughout the Scriptures.  Those of us who have experienced God’s mercy are called upon to show that mercy--in real ways--especially with those who were poor, or hurting, or resident immigrants, or in any kind of need.[7] 
  Most of us don’t think of ourselves as rich, and so it’s all too easy for us to turn a deaf ear to the call to share what we have with those around us who don’t have what they need.  Even though we don’t think of ourselves as rich, most of us enjoy a standard of living that is comfortable.  And our comfortable lifestyle encourages a complacency that makes it all too easy for us to a blind eye to those around us who are hurting.[8]  That’s one of the most dangerous temptations of having all the “stuff” we have: it makes us blind to the people in need and deaf to God’s call to help them. [9]  And yet, being able to see a person living in poverty and hunger as a fellow human being is a necessary part of our own humanity. When we lose that ability, we lose a part of ourselves.  Being able to hear God’s call to put compassion and mercy into practice is  necessary part of our spirituality.  When we lose that ability, we lose a part of our very soul.  I think that’s why Jesus told this parable--to shock all of us who have become blind to the needy and deaf to the call to compassion into opening our eyes and ears.  When we do, we recover our humanity, we regain our soul, and we find life.

[1] © 2013 Alan Brehm.  A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/29/2013 at First Presbyterian Church of Dickinson, TX.
[2] Cf. John Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 833: “The parable suggests that there is a profound challenge to the social status quo to be found in the law and the prophets, and that there is a desperate need for the privileged to search out their stipulations and to act upon them.”  Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2.440, where he reminds us that even our “charitable” deeds can be infected with this blindness and deafness.  He says, “There is a form of love—mere charity—in which we do not love at all; in which we do not see or have in mind the other man to whom it is directed; in which we do not and will not notice his weal or woe; in which we merely imagine him as the object of the love which we have to exercise, and in this way master and use him. Our only desire is to practise [sic] and unfold our own love, to demonstrate it to him and to others and to God and above all to ourselves.”
[3] Cf. George W. Knight, "Luke 16:19-31: The Rich Man and Lazarus," Review and Expositor 94 (1997): 279, where he cites Josephus as describing this as the clothing of royalty (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 8.183; 11.256).
[4] Cf. Wade P. Huie, “The Poverty of Abundance,” Interpretation 22 (Oct 1968):404, where he observes, “Jesus certainly does not follow the line of the Pharisees who claim that wealth is God’s reward for righteousness and poverty is a sign of God’s judgment. ... Jesus does not find fault with one for being rich and the other for being poor.”  Cf. also Knight, “Luke 16:19-31,” 279.
[5] John Haughey, “There’s No ‘Them’ There,” Living Pulpit 13 (Oct-Dec 2004): 14.  Cf. also, Huie, “The Poverty of Abundance,” 406: On the surface Dives [the rich man] is a success, but beneath the surface he has rejected his ultimate responsibility: He has not loved his neighbor so he cannot be in love with God. The tragedy is not that he harmed Lazarus, but that he ignored him.”
[6] Mark Harris, “No Way Out” The Christian Century (September 12-19,2001):18.  He says, “The rich man doesn't get ... that he could not hear, or did not listen to, Moses and the prophets, who had a lot to say about justice, the poor and those in need.”
[7] Cf. Christine Pohl, “Building a Place for Hospitality,” in Christian Reflection: Hospitality (2007): 28, where she discusses the biblical commands to care for the resident aliens, the poor, and the needy under the heading of “Hospitality.”
[8] Huie, “The Poverty of Abundance,” 403 says it well: “Since I am not poor and do not feel rich, his words can easily hit me and bounce off.”
[9] Pohl, “Building a Place for Hospitality,” 33: “The church as a primary site for hospitality, and its important connection with the household, is overlooked. Rarely do we consider engaging in a kind of hospitality that helps people recover a place in the world and find healing within community.”