This Week’s Lectionary Sermon

These messages are provided for those preparing to preach on upcoming Sundays. All of the sermons on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for the coming month are below. For more sermons in this year of the cycle, Year C, go to that page in the menu. Sermons are listed in ascending order, with Advent I at the bottom of the page.

The Shape of Us

Luke 14:25-33

Proper 18C…. Sunday between Sept. 4 and Sept. 10 inclusive

When you come to worship, what do you expect to happen to you?  When you pray, or read the Bible or other material about faith, what do you expect to happen to you? 

Does that strike you as an odd question?  Maybe you do these things to honor God and learn more about God, to receive some comfort maybe.  My guess is that sometimes in the process of doing these things, you actually feel something happening to you that you didn’t expect. 

There is a difference between doing the activities of faith and actually growing your faith.  The Bible texts we read today talk about growing your faith.  We call this spiritual formation. 

The word “formation” is key.  God not only desires your obedience, your loyalty, and your worship.  God actually wants to form you. 

I was listening to a talk by Dallas Willard last week, when he made an important statement about how God wants to form you and me.  He said that God is not primarily interested in you and me doing good things.  God is far more concerned that we are the kind of people who do good things.[i]

Think about that for a moment.  God is not primarily interested in you and me doing good things.  God is far more concerned that we are the kind of people who do good things.  It makes sense if you consider how you want your children to be as adults.  I would love to see my children do good things of course, but I would be thrilled if they become the kind of people for whom doing good things comes naturally.  Even people with evil intentions can do good things from time to time, but hopefully we as God’s people come to do them as a habit.

There are some great images about God forming us in today’s Scripture texts.  From Psalm 139:

13For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.

14I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.

15My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.

Our original design is God’s delight.  Isn’t it amazing to think that God cares for us like that from the very beginning of our lives?  And we know from Genesis 1 that God somehow put the divine image in us.  I could spend all day thinking about that.  I am not a mistake, and neither are you.  God made each one of us with intention and purpose.  Our bodies are not an afterthought either.  All of you, every part of you—your body, mind, feelings, thoughts, ideas, weaknesses and strengths, personality—every single part matters to God. 

Then there is that image in Jeremiah 18:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: 2“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” 3So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. 5Then the word of the LORD came to me: 6Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

God was speaking to the whole nation of Israel here, but I think it is OK to apply it to our individual selves too.  Each of us is formed into a different shape of body, personality, abilities, and so on.  And from this Scripture we are assured that when we are broken or messed up, the divine potter can remake us.  I’d like to show you a video about this.

What came to mind as you watched that video?

Finally, the gospel lesson is also about formation, even though it might not seem like it at first.  From Luke 14:

27[Jesus said,] Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

There are other images in that passage about how following Jesus compares with our families, counting the cost of building, or considering the odds of victory in battle, but let’s stick with the image of rabbi and disciple today.  Those who are disciples of a rabbi are expected to follow their teacher so closely that the teacher’s values and even ways of life would become the disciples’ own.  The students would begin to act like their teacher.  They would make the same moral choices, and see life in the same way.  They would virtually take on the form of their rabbi.

So it occurs to me that you and I had better not follow Jesus if we don’t want to end up looking like him, talking like him, moving through the world like him.  Caring about what he cares about, loving the way he loves.  Taking on the form of Jesus.  Paul says it in Romans 8:29a—”For those whom [God] foreknew [were] also predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s Son…”

I’ve also heard it said that we had better not follow Jesus if we don’t want to end up on a cross.  Sobering.  But at least we know what happens beyond the cross.

Finally, these ideas about being formed into the image of God and the image of Christ, being woven and knit together before we were born, and being formed like pots by the divine potter are all enough to keep us thinking this week about whether that is what we really want or not.  We are given the choice whether to let Jesus form us as his followers. 

But it occurs to me that we are being formed one way or another anyway.  We get more of our shape from our culture than we want to admit.  We let social media and TV shape our ideas.  If you don’t think that’s true, just consider what you buy and how you see the world around you and how much of that lines up with what you read and view and listen to.  We let our memories form us, both good and bad.  We let our friends influence us.  We run here and there to support our habits and our possessions.  Sports schedules define family life.  All these things can form us in some ways. 

What or who is forming you? 


[i] Dallas Willard in “Introduction to Spiritual Disciplines – Part I” on www.conversatio.org.

How to Get Lost

Luke 15:1-32

Proper 19C…Sunday between Sept. 11 and 17 inclusive

Jesus’ critics thought they had it all together.  They accused Jesus of poor judgment because he was hanging around with “sinners.”  If he was a rabbi with any sense, he would make better choices about his dining companions.

Jesus proceeded to tell them three stories, parables about a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son.  We read the first two this morning, but the third is familiar: the parable of the prodigal son.  The younger son asks for his inheritance, wastes it in loose living, and comes back with his tail between his legs.  Dad forgives him, even throws a party for the wasteful, ungrateful fool.  Older brother resents it because he never spent an irresponsible hour in his life.  His father tells him he has had it made all along; hard work is its own reward; why didn’t he say something if he wanted to have his friends over for a party?

The parables seem harmless if a little ridiculous.  Any responsible shepherd wouldn’t leave 99 sheep in the open to look for a stray.  A woman who finds her coin wouldn’t spend it on a party to celebrate.  A father ought not take back a son who is unforgivably disrespectful like that.  The scribes and Pharisees might have dismissed the stories for being a little puzzling, but then there is the hook at the end.  The older brother, scolding his father for celebrating the return of a scoundrel.  Eating with a sinner, just what they had accused Jesus of doing.

What they didn’t realize, not then or ever, as far as we know, was that they were the lost ones.  The older brother was lost even though he never wandered away.  He is just as lost as his brother, only in a different way.

I see four ways of getting lost in these parables, but we’ll go back to the first parable so we can keep things straight.  The lost sheep in the first parable is in trouble because he is distracted.  Maybe he spies a succulent clump of grass down the hill a bit, just out of eyesight and earshot of the shepherd.  By the time he looks up, the flock is gone.

That’s one way we get lost too: from distractions.  That is probably the most common way we find ourselves in trouble, or feeling empty.  I don’t need to list all the things that distract us, do I?  Here’s where you might expect me to rail against obvious evils like pornography or drugs.  But even good things distract us.  There’s nothing wrong with our work, our families, our studies.  But we aren’t so good at moderation, and the obligations begin to pile up.  And we have to have a little fun after working so hard all the time.  Before we know it there is no time left for care of the soul, or worship, or any kind of pause to get our bearings.  Distractions come in many forms, and some are easier to spot than others.

The coin was probably lost through carelessness.  A clumsy mistake, or a knot coming loose.  The sudden realization that something is missing.

The loss of a treasure, a valued possession, is interesting to apply to our lostness.  Do we lose faith from carelessness, inattention, laziness?  We procrastinate, rationalize, treat our faith as another component of life that we’ll get to when we have time.  Except we turn around one day, and we don’t remember where we put it.

There is lost faith, and there are lost people.  Might we lose our children to unbelief if we are careless in teaching them?  I wonder sometimes whether we tell them to put God first, but then model putting other things first.  That is not a very reliable way to nurture faith in them.  We might look back and see that we have been careless and they might end up lost.

So, you can get lost through distraction or carelessness.  In the third parable, the prodigal son got himself lost.  He stubbornly and methodically pressured his father to violate social tradition by granting his inheritance ahead of schedule.  He left home and all the stupid chores, all the door-slamming arguments with his uptight older brother.  Freedom!  Friends!  Fun!  While the money lasted.  Until he found himself alone, mistrusted and shunned as a foreigner, hungry and ashamed.  Lost.

It’s easy to name the people in our lives who have willfully turned their backs on God.  Drug addicts, child molesters, atheists.  An estranged son or daughter.  The people Jesus befriended were just that sort.  Of course nobody bothered to listen to their stories, to learn why these “sinners” made such choices, or maybe had no other choices that they could see.

All of these ways of getting lost are not that hard to recognize if we’re paying attention: distractions, carelessness, willfulness.  We’ve been warned about these things.  “Oh be careful little eyes what you see” we sang in Sunday School.  Santa—and God—knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!  Make the right choices, and stay out of trouble, or you’ll be lost.

The fourth kind of getting lost is more insidious.  We don’t usually recognize it in ourselves, probably because it comes on so gradually that we become accustomed to it.  It is tricky because it looks so much like righteousness, like the right way, but it leads us away from God just as surely as the others.

In fact, we end up being lost even though we haven’t gone anywhere.  We haven’t left home, haven’t misplaced anything.

The older brother never left home.  He always did what Dad asked him to.  But his heart grew cold with resentment, and he tried to warm it up by working harder.  He found that if he fell into bed exhausted every night, he didn’t have to think about the injustice, the shame of living with a father who had coddled his fool of a brother, a father who made a fool of himself by pining for his long lost son.  If nothing else, he would show what a sensible, hard-working son looked like.  Too bad Dad never noticed.

He might have looked as though he stayed home, but his heart had checked out.  All he wanted to do any more was to keep his head down until his father died and he could try to rebuild his family’s reputation.  The work he used to do to please his father now became a way to redeem himself in the eyes of the community.  He figured out a way to make life work, even if it meant his jaw was sore every morning from clenching it in his sleep.

The older brother was not unlike the Israelites who built a golden calf at the bottom of the mountain.  Moses commiserated with God for more than a month, much longer than they thought necessary.  They didn’t agree with the way God was handling things.  They knew every other people group had an idol to worship, so they thought they would just rig up something nice so they wouldn’t look stupid worshiping a God that was invisible.

Both the older brother and the Israelites were guilty of self-righteousness, because they decided what their goodness should look like.  The older brother chose hard work and begrudging loyalty.  The Israelites chose a golden sculpture.  The scribes and Pharisees listening to these parables knew that Jesus was accusing them of self-righteousness too, because he said they honored the Sabbath laws and temple system more than they honored God.

It’s so easy to do though.  Drafting your own rules about following God is appealing.  You can have it custom made to fit your own sensibilities.  Excuse the sins you prefer as, well, just being human.  Adhere to the ones you like.

We all do it.  I know which parts of following Jesus are more to my liking, and which ones aren’t.  Which sins I can’t seem to master, and the good deeds that come easily to me.  Righteousness crafted to fit my tastes.  Self-righteousness.  You do it too.  We don’t like to admit it, but Jesus added the older brother to the third parable to make sure we would know that we are all lost.  We try to avoid the first three—distractions, carelessness, willfulness, but the fourth will get us every time.  If we are good at dodging the first three,  then we are especially prone to the self-righteousness trap.

We might think Jesus is cruel, pointing out that we can’t escape the guilt of our sin.  Thought you were good, eh?  Aha!  Caught you being self-righteous!

But that is not the purpose of this trio of parables.  The point is not how bad we are, but how faithful God is.  We are released from the shame of our sin because God doesn’t want us to suffer punishment for wandering away.  God seeks us out.  God does what it takes to find us in our lostness.  God trudges through the brush and the rocks to find us, helpless as we are, and hauls us home.  God peers into the dark places and shines the light of love in order to snatch us up and dust us off.  God scans the horizon, waiting for us to appear and stumble into his arms.  And God even unmasks our stubborn pride, our silly pretensions, and coaxes us to rejoice with him in a crazy celebration of forgiveness and renewal.

It doesn’t work any other way.  We cannot pretend to be better than other sinners, because Jesus insists that we are just as lost as they are.  And the lost do not find themselves.  God finds them.  God finds us, catches us red-handed in fact, but refuses to let us feel ashamed.  Instead, God restores us and celebrates having us back.  Us!  Foolish, careless, distracted, willful, shameful, golden calf-worshiping, arrogant, self-righteous saps.  You would think God would have better taste in friends.  But for some reason God wants you and me in the circle of love, eating together and celebrating the goodness of it.

Yes, we are lost.  Might as well admit it.  And we can’t do anything to make up for it except let ourselves be found.  Thanks be to God.

Whatever It Takes

Luke 16:1-13

Proper 20C…Sunday between September 18 and 24 inclusive

Listening to a radio program about the housing market this week, I heard a young adult talk about the quest she and her husband went on to buy a house for a low price.  They were aware of many foreclosed and bank-owned houses in their community, and they wanted to get in on a deal.  I couldn’t blame them.  After hearing about all the homeowners who were in over their heads even before signing their mortgages, and then really drowned when the house values went down, it was refreshing to know that somebody is trying to live within their means.

The funny thing was, the realtors they contacted kept wanting to show them houses that would make them a profit, even after this couple explained that they wanted to see foreclosed and bank-owned houses.  We can hardly blame the realtors either, since they have been scrambling for any kind of income they can get too.  Everybody is trying to survive.

Which brings us to today’s parable, which features an “Unjust Steward” according to some Bible teachers and a “Dishonest Manager” by others.  Either way, he is a curious example for Jesus to use.  Actually, “curious” is generous; this guy is downright criminal.  He would be serving a lot of jail time these days, and I’m sure his practices were considered just as dishonest at the time of this story’s telling.

We just finished Luke 15, where the parables of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son were pretty easy to figure out.  God seeks the lost, and we have to put up with it if we don’t like all the people that includes.  The prodigal son is a thankless brat we’d like to teach a thing or two, but then he realizes his depravity and returns home.  It seems like too nice an ending for him, but we remind ourselves that God is forgiving and generous to a fault, so it’s okay.  And we get a little annoyed with the prodigal son’s older brother for being such a goody-two-shoes and resenting his brother’s conversion.  He prefers pouting to partying.  Well, that guy looks like a saint compared to this character in today’s parable.

He was squandering his master’s property.  We don’t know if that means selling off land or goods and misrepresenting the profits, then pocketing some of it.  Or maybe he was just a bad manager and didn’t keep a tight rein on overhead costs.  The ways a business can be mismanaged are numerous.  We do know it involved a lot of outstanding bills.  The cash flow was looking suspiciously thin.  So, the manager is called in, told to turn in the books, and fired on the spot.

That should be the end of the story.  Ah, now the manager is in a pickle.  He has lost his usual bravado along with his job.  And he asks himself, “What am I gonna do now? Nobody will give me a job. I won’t have any place to live.  I gotta do something, fast!”  And he proceeds to pretend as though he still works for the boss.  He calls in the customers with unpaid accounts and grants them write-downs on their bills.  For at least a day or two, he is the local hero.

Or, his master is the hero.  We can imagine that when the master does return, he could be met by grateful customers meeting him on the road to shake his hand before he even gets to the branch office.  Now, he can do one of three things.  He can 1) explain to everyone that these  write-downs were not authorized, in which case he will end up as the bad guy.  He can 2) accept whatever payment his debtors are now making, but maintain his position that the manager is fired.  Or, he can 3) leave things as they are.  In the case of the parable, he must have chosen option #3.  Surprisingly, he recognizes the shrewdness of his former employee’s actions, praises him, and…well, we don’t get the news that the manager was rehired, but it seems fair enough to assume.

Now I could go a couple of different directions in helping you to interpret Jesus’ message here.  I could go with verse 8:And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”  We could examine our need to be more creative and wise in our relationships and our proclamation of the gospel, so the kingdom of heaven will have a larger population in the hereafter.  That is a legitimate interpretation and even tempting, but I’m not going there.

Nor am I going to talk about using our money for good.  Money is a tool that we can dedicate to God’s good purposes.  That seems to be another good conclusion we could draw, considering verses 10-13: “‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much…You cannot serve God and wealth,’” and so on.  We all really need to hear that, stated forcefully and often, but it’s not the option I’m choosing today.  You will hear a stewardship sermon soon enough this fall.

There are three or four other directions we could also choose, but you get the idea.  This parable is a tough one to decipher, and its interpretations vary.  We’d rather hear parables we can identify with.  I can picture myself as the lost sheep, or part of the 99 in the flock, depending on the day.  We get the point of the Good Samaritan, and we know we should act like that guy.  We like those parables.

What are we to do with this one?  A nice moral is not so easy to pin down.  We want to walk away with a packet of wisdom we can wrap up neatly so we can unpack and apply it the next day.  But parables aren’t meant to provide that for us.  Parables are like peepholes, giving us a glimpse of what God’s great kingdom is like.  We can’t possibly grasp all of its complexity and glory, but we can stand a piece of it at a time.  Jesus uses pictures and language we can understand to give us a small sampling of something so wonderful that it can’t be described in human words or images.

I wonder if the glimpse we might be getting today is of an unjust steward who could be…Jesus himself.  Hold on now, stay with me.  I know this seems absurd, even sacrilegious. Well, think about it.  In the previous couple of chapters in Luke there’s a nice theme of God’s grace.  God heals people, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem, he tells parables of God seeking the lost and the poor.  He also tells us what it costs to follow him (everything).

Maybe he is putting all of those things together in this depiction of a man who makes a last ditch effort to win his master’s favor, or the favor of his neighbors.  He uses dishonest means to do it, but the debts are now within reach for the customers, and the master actually gets some cash flow again.  That wraps it up neatly, maybe.  Messy, but all’s well that ends well.

Yet even that interpretation could be sugar coating it more than Jesus wanted.  Jesus may have been popular with many people, but he was hated by the respectable people, the temple leaders.  Jesus may be saying that “grace cannot come to the world through respectability.”[1]  We prefer respectable behavior that gravitates toward success, life, winning.  Jesus’ grace works through death and losing.  A cross, as we have often said, is not a pretty thing.  It is the way of sacrifice and pain.

That young couple who was looking for a house?  I didn’t hear the end of the story, but when  I left it, they were trying to buy a real fixer-upper.  It was a smelly, badly kept place that no respectable realtor would ever want to take credit for selling.  Animal, mildew, smoke smells.  Rotting walls around the bathroom and kitchen sinks.  A real nightmare.  But it was what they wanted to put their hearts and their hard work into.  They made the choice that they could handle, even though it would be a lot of hard work.  They didn’t take the easy way, with easy credit.

Jesus took the hard way to get what he wanted.  He broke the Sabbath and hung around with crooks.  He was executed as a criminal.  He did whatever it took to draw us sinners to himself.  We are the debtors who owe more than we can pay, and the crafty manager is the only one we can trust to get us off the hook.  We can’t deal with the upright owner.

Keep in mind now that parables have limitations.  Parables are metaphors, and metaphors always break down at some point.  Even so: Jesus isn’t actually dishonest or sinful, is he?  But he takes on that look in order to win us over to himself.  He doesn’t care what he looks like; he will do whatever it takes to make sure our debt is paid and we can do business with God without guilt.  He is the only one who can clean us off well enough to be able to face God at all, ever.

If you don’t like that interpretation, go back and choose one of the others.  In three years, when this text comes around again, I may explore one of those options.  But if you can stand looking at Jesus with a crooked businessman costume just for this week, maybe you can appreciate how far he is willing to come to get you, in whatever costume you happen to be caught wearing right now.  Whatever debt you owe, whatever form it takes, it is too much for you to pay.  Jesus says that the situation is not impossible.  His surprising, sacrificial solution will make him look bad, and it is bad; the cross is very bad.  But we end up free of debt, and grateful.  That is what happens in God’s kingdom, for all who accept the offer of forgiveness.  Thanks be to God!

[1] Capon, Robert Farrar. 1988, The Parables of Grace (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans), p. 150.

Where One Step Takes You

Luke 16:19-31

Proper 21C….Sunday between September 26 and October 1 inclusive

Some of the Missionaries of Charity who operated under the leadership of Sister Teresa served in Australia.  She tells the story of one person whose life was touched by them.

“On a reservation, among the Aborigines, there was an elderly man.  I can assure you that you have never seen a situation as difficult as that poor old man’s.  He was completely ignored by everyone.  His home was disordered and dirty.

“I told him, ‘Please, let me clean your house, wash your clothes, and make your bed.’  He answered, ‘I’m okay like this.  Let it be.’

“I said again, ‘You will be still better if you allow me to do it.’

“He finally agreed.  So I was able to clean his house and wash his clothes.  I discovered a beautiful lamp, covered with dust.  Only God knows how many years had passed since he last lit it.

“I said to him, ‘Don’t you light your lamp?  Don’t you ever use it?’

“He answered, ‘No. No one comes to see me.  I have no need to light it.  Who would I light it for?’

“I asked, ‘Would you light it every night if the sisters came?’

“He replied, ‘Of course.’

“From that day on the sisters committed themselves to visiting him every evening.  We cleaned the lamp, and the sisters would light it every evening.

“Two years passed.  I had completely forgotten that man.  He sent this message: ‘Tell my friend that the light she lit in my life continues to shine still.’

“I thought it was a very small thing.  We often neglect small things.”[1]

Small things.  I wonder if any small things would have made a difference to the men in today’s parable.  Certainly, the rich man suddenly craved a small thing when he was in torment.  Just a taste of cool water was all he wanted.

The parable drips with irony, of course.  This man who practically tripped over Lazarus whenever he went through his gate had to have seen his pitiful plight.  He chose to ignore him every time.  Perhaps it became such a habit that he didn’t even notice Lazarus any more, but just regarded him as a piece of hardware connected to the gate.  Now the tables are turned, and he begs Father Abraham to give him some relief.  The rich man is so self-centered, so steeped with a sense of entitlement that he expects Lazarus to serve him in his misery.

Abraham explains that the chasm between the rich man and Lazarus is too wide for anybody to attempt the crossing.  He says it this way: “a great chasm has been fixed.”  At first glance, we might assume that God established the distance between the two points.  Yet we might also wonder if the rich man himself created that chasm.

You’ve heard the saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”  Did the expanse of the chasm begin with one step for the rich man?  We can imagine that Lazarus showed up at the gate one day and didn’t escape the rich man’s notice then.  But there was a decision at that point to ignore a poor man’s needs.  One decision.  Even one distraction or sneeze may have turned the rich man’s head away from Lazarus’ pleading gaze.  And then it just got easier and easier to walk through the gate without paying any attention to this desperate, dying man.

Could one step toward Lazarus, instead of away from him, have made a difference in the way things turned out?  The parable implies that the rich man could have escaped torment had he shown compassion on Lazarus.  It wouldn’t have taken much.  Even the scraps from the table would have helped, but not a crumb was offered.

Any journey begins with a single step, whether it is toward the needs of other people, or away from them.  The Missionaries of Charity took a step out of their doors each night to visit an old man in his sorry, lonely condition.  They gave him a reason to light his lamp.  Were they blessed also, when they let him touch their lives over time?  Did their friendship make the steps easier to take?

Brian Palmer is a man from western Iowa who began teaching in Tototo, Liberia this fall.  Certainly he traveled more than a thousand miles to get there.  But the trip began with a step toward God’s guidance, a step of openness and obedience.  His first comments from Africa included this observation.  “The chasm between the haves (almost nobody) and the have-nots (almost everybody) is galactic; we simply aren’t living on the same planet. We who are haves spend most of our time keeping our stuff and ourselves surrounded by high walls iced with rolls of barbed wire stretched out across the top. I guess it’s what you do.”

It’s what you do.  How often do we take steps away from the needs of others, without even thinking about it?  Do we realize that whenever we purchase something for ourselves, we are saying ‘no’ to something else we could buy?  We could be buying meals for the hungry, or mosquito nets for children, or simple medicines for diseases that shouldn’t take the life of one more child in this world.  Every time we say ‘yes’ to something, we say ‘no’ to something else.  It works both ways.  If we say ‘no’ to our luxury, or even our own needs, we can say a bigger ‘yes’ to the poor, providing medicine, food and education where it is so desperately needed.  They are at our gates now, whether they live in Iowa, South Dakota or the Sudan.  We cannot ignore them.

Back to the parable…It doesn’t end with a simple case of the bad guy getting what he deserved.  This rich man didn’t become rich by letting things lie.  He thought of his father and brothers, and his negotiating instinct kicked in with another call to Abraham: “Then, father, I beg you to send [Lazarus] to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.”

Abraham tells him he’s too late for that too.  Besides, Moses and the prophets have provided adequate warning.  The rich man shrugs and appeals to Abraham’s sense of the dramatic.  “Well, they don’t read the Scriptures much.  Now, if a resurrected man would show up, then they would sit up and take notice for sure.”

“Moses and the prophets ought to be enough to get the point across.  Sorry, the connection is getting worse.  ‘Must be that darn chasm.  I have to hang up now,” replies Abraham.

So if the first part of this parable weren’t enough to get your attention, this part should.  Is Jesus saying this: There is no excuse for a self-centered life, or any misunderstanding about faith.  You have everything you need to believe in God and to act like it, to take part in God’s benevolent reign.  The Bible spells it out clearly.  Don’t ignore God’s gracious appeal.  The clock is ticking, and, like the rich man and Lazarus, you will die whether you are rich or poor.  You don’t know when that will happen, but you will die where you stand.  Pay attention, therefore, to which direction you are taking.

So…we might also think about whether we are moving in the direction of the Scriptures we have been given.  Are you heading toward the life God offers, or away from it?  Do you head for your Bible before you head out the door?  It’s there so you can know Jesus, who is the way, the truth and the life.

Or can we track your footsteps along the path to wealth, popularity, or other pursuits?  How worn are those paths in your life?  With each stroke of the pen in our checkbooks (or credit card swipe), each small decision to visit the dying or to help a neighbor or to build a fence to keep people at a distance, we are either creating a chasm or crossing a bridge.

This may sound like I am making too much of Jesus’ story.  I don’t think so.  He painted a dramatic picture.  Wealth, or lack of it, does create distance between people.  Habitually ignoring the cries of the poor will deprive us of both the joy of simple living and the friendship of people we wouldn’t have known otherwise.  The chasm in the end is too wide for any human to cross it.  Our actions matter that much.

I know, I know.  We believe in grace, God’s grace.  That is true.  Our bad decisions, even our callousness toward the poor is forgiven when we turn to God and repent.  God is merciful!

Perhaps the point this time is this: If you realize that you need to turn around, that first step in reverse can be awfully hard to take.  It gets harder and harder to turn around the farther you go.  We are critters of habit, and once we set our direction, it’s hard to change.

But one step toward God and God’s ways reveals a whole new perspective.  Look one way, see one thing; turn around, and see something entirely different.  God meets us when we turn around.  God transforms us.  He shows us how he appears in the faces of the poor, the lonely, the victims of injustice.  Just like that man whom the Missionaries of Charity befriended, God brings light to our lives through the lives of those we help.

That quote from Lao-tzu about a journey of a thousand miles might also be faithfully translated like this: “The journey of a thousand miles begins beneath one’s feet.”  Where do you find yourself today?  Do you find yourself in the country of shallow pursuits, or are you exploring the fascinating landscape of God’s kingdom?  If you find yourself running back and forth, then the question is: Do you really want to live like that?

I’ll finish with one more thought from the quotable Mother Teresa:

“I think that a person who is attached to riches, who lives with the worry of riches, is actually very poor.  If this person puts his money at the service of others, then he is rich, very rich.”[2]  Rich or poor, Jesus calls us to care, to pay attention to each other’s needs, to know that every step we take makes a difference to him and to those he loves.

[1] Mother Teresa,  Becky Benenate, ed., In the Heart of the World: Thoughts, Stories and Prayers (Novato, California: New World Library), p. 53-4.

[2] Ibid., p. 70.