Sunday, March 26, 2017

Relationships are Everything

Luke 16:19-31
 “Relationships are Everything”
26 March 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel Singapore

Anyone here familiar with Douglas Adams and the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series? Full of British humor it’s a funny take on the Sci-Fi genre where Earth is revealed to actually be the one supercomputer that can ask the ultimate question to which the answer is 42. An answer which was calculated by a supercomputer named Deep Thought after 7 and ½ million years. Unfortunately, Earth is destroyed to make way for a new space bypass. Sometimes we get so wrapped around the answer that when we find an answer we’re not sure what question or problem it is answering.

Today’s parable is a hard one to hear. Mainly because it hits close to home. One caution in hearing and processing this parable, be careful not to lose sight of what Jesus is getting at in this story.

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in apocalyptic imagery and the debate over if we are going to heaven like Lazarus or a hellish eternal suffering such as the rich man appears to have landed that we just can’t see past our own image of God. If we have an image of a vengeful and spiteful God who is focused on sorting out the winners from the losers as if spirituality and following Christ was some sort of competition, we’re going to see this story as a caution about not doing enough. From there we start to envision our salvation and relationship with Christ as one of karma or good works.

And we’ll miss the point not just of this parable but of the whole point of following Jesus and being a part of God’s peaceable kingdom.

During seminary, those undergoing the rigorous theological training to which we submit ourselves feebly try to boil the meaning of religion and faith down to easily digestible phrases. One friend of mine mentioned her take on the meaning of life and faith that has stuck with me ever since. Whenever she was asked the meaning of life, what our purpose in life was, or why did God send Christ to walk the earth and then die on a cross would always answer, “Relationships.”

A wise woman she is. The more I explore Scripture and what it is that Christ is asking of us, the more I know that Elizabeth is on to something with her one word response. So much so, I think the answer to life the universe and everything isn’t 42, but rather relationships.

And relationships, or the lack thereof, is what this parable is all about.

I don’t think the rich man is in his predicament because he is rich. He’s there because he didn’t even attempt to get to know his neighbor, especially the one that was literally on his doorstep in need of help. Not once in this story does the rich man directly address or speak to Lazarus. Not even to ask him to get out of his way or to vacate the property. The rich never acknowledged Lazarus. Even after they both are dead, he speaks only to Abraham. The rich man was so consumed and concerned by his own comfort and condition that he failed to notice the suffering not just around him, but the suffering right before him.

And that’s why this parable is so powerful. Because we all ignore the suffering around us. Sometimes the suffering is so obvious it’s easier to walk past it because we just don’t know where to begin. Sometimes the one suffering is making a scene or disrupting the social order so we just look down to avoid embarrassment. Maybe we don’t know what to say so we don’t even look at the person in the wheelchair at the MRT station trying to sell is tissue or the blind musician playing around town. And before you try to justify you actions or get defensive, know this we all have done it and will probably do these things in the future, including yours truly.

Being disturbed by suffering, overwhelmed by the scope of injustice, frozen in bewilderment of where to start or what to say is normal. In fact, it means we at least acknowledge the fact that suffering is staring us in the face. I doubt the rich man even noticed Lazarus, so we’re at least a baby step or two in front of him. However, just acknowledging suffering isn’t enough. Christ is telling us there is more to our calling than looking at suffering and thinking to ourselves, “there but for the grace of God go I.”

We are called to step into that suffering. But how?

The first step is to move from xenophobia, fear of the other, to philoxenia, love of the other. And it’s not easy. But a good first step is to seek to build a relationship with those we see as the other.

Before seminary when I was stationed in Hawaii, I attended First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu. One of the ministers there really strechted and challenged the congregation in how we saw and interacted with those much of America consider the other, the homeless. So a group of young adults started a new ministry to take sandwiches and, more importantly, conversation to the homeless on Friday nights. I was curious, so with not a small amount of trepidation and doubt, I volunteered to help out one Friday night. It changed my life.

The ministry wasn’t just to physically feed them, nor was the focus to bring them to Christ or evangelize those sleeping on the street. The sandwiches were the opening for us to get to know people society had forgotten and ignored. And I developed relationships with a few of them. We learned their life stories, their dreams, and eventually their needs. Because of these relationships, some of the homeless community began to regularly attend church.  One even became a member of the prayer team.  He became such a part of the church community that when he was gravely ill, members of the church ensured someone was at his bedside until he passed away.

Relationships matter.

Living in a high wealth country such as Singapore can lead us to believe that the need isn’t among us or that society will take care of all the needs. But, there is a need here, we just may need to open our vision slightly to see it. Perhaps we start by buying tissues from the travelling vendor at our favorite hawker center whether we need them or not. Before you know it, you’re in a mutually beneficial relationship where you are helping them and they are providing you much needed tissues to not just clean up after a delicious hawker meal, but guaranteeing you a seat to enjoy said meal.

Maybe you hire someone to help your business or around the house when you don’t necessarily need any help. You do it to give them dignity and a sense of worth or to provide an easier job for more money. And you get to know them and care for them asking what they need and learning about their life to further the relationship.

We decide to have meaningful conversations with those that come and clean our offices each week. Learning their names, asking about their families, listening to their stories.

For those who utilize amahs are they paid the minimum? Or are they paid a higher wage and taken care of in other ways. Do you get to know your amah and treat them as family and have a relationship with them where you know their story and needs and can help alleviate suffering and need when feasible.

Relationships are scary, can be full of uncertainty, leave us vulnerable. Yet, relationships also expand our world, broaden our vision, enrich our lives. Relationships with those who are other than us built out of philoxenia give us the knowledge and courage to tackle big things in small ways. When we personalize and care about people and their stories, we receive the courage to stand up against injustices to change systems that keep people down and thus live out God’s Kingdom.

If only the rich man had just once stopped and acknowledged Lazarus. He may not have been able to help Lazarus, but I do know that both of them would have been changed by the relationship and the world would have been better off. Let us use this Lenten season to develop and strengthen our relationships with those we consider the other.

Relationships don’t just matter, relationships are life, the universe, and everything.

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Sunday, March 19, 2017

Lost Sons

Luke 15:1-32
 “Lost Sons”
19 March 2017 St. Andrew’s Military Chapel Singapore

There once was a stereotypical American nuclear family. Mom, dad, two kids, pets, a house with a white picket fence. Actually, they were fairly well off financially. They had employees that came to the house to complete the household chores and to help with the family business. But, despite outward appearances, not all was well in suburbia. One day the younger son has a moment of rebellion and tells the family he wants his share of the family fortune so he can set out on his own. Reluctantly, the family gives in and lets the rebellious son blaze his own path.

When he decided to leave, the younger son, in a fit of jealousy, immaturity, and ignorance tells his father to die. Not in those exact words, but by asking for his share of the inheritance he has told the father he’d rather see dear ole dad in the grave. The father grants the request and the son heads off into the sunset.

For a long time, the son is living the life. He settled in Vegas and is enjoying all sin city has to offer a young, wealthy, single, rebellious young adult. The young son is living it up without a care in the world. Every night is a scene from the movie The Hangover. Then the money runs out. He hits proverbial rock bottom. He realizes that his father’s migrant workers (whom he probably ridiculed growing up) have a better life. He has one option left to live, go home. So, after years of partying and not caring about anything, including himself, he comes to his senses, and with that comes deep regret and remorse for what he has sown.

He’s got the apology all worked out and is ready to take his lumps and become a hired hand to the father he disowned many years ago. When the now destitute son returns home his father rushes out to greet his son and throws the party of the year. Whaaat? Would we welcome a strung out or alcoholic child who told us to die on their way out the door back in that manner? Without ever asking: Where have you been all this time? How are you doing? Why are you back?

Just then, the second son, who has been silently going about keeping the family business profitable, re-enters the story. And he is none too happy at dear ole dad for spending money on and treating the one who disowned the family with such love and respect. I’m sure, like many of us today, the neighbors are nodding their heads in agreement with the older son. The annoying little brother didn’t want to be a part of the family, so let him keep on walking and figure it out on his own.

But, the father looks at his eldest with sad eyes and says, “You have everything I own. What more do you want? Your brother was lost and now he is back, we have to rejoice at this miracle. Haven’t I taught you anything?”

Parables are always dangerous to read. We easily find ourselves in the story as one of the characters. This pulls us deeper into the fabric of the story. As we become more and more interested in the story because of our connection with one of the characters, we begin to get a bit nervous.

Sometimes we are the younger son, struggling to find our way or in the midst of making bad decisions for ourselves without regard to consequences. Sometimes we are lost without anyone beside us by our own choice. Sometimes we find ourselves at the end of our rope and are desperately looking for a place to turn. Sometimes we are lost and alone, which can be worse than death. If you relate more with the younger son, the church is called to be here for you, to welcome you with open arms. Here you will find rest. And grace.

Many times, however, we find ourselves in the role of the older brother. One of my seminary professors, Richard Lischer has written, “The elder son is the Good Christian from the Bible belt, or the liberal Episcopalian, Presbyterian, or Lutheran, who is baffled and not a little irritated by the rising authority of churches in the Global South. The elder son shakes his head at his own congregation’s embrace of people he has always disapproved of… The elder son is the best of us at our very worst.” If you are the elder son, the church is called to be here for you, to welcome you with open arms. Here you will find forgiveness. And grace.

If you ask random people on the street which character reflects the church in America, you’d probably hear them describe us as the older brother. In fact, the church in America has a reputation of being the older brother by excluding those whose appearance or behavior we find appalling. But, isn’t the younger brother the one the church should be there for? We are called to welcome everyone regardless of what is going on in their lives. We are called to be like this father and rejoice at the return of someone from the brink. We are called to offer love and grace without qualification.

If being lost is worse than death, shouldn’t there be a place where people can be found? Where people are free to be themselves and find true relationship? A hospital where every sinner can go for healing?

It’s supposed to be us, but because of some stances we as the church universal have taken over the years, people view us at best as a club for good people and, at worst, as a gathering of cynical hypocrites. The book UnChristian looks at this issue. One of the young adults they interviewed describes the church as, “Christianity has become bloated with blind followers who would rather repeat slogans than actually feel true compassion and care. Christianity has become marketed and streamlined into a juggernaut of fearmongering that has lost its own heart.” Sounds like the older brother.

But, there is a way out of that. There is a way to be the church again. We need to look at what this father can teach us and then go and be like this grace filled father. First, we need to shift the gaze of those watching us to the grace offered within our family. When grace is equally offered to all, because we are all in desperate need of grace, then the reason we seek grace doesn’t matter. This father successfully shifted the focus from the sons to the grace he offered both. To the younger son he offered restoration and relationship. To the older he offered the grace of reconciliation. Both are necessary for us to fully live.

The father demonstrates the abundant nature of grace. When the older brother complains about the unfairness of restoring the younger brother (whom he always refers to as “your son”), the father asks, “what more do you want? You are always with me and everything I have is yours.” Let’s quit worrying about the amount of grace someone else receives. Christ has provided us the grace we need, and some of us need a bit more grace in our lives. Remember that a slave trader wrote arguably the most memorable hymn ever. There is plenty of grace to go around and we don’t need to hoard it for fear of a shortage.

Because grace isn’t a finite resource we are encouraged to freely spread grace throughout the world. Everyone needs a different amount and type of grace. Sometimes we spread that grace through generously giving of our time, talent, or treasure. Sometimes we show grace through a simple smile, hello, or a much needed phone call from afar. Other times, we provide grace through prayers of intercession on behalf of those we know and love, and even for those we have never met or can’t stand.

Grace is abundant and pre-paid at a dear cost, so we can’t let it go to waste. The younger brother saw and accepted that grace and will most likely shower that grace sowing seeds he’ll never see grow. The older brother, in withholding grace from those who he deems unworthy is, in fact, rejecting the grace he so desperately needs. Let us look for where we need to accept grace. Then, we can liberally share that grace to those who we think don’t really deserve it. In this way we will be a free-flowing fountain of grace from Christ to the world.

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