Sunday, September 25, 2016

“Dog Paddling in the Gap” (Luke 16:19-31)

The parable is simple.  It is a story about two men--an anonymous rich man and a beggar--a poor man by the name of Lazarus.  The rich man had it all. And Lazarus longed for the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.  Eventually the two of them die.  Lazarus ends up in heaven by Abraham’s side; the rich man lands in Hades.  Needless to say the fortunes of both men are radically flipped.  Where Lazarus suffered while living on earth, suddenly he is enjoying the bounties of the “good life”.  On the other hand, the rich man is in torment and longing for the simple pleasures of his time on earth.

Despite the rich man’s pleas for any sort of comfort from his agony, he is told it is too late.  Abraham tells him that the rules can’t be changed . . . he had his chance, ignored it, and now he is facing the consequences of his inaction.  Reluctantly accepting his fate, the rich man suddenly has a twinge of compassion--no, not for the poor, but for his apparently wealthy brothers,  In his moment of compassion he pleads with Abraham to send a messenger--Lazarus--to warn his brothers to avoid the torment he wallowing in.

Abraham assures the rich man that his brothers have been warned.  Abraham tells the rich man: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”  This is not good enough for the rich man.  Apparently the five brothers aren’t that much different than the brother roasting in Hades.  The rich man demands that a messenger from the dead go to his brothers and warn them.

Abraham doesn’t buy it.  “If they listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  

That is the story . . . that is the parable.  Pretty simple--right!  Or is it?

The simplest form of swimming is called the “dog paddle” or “doggy paddle”.  It is characterized by the individual lying  on his or her chest in the water and moving his or her hand and legs alternatingly in a manner reminiscent of how dogs or other animals  swim.  It is the basic stroke that keeps a person from drowning and ultimately dying.  It is the oldest stroke known to humanity . . . one of the oldest methods of survival.  It is a method of keeping our heads above water.

A “gap” is an unfilled space between people or things.  In the news we hear a lot of talk about the “gap” . . . in particular the gap between the rich and the poor . . . the rich and the middle class . . . the rich and everyone else.  The talk we hear is not what any of us would describe as positive talk.  No, there is some animosity in those who are on the short end of the gap . . . from those who long even for the scraps that fall from the wealthy’s tables.  With such conversation comes the allusion towards our parable this morning.  The gap may never be lessen, but in our hearts and minds . . . woe to those who dwell in the top one percent!

At least that would be one interpretation of this passage.  Jesus is talking about this gap between the rich and the poor.  When set against our time in the world there is validity to this interpretation.  The wealthy should be taking care of the poor . . . they should be lessening the gap . . . if for no other reason than to avoid the fiery agony of Hades.  Thus this could be a valid understanding of this passage.

Yet, I’m not so sure that was the intent of Jesus sharing this story.  Sure, even in Jesus’ time there was a gap between the wealthy and the poor.  Often times, in the Old Testament, this is what the prophets alluded to . . . the gap between those who have and those that did not.  Seems that the people of God paid the price when they did not heed the words of the prophets.  I’m sure that Jesus had this same concern as this hasn’t seemed to change; but I think that Jesus was leaning in another direction.

In the story the rich man asks Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers.  Abraham explains that the brothers have all the information and warning they need.  They received it from Moses and the Prophets.  The ground rules have been laid in their holy scriptures.  In Abraham’s opinion, sending a dead person back to warn them won’t change anything.  They are going to do what they do . . . the heck with the consequences!

The gap is going to remain.  The poor will always be there . . . the wealthy will continue to be indifferent.  Nothing is going to change no matter how warned any of us are.

Which brings us to this idea of dog paddling . . . dog paddling in the gap.  I imagine that those in the story--in particular the five brothers--are quite aware of the words of Moses and the prophets.  Quite aware of the ground rules . . . after all, they are fairly fundamental rules.  The problem is that instead of taking those words seriously, they hope for the best and ignore them, and dog paddle in the hope of avoiding death by drowning.  Instead of closing the gap . . . instead of shortening the distance between “us” and “them”, they hope for the best and attempt to maintain the gap.  They dog paddle . . . between here and there.

Though this “gap” issue between the wealthy and the poor might be an issue for Jesus, in this I think he is more concerned with the gap between us and God.  I think he is concerned about us and our insistent desire to dog paddle  between a fully-encompassed relationship with God and just surviving.  There is no dog paddling in the estimation of Jesus . . . there is not settling for survival.  There is only a full commitment on the part of the faithful.

Dog paddling is the fundamental stroke in swimming.  It is targeted as a means of survival.  It really doesn’t move a person anywhere . . . it maintains . . . it keeps our heads above the water.  From this basic survivalist stroke we are taught how to swim . . . how to move from one point to another.  All the other strokes--the freestyle, butterfly, back, and breast strokes--are meant to move us from one point to another . . . meant to lessen the gap.  Dog paddling is to survive.  The other strokes are meant to provide a means to thrive.

Abraham said it plainly: “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”  Well, we have it all as the followers of Jesus . . . we have his words and actions . . . is that enough for us to emulate Jesus . . . to be his living witness?  We also have his resurrection . . . his return from the dead--just what the rich man asked for.  Has it made a difference?  Or are we just dog paddling in the gap?

Jesus kept it simple.  We are to love God completely--mind, body, and soul.  We are to love others--all others because they, too, were created in the image of God and are considered the children of God.  We have heard Jesus speak.  We have knowledge of his example as an exclamation as point to it all--the resurrection.   The choice is always ours . . . may we chose wisely.  Amen.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Being Brutally Honest with God" (Psalm 79:1-9)


A consequence is “a result or effect of an action or condition.”  Typically a consequence is going to teach most of us a lesson.  If I want to drive down the interstate like people used to in the good ol’ days of Montana . . . at what I would consider to be a safe and reasonable speed . . . way over the posted speed limit of 80mph today; well, the consequence is that I will get a speeding ticket if I get caught.  If I get enough speeding tickets I should learn that speeding is not good for me or my insurance.  

As a kid I was pretty naive . . . especially when it came to separating reality from the television and cartoon shows that I was watching.  One day someone left a rake in the yard.  Now whenever I watched a cartoon or some comedy on television, they would have people who would step on a rake lying on the ground.  The result?  They would get smacked in the face.  Being naive . . .  a rake lying on the ground . . . I did what any kid would do . . . I stepped on the rake.  Darn if that rake didn’t smack me right in the face!  That was a consequence of an action I took.  I can assure you that I have never stepped on a rake since then.

So there is the rub.  For every action there is a reaction . . . for every action there is a consequence.  There is a price to be paid.  That is the way things work in life.  I want you to keep that in the back of your minds.

Now let us shift gears.  Our scripture reading this morning is out of the Book of Psalms.  The psalm that we heard doesn’t quite fit into the picture we have of the psalms.  Typically we see the psalms as beautiful poetry that paints a nice picture of God and God’s divine presence in the world and the lives of those who have written the psalms . . . like the 23rd Psalm.  That is a nice psalm.  Paints a nice picture of God and humanity’s relationship with God.  It is a favorite of many.  

Listening to the words of this psalm, Psalm 79 . . . well, it just doesn’t sound right.  The words we hear in this psalm are not the pretty and nice words; no, they are angry words . . . complaining words . . . accusing words . . . challenging words.  The children of God are mad . . . mad at God for the situation that they are in.  The city of Jerusalem has been destroyed.  The temple . . . God’s own dwelling place has been destroyed . . . and, the people have been exiled and driven from their home.  They have been made to leave the only home they have known . . . made to march to a foreign land . . . and, along the way, many have died.

And, they are mad.  They are mad because they are the people that God has created and chosen to be God’s own . . . they are the children of God . . . and, God has allowed this to happen.  They are insulted that God would allow such a thing to happen, especially to them.  They are mad and they expect revenge upon those whom God has allowed to do this to them.  They are brutally honest in how they feel as they speak to God . . . the sort of honesty that makes one shrink when confronted with such criticism.  It kind of makes you cringe when you read this psalm because in our hearts and minds we know we should never talk to God like that . . . in a way, it tiptoes on the edge of blasphemy.

But, they did it.  They complained with brutal honesty that they were not happy with God and God’s role in the whole thing; after all, they were the children of God . . . God’s chosen people.  Then to top it all off, it made the Book of Psalms.  I am fairly certain that it is not in the “top ten” of anyone’s favorite psalms.

And, you know what?

God put up with it.  God could handle it.  What happened to the people . . . God’s chosen people . . . wasn’t God’s fault.  It was a consequence of their own actions and choices.

Do you remember the joke about the the town that was warned that it was going to flood?  Remember how law enforcement drove through the neighborhoods warning the people?  Most everyone heeded the warnings, packed up their stuff, and got out of town . . . except for one stubborn individual who stated that he would wait for God to take care of him.  The flood came and a rescue boat came, but the man refused to God because God was going to take care of him.  The water kept rising until the guy was sitting on top of the roof of his house.  A helicopter was sent to rescue him, but he refused . . . God was going to take care of him.  Finally the water rose to the point that the man ended up drowning and ended up in heaven.

In heaven the man wanted to know from God why God did nothing to save him.  God said, “What do you mean? I sent law enforcement to warn you.  I sent a boat and helicopter to rescue you.”  The man died of his own choices and actions.

So it was for the people of God.  They had been warned.  The prophets had warned them . . . over and over again, the prophets warned them.  They were straightforward and honest with the people in what God wanted from them.  God wanted them to shape up or else.  The people refused to listen . . . they refused to change.  The destruction of their homeland . . . the destruction of Jerusalem . . . even the destruction of the temple--God’s dwelling place was a result of their own choices and actions.  They were up the creek without a paddle because of themselves . . . but, they blame God.

To blame . . . that is quite a human reaction when bad things seem to happen in life.  Instead of taking responsibility . . . instead of owning up to our roles in what has taken place . . . we blame someone or something else.  In this case, they blame God.

Now it is true that what happened to the people was terrible.  It was a violent action against them . . . one that ripped apart the foundation of their existence and identity . . . tore them apart.  Topping it all off was the belief that just because they were God’s chosen people . . . God’s favorite . . . that they would be immune from the consequences of their own choices and actions.  God would never allow such violence happen to them.

The significance of this psalm and its presence in the Book of Psalm is two-fold.  There is no doubt that this is a psalm in which the words that are spoken are brutally honest with God.  God gets hit with the best shot of the people . . . and, it is okay.  God can handle it.  Second, despite the lament of the people there is also a sense from the people that they know that they are not innocent . . . they know they have fallen short of God’s will and desire . . . they know that they have done wrong and sinned.  Because of these two things, I believe that this psalm made it into the Book of Psalms.

God can handle our complaints as well as our praise.  God can put up with just about anything that we throw at God.  It is good to be honest with ourselves in acknowledging that there are moments and times in our lives when we need to just let God have it . . . to throw out there our own laments . . . to complain.  It is good to know that God can handle it.  This psalm demonstrates that.

At the same time, communication is a two-way street.  As we are being brutally honest with God about the way that we feel about our situations and life, we need to be just as honest with ourselves.  We must be honest with ourselves about our roles in our situations and lives . . . about the choices and actions we have made.  Remember, consequences are the results or effects of an action or condition usually of our own making.  God did not do anything to us.

It is okay to get mad at God . . . God can handle it.  The real question is whether or not we are really mad at God . . . or are we mad at ourselves.  Consequences . . . may the choices we make and the actions we take be acceptable in the eyes of God.  Amen.