Saturday, September 29, 2007

On being Dives with Lazarus at the door

There is a website where you can go called Global rich in which you can enter your yearly income (before taxes) and it will tell you where in the global scheme of things you stand in relation to the world’s wealth. I entered my total and found that I stand among the top 5% of the world’s income. Now mind you, I am clergy, that I am on a 70% income, and you will realize how ludicrous this is. We live in a nation where those who are below the poverty line are still in the world’s top ten percent of wealth.

Most of us here are basic working folk who are proud of how we make ends meet. I don’t imagine here at St. Luke’s we have multi-billionaires on our rolls. We think of ourselves as fairly simple people who have good values and judge our actions by the mandates of Scripture and in comparison with what we see around us. And my experience of the people of this part of upstate is that we are not extravagant with what we have and generous in sharing. But it is something like that wakes us up to the reality of what our comfort means. And to be frank, it brings me up short to know what wealth I have and how poorly I am steward of it.

Sometimes it takes the living in a poor country and experiencing what it means to live in others’ situations to come down from that rarified atmosphere that the US culture produces and in which we live day in and day out.

There are two emotions that often surface when we do wake up to the imbalance of economic wealth in the world. One is shame. We often feel guilty for having so much more than others. We are uncomfortable with all that we have in comparison with the people of Sub-Saharan Africa. The other is anger. “We are entitled to our wealth”, we say. “We worked hard for it!” we say. And that is true and important. But the world still confronts us and all the guilt and anger does not make it go away.

If we travel to poorer nations we are aware of the poverty, the lack of basic services, the insecurity of political systems, and the paucity of the things that we think are so necessary for life here. And even we, here in upstate who often scoff at the extravagance of the cities are loath to give up a decent health system, good schools, security, or respectable commercial services in our country environment.

Whether we like it or not, we have become the Dives, the world’s Rich Man, with many Lazaruses at our gates not only personally but as a nation. And the real question is not whether we are rich or not, but how to learn from this parable of Jesus.

Jesus has told this parable in the presence of the Pharisees, the upper class of Jewish society. He has told this story because these Pharisees were stickler s for following the Mosaic Law but they often failed to observe one of the most important laws in the code of Moses—benevolence to the poor. For them, the sign of wealth was a sign of God’s blessing and consequently being poor or disenfranchised was a sign of God’s disrespect. Jesus reminds them the Law of Moses that said that the unfortunate were to be treated as equals and that sharing of wealth was absolutely essential to ones relationship with God.

Dives, the rich man, ignored the basic tenants of Judaism—to be helpful to those who did not have resources. And a great chasm had developed between Dives languishing in Sheol and Lazarus content in the bosom of Abraham that could not be crossed. Today, we call this the difference between Heaven and Hell. But in Jesus’ day it was not such a well defined divide. Those in Sheol could see the glories of the inhabitants of arms of the Patriarchs, the everlasting joy of God. Perhaps the real hell of Hell is being able to see the greatness of the saints in light while languishing in darkness oneself. It is an interesting thought….

Dives wants a messenger sent to his brothers to warn them of what is to come if they don’t pay attention to the poor around them, but Abraham says, “They won’t listen. The already have Moses’ Law and they won’t listen.”

Are we Dives to the world’s poor? Have we forgotten the poor at our gates? Have we, even us plain ole working stiffs in small town America, forgotten that we have the “poor ever with us?” Or have we become blind to the needs of others, unwilling to see the Lazaruses at our gates?

With these questions, I could go on with a really good stewardship sermon. Or I could make a good case for a campaign to help Zimbabwe churches. Or take up a second collection for the Christian Children’s Fund. But that is not the purpose of this sermon. The purpose of the sermon is so that we, those of us here in Sidney, can hear the cries of those around us. I want to challenge you to listen to those who have less than you have without falling into the debilitating guilt that immobilizes us, or the anger that prevents us from having compassion for others less fortunate. I want us to learn to hear the cry of those needy around us here in Sidney without laying a judgment upon them, without trying to evaluate whether they are “worthy of our concern.”

As Lutherans, we know that we are not worthy. We can never be worthy of God’s mercy and love. And since we stand in that place of grace, we too must be willing to offer that mercy and grace to those who are different from us, those who are poorer than we, those whose values may be different than ours.

We are called by God in this passage to look beyond the poverty to the possibility of grace. Our sin is not our wealth. Our sin is being unwilling to open our ears to the poor or to be outraged that there is poor out there at all! Our sin is ignoring the needs right in front of us because we don’t want to acknowledge that everyone out there isn’t just like us. There is a reason why the poor don’t come to church, brothers and sisters, and isn’t because they don’t have something nice to wear. The poor don’t attend church because all too often we Christians fail to even notice that they are there.

To develop a conscience, to develop a regard for the poor which I believe both the Mosaic Law and Christian baptismal vows demand of us, requires a willingness to stand without judgment with our hands open wide to give what it is needed. We must be willing to do that personally and we must be willing to do that corporately. We must call ourselves to hearing the needs of those around us. We must be willing to not only act individually to the needs of others, but as a group, we as St. Luke’s need to be able to respond a more to the needs of those in our community. But most of all, we as a nation must be willing to elect those to governmental systems who will listen to the needs of Lazarus nations standing at our gates. Even though they clamor, we must find ways to hear them that is satisfying to them so that we do not continue to be Dives, the ignorer.

The time may come when this nation may collapse because we have not listened to the needs of nations that are trying to have a place at the world’s trough. Economically, politically and spiritually this parable of Jesus is one which we cannot distain. We must be willing to humbly look at our responsibility in the community, the Church and in the world.

I invite you this week to hear the Lazaruses at your gates. You may find that they have much to tell you. And just for fun, go to and see where you stand in the world’s economy. Even those of you on fixed incomes—perhaps most especially those of you on fixed incomes--- find out how you are Dives when you have always thought you were Lazarus. It may wake you to a new understanding of Christ. AMEN

Monday, September 24, 2007

On Moral Development and Law

I find my plunge into Lutheranism has acquainted me more with law than I have been previously. I think that law is important to Episcopalians but less so than to the Lutherans. I must admit that Paul’s understanding of law as no longer binding for the Christian resonates in me. The idea that Christ liberates us from the law underlies much of my thinking. But I have also been much shaped by the works of Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan in the area of moral development.

The formation of conscience and the development of a society in which moral values are not only recognized but lived-out have been important to me since I taught in Catholic schools in my younger days.

Kohlberg said that there were 6 stages in the moral development in children could be outlined as:

Level 1 (Pre-Conventional)
1. Obedience and punishment orientation
2. Self-interest orientation
( What's in it for me?)
Level 2 (Conventional)
3. Interpersonal accord and conformity
( The good boy/good girl attitude)
4. Authority and social-order maintaining orientation
( Law and order morality)
Level 3 (Post-Conventional)
5. Social contract orientation
6. Universal ethical principles
( Principled conscience)
Kohlberg’s findings were based upon the behavior of boys and Carol Gilligan’s work with girls brought a whole different set of premises of what brought one to a moral state in which one developed an understanding of right and wrong. Gilligan's work showed how girls were not about a hierarchical way to moral development, but that girls were more inclined to determine what was right and wrong by how acts affected the whole of the group. Gilligan’s work, as was much of the work of feminists, was panned by the mainly male establishment of the ‘80’s. But as one who read her work and found my own experience in what she wrote in In a Different Voice, I found her work appealing. And rather than setting the principles of moral development against each other, I found that both systems seemed to be in evidence in the moral development of the students I taught.

Moral development is how humans arrive at what is important and what is right and wrong. We sometimes call it the formation of a conscience. We, as a species, do not have fully-formed consciences at birth. We do progress. And as any mother of a two-year old who has tried to teach her child to share will tell you, learning right from wrong is not an easy task. The development of a set of values by which we know right from wrong is often a life-long proposition. I do know that as a younger person I needed to test those values to find my own set of values.

I knew that I needed to test what others thought were “universal laws” to make sure they were truly social values. To grow up in the South of the 1950’s brought me face to face with societal norms that to me were wrong from both my personal sense of justice and in the Christian sense of justice that was being touted in the Bible Belt. And I think that it is the chore of every generation to challenge the norms of any society to see if there is coherence in what a society teaches as right and wrong and how it lives out those values.

Neither Kohlberg’s nor Gilligan’s works outlined what was right and wrong. But they outlined how one came to develop those values. What is right and wrong is often determined less on faith values than by what a certain environment classifies as right and wrong. For the girls in Gilligan’s study, what allowed them to work together in their groups was the primary value for them. For Kohlberg’s boys, there were principles to be followed, but in many cases the values themselves were the same.

Universal values are NOT. There is not a set of principles of behavior that constitute right and wrong for all societies. I used to get into trouble when I challenged the concept of “natural law” in Catholic circles. But I do believe there is no one concept of what is right and wrong that is inherent in humanity. Even murder or suicide are condoned in some cultures. What is right in some areas or for some people is outrageously wrong for others. And major clashes come when those cultures come up against each other.

Last night I watched a portion of The War, Ken Burn’s documentary of World War II. I have watched those news clips all of my life and it reminded me of what a clash of culture it was for Japan and the US in the 40’s. The cultural differences in the value of life, the value of honor, the value of so many different things and how it was only through the occupation after the war that we began to understand the deeply held values that each culture had that we came to respect one another. I wonder if the Middle-Eastern (Islamic fundamentalist culture) and western clashes of today are not the same kind of cultural disconnect.

Law whether it is part of the social contract of self-governing bodies or the principles set down from an autocratic power is merely the way that people can live together with some semblance of order. But law in its simplest form is humanly conceived, not divine.

Christian moral law, if you will, comes not from principles taught by Jesus. It comes from being in relationship with God. And it is here that I have to turn to Gilligan’s method. It is from my intimacy with Christ, allowing him to be a part of the discussions about what is right and wrong that I can come to any sense of what is God’s desire for me. Do I live by the Ten Commandments simply because it says it in the Bible? Or do I live by those rules because my God has loved me in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? I believe it is the latter. I do not covet my neighbor’s things because God has given me all that I need. I do not lie because God loves me with his truth in Christ Jesus. I honor my parents because God loved them even as he has loved me all my life. And so the moral development goes on.

Is this approach to moral development fluid? Yes. Law that is not fluid becomes rigid and incapable of proclaiming the kind of love Christ proclaimed. Law cannot be cast in stone. When it is, it loses its ability to support the social community in bringing about justice.

So where am I when I am faced with the Germanic penchant to put law above all things? I fall back on what I know to be God’s grace in the law. Luther was clear that what manifests Christ is grace. Grace is when we know that God loves us and that we can love others in the face of whatever befalls us. How do we know right from wrong? It is when we understand that Christ can be manifested to the greatest group without harm coming to others. In Christ I am above the law; I am beyond the law, so Paul tells me. The law can only give the minimum, while God’s grace is the maximum of God’s love.

Christian moral development is not really clear. It never will be. Christian morality will always be messy and fraught with “what ifs?” It will always confront us, just as Christ confronts us with every action with love. And we need to prepare ourselves to be willing to accept that the Christian life is not simple; we cannot merely look to our faith for answers. We must be willing to be part of the question.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Of Sheep and Coin

In Luke the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin and for that matter the lost son (the prodigal) all are set in the context of Jesus speaking to the Pharisees and the scribes who were grumbling about the sinners who were coming to hear Jesus preach.

The Pharisees were a branch of Judaism who took great stock in following the rules, who even enacted laws around the Mosaic law so that a follower would not inadvertently break one of the rules of faith. This wasn’t just the law of the land. These were the laws of the land and of God; no separation of church and state here. Following the law was not only patriotic and part of the social contract; it was integral to one’s life with God. And to eat with sinners, such as tax collectors--those Roman partisans, was a sign Jesus was not as holy or as patriotic as the Pharisees demanded. To be lax in following the law was to mean that one was lost.

Jesus’ Good news is not necessarily good news to the Pharisees. Jesus’ good news was that God’s mercy was greater than the Pharisee understood it. He knew that law was not the important thing, nor was patriotism—it was the relationship with God that was paramount. To be found was what was important.

To be the lost sheep in Jesus’ story meant that life was far more than expediency. No shepherd would leave the ninety-nine on the hillside to go looking for one lost one. That would leave the bulk of his responsibility unprotected. Would a woman clean her whole house to find a drachma? Perhaps, but it was clear that God would leave the whole flock to find one sheep that was lost and would clean the whole house to find one silver coin.

Jesus was setting up a new idea for the Pharisees and the scribes. He was saying that God’s mercy was far more benevolent than was the righteousness of the law. It meant that God didn’t abide by the rules because he was greater than the law. It meant that God’s mercy trumped the law all of the time. And that trumping of the law was open to all of humankind. God’s desire to look for us was far more important than the law, far more than what humans could do on their own.

Being found was more important than being right.

All too often we get the idea that Christianity is about doing the right thing. And I would suggest that it is only a small part of what Christians are. We stand in the mercy that God has found us, that God went looking for us and that God loved us enough to gather us, and rejoiced knowing that we have been found.

My experience of conversion to God’s love is not based upon my finding God, or my turning my life over to Jesus. It was the profound sense of moving from the sense of being lost and then knowing that I had been accepted just as I was. I didn’t have to clean up my act. I didn’t have to promise anything. I didn’t even have to be baptized, though I was eventually to be a part of the Church. But the profound sense of being FOUND, of being in the right place with a God who conveyed that God was happy that I was found was what allowed me to follow Christ.

Now I want to change to be all I can be before God. Now I want to follow God’s law because I know joy in righteousness. But it is not because I am commanded to. It is because my God found me and loved me just as I was that I am able to return thanks by endeavoring to be faithful.

Am I law abiding? Mostly, but not for the same reasons I once followed the law. Am I faithful? I try to be, but not for the same reasons. Now, law is not a binding thing. Now, rules do not chafe because the law of love is paramount. Law is the contract that I observe for the sake of humanity because God wants me to live with others in harmony. But the law does not take the place of the mercy that God calls from me because I have first known God’s mercy.

Jesus sat with the sinners and tax collectors. He associated with those that the Pharisees would never deign eat with because he knew that the law was not what was important. What was important was the relationship with God that told him that law was invented for humans not for God. God’s mercy is God’s exuberant response to our being found. When we allow ourselves to be found, when we quit running away, God’s joy flows through us as if we are being carried in the embracing arms of a shepherd or honored by a woman who is proud of her inordinately clean house.

The good news of Christianity is that we CAN be found by a God who has given it all so that we might be able to know the security of salvation. The gospel is about knowing that the kingdom is to be lived-out knowing of that salvation, that security, that found-ness. It is when we can live in that state of being found we can also be merciful. And if there is anything this world needs at present, it is mercy, God’s and ours.

Monday, September 10, 2007


Perhaps the greatest sin of our present age is not sexual misconduct—it is dishonesty. We face it constantly among public officials. We have almost become inured to the dishonesty coming from our politicians. We have become jaded enough to take anything come from them with a grain of salt. Telling lies to the people who vote for one seems to be part of the election strategy. The dishonesty of the system permeates the way that politicians do business. Today, we just expect our politicians to be dishonest if not corrupt. The credibility of those in public office ranks up there with used car salesmen and guys on the make.

Clergy, on the other hand, are expected to tell the truth. But even that has become eroded. The scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, and the way that their hierarchy dealt with sexual misconduct has done immense harm to all religious organizations’ credibility. The scandals of many televangelists too, have damaged the trustworthiness of the religious world. The misuse of funds by gurus, the forgery of Mormon documents, the sex scandals, the blatant ‘get rich’ gospels preached by some, and the yawning gap between intelligent design and fundamentalism and considered theological opinion have all contributed to the loss of respect that clergy must endure. We have seen over the last 20 years, deep distrust of religious institutions develop. It is hard to find any characterization of clergy on TV or film that portrays religious leadership in a positive, or for that matter, a neutral light.

And yet, we still EXPECT our clergy to tell the truth. Unlike the politician, we still expect our clergy to live in a way that is consistent with what they preach. And I believe that this is because the majority of those who still attend church still respect their pastors and religious leaders, still tell the truth, still live by a code in which their word is their bond. There are still vestiges of a conscience visible within the religious world. And there are still clergy who believe that as a messenger of the Divine that they have an obligation to be messengers of Truth.

I am thankful for this. It makes life much simpler to live as a cleric. Living a life that is transparent, based upon saying what is true in one’s life is so much easier than trying to live in a world of make-believe. As clergy we do have an obligation to hope. And as a Christian, that hope includes a willingness to be optimistic about life. But I may not be so altruistic as to distort the truth for myself or others. This honesty is appreciated by most people.

In honesty, I cannot tell a dying person what heaven is going to be like—I have never been there. I can merely tell them what I hope for. In honesty, I may not tell my congregation that the parish is financially on solid ground when I know that given the rate of spending off the endowment means that in a mere ten years that the congregation is going to be bankrupt. My pie-in-the-sky proclivities may not cover up the fiscal responsibilities I have to the congregation (this is not a situation in my present parish, but I know there are clergy who do not believe in bringing up the issue because it might ‘take away their hope’).

If the Church is going to regain its place as the plumb line in society, the mark of credibility in the world, we must begin with honesty. We as clergy may not “fudge” when we speak to our parishioners. We must be willing to speak with absolute frankness about our own actions—admitting our failures when we have failed. We must learn to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and mean them. We must be willing to do the things that we say we are going to do and be faithful to our word. And we must call the Church and our congregations to do the same.

We must be willing to call our colleagues and our religious leaders to account when their words or actions do not convey the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We must be willing to face the conflict that real Truth, that sword that cleaves mothers and daughters, fathers and son. We must be willing to call from ourselves an unwillingness to slough off dishonesty as a mere aberration of our era, and instead see it as the greatest sin that is destroying the credibility of the Church in society.

As leaders of the Church we must have no truck with lazy thinking that says “they will believe whatever I tell them.” We cannot allow ourselves the quick response that cuts off questioning because we don’t really have the answer. We must be willing to not have the answers and be a part of finding the answers among our people. We must be willing to elect those to leadership who are direct and honest in all their dealings and to depose or remove those who do not adhere to the life-giving Truth as a part of their ministry.

If we are to have a Church for the Third Millennium it must be a place where honesty is paramount. It must be a place where one may find the value of truth-telling as important as breathing because if we do not, the Church may not stand.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

O Canada.....

Ooooolala, Quebec!!

The trip to Canada was wonderful. The travel was easy and fun. We saw no moose, not even a Canadian goose until we got home. There was the trip up through Lake George and then into French Canada. And when they mean French, they MEAN French. As little English is spoken as possible by the Quebecqois. They are proud of their culture and force us Anglophone (as English speakers are called) to try out our high school French no matter how long ago we studied. J. who studied German and Latin in school had a harder time of it, but I was able to remember what pomme frites and haricort vert were so that I could order from the menu without too much surprise.

The trips to two Ursuline convent museums were treats for me. It brought back some happy memories of religious life and my time with the women who traced their faith roots back to Marie de l’Incarnacion, the first nun in North America who came to teach Indian girls the basics of the faith. The Sisters still have schools in French Canada and still live in their monasteries some 400 years after their founding. I met some alumna of Ursuline schools while visiting these museums: women my age giving thanks for the education and values that they were taught as children. It is these values that I still carry with me because of the time I taught with them and lived as one of them. I can only give thanks for their witness. I would not have known Christ if it weren’t for them.

Visiting French anything revolves around food and our trip did too. Now I must subsist on salads to remind me of my sins. We climbed—and one must climb—all over Quebec City through streets that were a challenge even one way. There were shops and galleries, churches and auberges to haunt. We didn’t get to see but a miniscule portion of either Montreal or Quebec City. But we know that these are places that are not too far to visit again.

As a part of our Sabbath rest we happened upon the Anglican Cathedral in Quebec City in time for a daily Eucharist. There were a group of heart souls there, half of us clergy from all parts of Canada and the US. It was good to worship as a part of our rather harried Anglican Communion. On the pew level, we celebrated our oneness. It matters not what is happening on the purple level. We knew we were living out what it means to be IN Communion with one another.

And now, to begin a stage of my life in the Church: to embrace Lutherans and for them to embrace me. I made my first home visit with a parishioner today. It felt good to be back in the saddle—sharing the joy of Christ and the Church. Yes, those old Ursuline values of community, faith and family are still strong. The joy of a common English heritage still ripples through my heart and now to share the river of a common Protestant experience opens up to me. God is Good—All the time!