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Monday, September 27, 2010

The Great Chasm

Luke 16: 19-31

When I was thirteen, I was elected into the Order of the Arrow, a fraternity of honor campers in Boy Scouting, dedicated to brotherhood and cheerful service to others. Initiation into OA requires a weekend-long Ordeal consisting of 24 hours of silence to turn one’s thought’s inward, a night camping alone under the stars to prove self-reliance, a day of scant food to demonstrate self-denial, and a day of arduous toil to prove one’s willingness to serve others. Once a Scout is inducted into the Order, he can then serve as part of the team leading others on their Ordeals.

Several weeks after my own ordeal, a friend and I showed up at the Scout Camp to help with another Ordeal weekend. We were looking forward to being as hard on new candidates as others had been on us. There in the parking lot where the candidates gathered, we picked out one rather grizzled, middle-aged man in uniform, standing among the younger Scouts. He had no OA insignia on his uniform, so we asked him if he was an Ordeal candidate. “Yeah,” he answered. “I’m a candidate.” “Boy, are we going to have fun with you,” we teased. “I know a great place for you to sleep tonight – on that rock pile up on the hill – and we have some great work projects for you this weekend.” “Whatever you say,” the man responded.

That night, as the Ordeal team met to organize, I was shocked to see that same man meeting with the team, wearing a Vigil Honor sash, denoting the highest level of honor within the lodge. Fortunately, Joe Ohler was a kind, forgiving, and fun-loving spirit who became a very close friend of mine in the Lodge. That night I learned a lesson about dealing with people I thought were “beneath me.”

Who are the people “beneath us?” Someone new, sitting in “our pew,” new neighbors who don’t look quite as classy as the people they replaced, the wait staff at our favorite restaurant, the cooks and dishwashers in the back – probably without green cards – that we never see, the janitors at school or work, the people who pick up our garbage, the hospital orderly who empties the bedpan, the usher at the movie theatre or ballgame, the children who will be running around the church this week, the man who panhandles every day at the ramp from Powhite Expressway to Cary Street. Police, firefighters, rescue squad. Or perhaps the numbing, nameless numbers dying every day in Baghdad, Gaza, Somalia, Haiti, or the streets of our own cities. People we have learned just not to see.

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man can only be understood as an extension of the Kingdom values Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Mount – called in Luke 6 the Sermon on the Plain. In the Kingdom of God, Jesus says over and over, the values of the world will be reversed. The poor inherit the kingdom, the hungry will be filled, those who weep will laugh, the hated will be rewarded. On the other hand, the rich in this world have already received all the reward they’re going to get, the full will be hungry, those who laugh now will weep, and the popular will be numbered among the false prophets.

Thus it should be no surprise that when the rich man, who symbolically has no name, dies, he ends up in Hell. The poor man who lies at his gate is named Lazarus, which is Hebrew for “God has helped.” Lazarus is right there at the rich man’s door, he is starving and sick and alone, but the rich man is focused on his designer clothes and gourmet meals. The dogs are the only being who show Lazarus compassion. So, in the great reversal of death, Lazarus is in heaven, healed, at the side of father Abraham, who represents Lazarus’ inclusion in God’s covenant family.

The rich man sees Lazarus in comfort and calls to Abraham to send Lazarus with water to quench is thirst. On one hand, verse 23 says Abraham is far away. On the other hand, he is still in sight. So, the far away is not a physical distance – it is another kind. Hold that thought for a minute. Abraham answers that this is the great reversal – in mortal life, the rich man got everything that was coming to him, but Lazarus got sorrow and misery. Now, the tables have been turned. Besides, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.

The distance is not physical: heaven and hell are within sight of each other. The distance is spiritual. What is the nature of the distance, and who created it? Not God. The chasm has been created by the rich man. It was created in his own front yard, when he decided that Lazarus was not his neighbor, and not his responsibility. That the chasm continues into death, and that no one can cross from one side to the other is demonstrated that even in the agony of hell, the rich man still expects Lazarus – and Abraham – to serve him, instead of the other way around.

What we sow in this life has eternal consequences. If we sow selfishness and greed and separation, that will continue into eternity. On the other hand, if we sow forgiveness and charity and community, we will find ourselves in a place of those things. You may remember the 2006 movie Click, which tells the story of a much-too busy man, played by Adam Sandler, who is given a remote control for life. More than anything else, he uses it to fast-forward through the unpleasant parts of his life – his wife’s complaining, his boss’s ego-driven lectures, his children’s activities. It is a deeply flawed movie, but what spoke to me was how the fast-forwarding of his life goes on automatic, and he finds himself too quickly old and sick and dying, having missed all of the small moments that make life holy. What we plant in the smallest moments in life produces a crop that we will have to eat forever.

How, then, can we begin to bridge the chasm between us and the Lazarus who lies at our gate? The Christian writer Bill Pannel used to say that when Jesus tells us to love our neighbor, the first place for us to look is to our right and our left. Who is on your right and left, right now? Look around you. Who are those people? What are their dreams? What are their hurts? What are their joys? Right now, turn to your neighbor and ask, What is your dream today?

When you leave here today, slow down enough to look for Lazarus: the Lazarus who will wait on your table at the restaurant, the Lazarus cooking or washing dishes. Look for the Lazarus who delivers your mail, who takes out your trash, who cleans your office. Who is the Lazarus who works in the next cubicle, who lives next door or down the street, who shows you to your seat at the game? Get down on your knees this week and ask a child you don’t know her name. Put some candy in your pocket and give it away.

Let me challenge you to a more specific act of neighborliness. I invite you to visit someone who lives near you but you don’t know with a gift of food. Find out who they are, what they do, and what they enjoy. Invite them over for coffee, or maybe a meal. After that, find out where they go to church, and if it’s nowhere, offer to pick them up next week and bring them with you. Don’t invite them to come on their own – carry them.

There are people at our gates we never see. Jesus says that chasms we create last forever. Jesus is God’s bridge across the troubled waters of sin; if you and I are going to follow Jesus, we have build a bridge to the Lazarus at our door. If we don’t, the loss is eternally ours.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Luke 16:1-13: The Small Faithfulnesses

Pentecost 17C, 2010


Sometimes Jesus’ parables are pretty clear in their meaning and application: the good Samaritan, the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the sheep and the goats. Love your neighbor, search for the lost, welcome the repentant, care for the poor. That’s why preachers’ eyes light up when those stories come around in the preaching cycle: don’t have to wrestle this week – I’ve got at least ten sermons in the barrel on that text!

And then there’s the parable of the dishonest steward. This one doesn’t get preached very much. In fact, I’ve never heard anyone except me preach on this text. And it’s little wonder why: for all intents and purposes, Jesus concludes this story by commending the fraudulent accounting by the steward. This passage could be the favorite text for Enron, AIG, Bernie Madoff, Lehman Brothers, and the United States Congress. In the parable, a rich man figures out that his business manager isn’t managing his accounts well. He asks for an audit of the books before the man is fired. The accountant realizes he’s in big trouble, because years of bookwork have rendered him unable to do manual labor, and he doesn’t want to be a beggar on the streets. So, he calls in each of his employer’s creditors and reduces what they actually owe. There are some forced interpretations of this passage, trying to protect Jesus, which argue that the manager is only eliminating his own commission. If that were so, Jesus would not refer to him as dishonest. The hard truth of this parable is that the manager steals from the employer about to fire him, in the hope that the creditors will be so grateful they will take care of him when he has no job. Jesus concludes the story with an incredibly troubling admonition in verse 9: And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. What in heaven’s name is going on here?

Francis Ford Coppola’s epic Godfather films tell the story of a poor Sicilian immigrant, Vito Corleone, who stands up to a bully controlling a neighborhood in New York, and begins to protect his neighbors from abuse. When he has done, or is about to do a favor for a neighbor and they ask how they can repay him, his answer is always the same: Someday I will ask you for a favor. When I do, I want you to remember what I did for you. Don Vito’s career begins by protecting his family and friends, and he builds his crime syndicate by calling in favors from those he has protected.

The parable of the dishonest manager is a first-century version of The Godfather. The manager is doing favors, so he can call them in later on.

The entire gospel of Luke is filled with concern with how wealth and possessions can be primary obstacles to discipleship. Parable after parable reflects the view that anxiety over wealth – by both rich and poor – diverts energy and attention from faithfulness. From the Magnificat of Mary to the sermons of John the Baptizer, to the blessings and woes on the Plain, the parable of the rich fool, warnings about anxiety, advice to hosts and guests, and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the gospel of Luke, in the words of the great preaching teacher Fred Craddock, insists that a generous sharing of one’s goods can free one from the danger to the soul which lives coiled in the possession of things.[1] Jesus is saying that the best use of money is to bless others, not ourselves.

Craddock points past the dishonest steward to the next few verses: Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is unfaithful in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? A few verses later, Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees, concludes God knows your hearts; what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God. The parable, Craddock says, is meant to point out how the children of this world act decisively in a crisis to provide for their future. The steward is going to lose his job anyway: the master announces at the beginning of the parable that he is going to be fired. In response, the steward cooks the books so those who are in debt to his master will be grateful and perhaps welcome him into their homes. They might not want to hire him as their accountant, but he has reduced their debt and they may respond accordingly.

If the children of this world act to care for their earthly future, Jesus asks, shouldn’t those of us who are entrusted with eternal riches also be wise stewards of that gift? You and I have been given the gift of eternal life through the love of Jesus. More than that, you and I have been made stewards – caretakers of that enormous account. What does it mean for us to be faithful with that pearl of great price?

I believe this parable tells us that it’s the little faithfulnesses that really count in most of our lives. Probably none of us will be lined up against a wall and threatened with death if we confess Jesus as our Lord and Savior. Probably none of us will ever be asked on national television to account for our faith. Few of us will have to make a life-shattering decision about whether we will be obedient or not. Perhaps none of us will ever have to quit our jobs, give away our money, be rejected by friends and family, lose our homes, or otherwise change our lives dramatically in order to follow Christ.

But every day you and I are called to the little faithfulnesses. This week you will have the chance to write someone a note or call them on the phone. You will have the chance to tell a child a story, to visit a nursing home, to befriend a stranger, to feed the neighbor’s cat, go to choir practice, say yes to a church office, give a cup of cold water, offer a ride, vote for someone running for office. You will have the chance to teach Sunday School, to let someone into line ahead of you, to pick up something someone dropped, to forgive someone a trespass, to give money to the needy, to run an errand, to introduce yourself to a new neighbor, to invite someone you don’t know well to dinner. You will have the chance to attend a play or a ball game for a child in your neighborhood or in the church. You will have to opportunity to volunteer at a school or a library or a roadside cleanup. You will have the chance to pray for an enemy, to lend a book, to tell someone you love them. You will have the chance to thank your pastor, or a fireman, or a doctor, or a nurse, or a teacher, or a policeman, or a member of the government, for what they do. You will have the chance to listen to a child, to cry with a stranger, and to laugh with a friend.

Oh, but I heard you say, “I don’t have time.” The time you spend on Facebook, or watching something on TV you really don’t care about, or a hundred other little harmless distractions adds up to hours and days and weeks you could be blessing someone else.

And then, there’s what we can do to change the world with our money. I don’t know you very well yet – maybe hiding in our congregation is a Bill Gates, a Warren Buffet, a John D. Rockefeller – and if you’re out there, we have a great opportunity for you. But you and I have the chance every day to make a difference with our money. Little things add up. In the stewardship materials you’ll receive soon, you’ll see a chart showing how much coffee at Starbucks, or one pizza a week, or a daily soft drink, or that unused gym membership adds up. He who is faithful in a little will be faithful in much. . .

Every day you and I are offered a thousand chances to exercise our stewardship of the eternal riches. Once in a great while some of us have the privilege of making a life-or-death difference for someone – a deathbed conversion, a marriage saved, a tragedy averted, a life-changing insight imparted. But the hard truth is that even for those of us who preach and teach week after week, our work is measured not by tidal waves but drop by graceful teardrop on the hearts of people. As the roughest stone is slowly worn away over time by water, so our lives are shaped by small kindnesses, small loves, small faithfulnesses.

The Christian psychologist Keith Miller tells of a couple he had been counseling for a long time over their conflicted marriage. The husband and wife had huge differences in their expectations of each other, and battled nonstop. After months without progress, one day the couple came in smiling and holding hands. “Things are wonderful,” the wife reported. “What happened?” the astounded Miller asked. “It was the garbage,” answered the husband. “I decided I would stop fighting about the garbage, and I took it out. That changed everything for her, and for me.” In reflection, Keith Miller wrote The hinge on which great doors swing open is often very small.

The children of this world, Jesus says, are wise enough to use the small things to change their future. You and I have been given gifts great and small, including the greatest gift of all: the love of God in Christ Jesus. Today, and tomorrow, and every day, you and I will have a dozen, a hundred, a thousand chances to live out the little faithfulnesses. Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is unfaithful in a very little is unfaithful also in much.

[1] Luke: Interpretation Commentary, John Knox Press, 1990, p. 189

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Luke 15:1-10: Joy in Heaven

Pentecost 16C, 2010 9/12/2010

Think for a moment – what is the thing – or person – you could not imagine losing? That you could not live without. If it or they were lost, to what lengths would you go to find it or them?

The Spring I was seven, the wonderful Chesapeake Bay Retriever who literally raised me, Skipper, died. We went through the summer without a dog, and then one day in the Fall my father brought home a black Lab mix puppy that we named Bo. Bo quickly became my best friend and constant companion. Not too long after Bo became a part of our family, we took him down to my grandparents’ farm on the Eastern Shore. We introduced Bo to my grandfather’s collie, Tom, and the two dogs romped far and wide across the farm. I don’t remember the timing, but at some point we realized the dogs were missing. We called and called, and finally Tom came trotting across the fields without Bo. We launched a search for the puppy across the farm. Understand, this was a 340 acre farm with deep woodlands bordering on a swamp. We looked for hours, everywhere, calling Bo’s name. Finally, late in the day, exhausted, we decided we needed to go back to the house and hope Bo would eventually find his way to the house or to a neighbor’s. As we walked down the road at the back of the farm, we saw a small black shape cross the road. “Bo?” we called out. The shape stopped and turned. I ran down the road, yelling his name. A muddy, cold, and very happy puppy ran into my arms and licked my tear-streaked face.

What lengths would you go to find someone or something you loved and lost? This weekend of September 11th, we still tell stories of the thousands of people who waited to learn whether their loved ones had been lost or not. There are poignant stories about last phone calls, email messages, and, sometimes, a loved one thought lost who was found alive.

Last Sunday on our way out of church, my son, Drew, called me. “Um, what are you doing for Labor Day?” he asked. I don’t know about your family, but in ours, that translates to “can we come visit?” Vicki and I had made other plans, but I asked Drew if he and Shea and the baby would like to come to our house, spend the night, and maybe we could go to the last Squirrels game together. Which is exactly what happened. One of our greatest joys at this stage of our life is when our children – and now, grandchild – come to visit. What makes it even sweeter is when they come not because there’s some official holiday when they’re “supposed” to be there, but when they come because they like hanging out with us. There are a thousand places they can go, things to do, and people they could be with, but they want to be with us. Honestly, I can’t think of a greater joy than when all the people I love – family, friends, colleagues, church -- are under the same roof.

I think I’ve figured out where that comes from. I get it from my parents: my mother loved to entertain, and was never happier than when as many family and friends as possible were in her house. My father loved to put together parties, and for many years chaired the reunion of his World War 2 Coastal Air Patrol Squadron. My grandfather’s favorite song was “There’s No Place Like Home For the Holidays,” because he wanted the whole family to be at his table for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, birthdays, and as often as possible. I get it honest.

But it goes back farther than that, according to this morning’s Gospel lesson. Jesus has gathered a wide assortment of people: Pharisees, scribes, Roman tax collaborators, people of dubious morals, people who were not observing proper religious customs, and heaven knows who else. Whenever something like that happens, someone’s going to get uncomfortable with someone else present. That’s the way the world works: we want to carve the world up into us and them, good and bad, saved and damned, insider and outsider, native and foreigner, been-here and come-here. Have you ever thought how much of what’s on television, from the news to sports to drama to comedy to so-called “reality TV” divides the world into us and them? Choose sides. Pick a winner, boo the losers. That’s the nature of our political discourse now: no one talks about finding win-win solutions, of effective compromises, of negotiating the best possible outcome from a variety of proposals. It’s good against evil, them and us, right and wrong, black and white. I think it was the late veteran journalist Eric Sevareid who said something like, “It used to be that we brought together a few leading experts to talk to each other thoughtfully about important issues. Now we invite the whole world to rant publicly about things they know nothing about, and we take them seriously.”

Jesus is always, in the Gospels, bringing together the most unlikely groups of people. Look at the disciples: four fishermen, a tax collector, and at least one terrorist (probably two). He associates with prostitutes, lepers, heretics, Roman soldiers, women, and children. There’s always someone offensive, and always someone offended, which is the case in this morning’s lesson. So the Pharisees, and scribes, who are trying to reform the nation by going back to a strict interpretation of the law, object to Jesus’ associations.

A few years ago, several of the United Methodist churches around Virginia Center decided they would set up an information booth one Saturday to give shoppers information about their churches. They went first to Ukrops, thinking that would be the most likely place to be granter permission. Wrong. They went to Target, and were turned away. They went to every shop on that strip and were denied permission to set up a display, except by one. The Virginia ABC store. What an irony: the business least in conformity with the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church was the only place to offer them hospitality. I think that’s exactly where Jesus would have been hanging out, too. It’s often the case that those who seem to be farthest from the light are the people most open to it.

So, Jesus answers the objection of the Pharisees and scribes with two parables about the character of God. Which one of you, Jesus asks, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost? I learned an interesting thing about sheep researching this parable: not only are sheep incredibly stupid, but when one is lost and in danger, instead of crying out in hopes it will be found, a sheep will often, out of fear, lie down in cover and keep silent, so a predator won’t find it. Instead of cooperating with its rescue, sometimes a lost sheep is its own worst enemy.

Two things leap out at me in this parable. First, no one leaves ninety-nine sheep in the wilderness to search for one. No good business person is going to fret over a one percent loss in inventory. Jesus knows that perfectly well, and that’s his point. The Pharisees have no problem with the loss of sinners. If they’re not going to cooperate in their own salvation, then they deserve to go to hell. We need to look after the ninety-nine – that is, ourselves.

For God, sinners aren’t inventory. They are children. While I’m not entirely comfortable with the saying “God treats each one of us as if we were the only person in the world,” it’s a useful phrase here. When Bo got lost, I could have said, “well, I’ll just get another dog.” God will not rest until all his children come home. I was recently talking to someone who said she had grown up in a very fundamentalist church environment, where she was taught that there are many, many ways to go to hell, but few ways to get to heaven. Since then she said she has learned that heaven is for everyone, not just a few. St. Francis of Assisi believed that God would not rest until the entire Creation was restored, and all those who were lost had been redeemed. Francis believed that the farther you had fallen, the higher you would be raised, until one day, worn down by the relentless love of God, even Lucifer would repent and be raised to glory.

That’s the second point of these parables: God doesn’t sit waiting for us to come home. The shepherd hunts for the lost sheep. The woman turns her house upside down searching for the lost coin. God is actively searching for his lost children, trying to bring them home under one roof. God is trying every trick in the book and every one not in the book. God shows up in the most unlikely places – in front of ABC stores, for example – searching for the lost. My favorite movie is Field of Dreams, the 1989 film about an Iowa farmer who plows up his corn to build a baseball field, thinking that Shoeless Joe Jackson will return. Joe does, but so also does a cynical writer, a small-town doctor who had once played ball, and, finally, the farmer’s estranged and long-dead father. The movie is about salvation and redemption, forgiveness and reconciliation, and heaven. The makers of the film are not believers, and had no intention of making a deeply spiritual movie. But God snuck in anyhow. That’s why if you only read Christian books and listen to Christian music and watch Christian movies and TV, and only go where Christians go, you’re going to miss a lot of places where God is at work searching for the lost sheep, maybe even including you. God is at work everywhere, because God will not rest until all the sheep are home and all the treasure recovered.

When that happens, Jesus says, there is great joy in heaven. What could possibly be more wonderful than when everything that separates us from each other and from God is destroyed, and we are united in one family at God’s dinner table? In your own life, is there anything better than when everyone and everything you love is together and whole and full? You get that honest: from your Heavenly Father.

When psychologists talk about healthy people, they say they are integrated: all the broken and separated pieces of their lives are brought back together. That’s good religion: the word, religion, literally means to reconnect. The greatest joy in life comes when we are united with the scattered pieces of ourselves, with others, and with God. It doesn’t happen by accident. Like God, that’s the whole work of our lives. If you’re not doing that, you will never find joy. And every time people find themselves, find each other, and find God, there is great joy in heaven.

God never quits until all the family is home. Go tell your friends, go tell your family, go tell yourself. It’s time to come home. And the joy will be overwhelming.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Luke 14:25-33: Count the Cost

Pentecost 15C, 2010


Last Thursday, as Hurricane Earl was supposedly bearing down on Virginia, Vicki and I drove to Deltaville to prepare our sailboat for the promised storm. We turned the boat around in the dock so she would be facing into the forecast wind and rain, put newer, longer, thicker dock lines on her, wrapped the sails so they wouldn’t come loose in the wind, and stowed the bimini shade over the cockpit. When I was finished, my shirt was pretty wet with perspiration. No problem, thought I: I’ll rinse the shirt out in the bathhouse sink, and, while we’re cooling off in the marina pool, I’ll dry it in the coin-operated dryer in the marina laundry. So I washed, rinsed, and best as I could, wrung out the shirt in the sink, and took the thoroughly soaked shirt to the laundry, where I discovered that the dryer required exactly five quarters to work. No change machine, no substitutes. And I had exactly three quarters. Moral of the story: look before you leap; be prepared; haste makes waste; and, count the cost.

This morning’s gospel lesson is disturbing in every way, especially to all of us who, in comparison with the vast majority of the world, live very comfortable lives, own many, many things, and love our families. Jesus tells his followers they must hate their parents, spouse, children, siblings, and even mortal life itself. He ends this passage by saying no one can follow him without giving up all their possessions. This, as we say in the preaching business, is a hard saying.

It seems to me a key to understanding Jesus’ message here is the first phrase of this morning’s lesson: Now large crowds were traveling with him. . . (v. 25a). Jesus has become enormously popular: he has been healing the sick. He has been criticizing the government and people in power: even two thousand years ago that could get you a huge following. Instead of playing on his popularity and working the crowd, Jesus does his best to scare them off. Following me is ever so much harder than you think, Jesus warns them. This is not what you think it is. This road does not lead to wealth and fame and power and beauty: it leads to suffering and shame and torture and death. You’d better know what you’re getting in to before you promise to follow me. Look before you leap. Be prepared. Count the cost, because it will cost you, literally, everything.

So, what about this injunction by Jesus to hate one’s family, especially in the light of the commandment to honor one’s parents and love one’s neighbor? Lutheran pastor and theologian John Petty has helped me understand the Greek word miseo, translated as hate, in a new way: "Hate" should be understood in the context of the first-century middle-eastern world. It is not so much an emotional position, but a matter of honor and shame.

In the ancient world...hating one's family meant doing something that injured them, particularly by disgracing them. Life was family centered, and the honor of the family was very highly valued. Every family member was expected to protect the honor of the family. If some members joined a suspect movement and abandoned their home, this brought disgrace on the family...

This would have been a real concern particularly at the time Luke was writing. Division within families quite often accompanies the birth of new social or religious movements. Letters survive to this day of some Roman families who complained that their son or daughter had run off and joined some group called the "Christians." [1]

Jesus calls his followers to love and follow him. Not him and family and nation and school and community and church and job and friends and self. Not even Jesus above family and nation and school and community and church and job and friends and self. Hear, O Israel, says the Hebrew Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4, the Lord, our God, is One. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might. This is the first prayer by Jews in the morning and the last prayer at night. The Shema does not say you shall love the Lord your God with some . . . or most. It says all. That is going to have dramatic consequences for everything else – including lots of very good things, like family and nation and school and community and church and job and friends and self – that want our loyalty as well. Our possessions want our loyalty as well – a few weeks ago I preached about the story of the rich fool in Luke 12, and how the Greek text literally says that the man’s possessions were demanding his soul from him. Count the cost, Jesus says. If we are going to give him our complete and total allegiance, then lots of our other loyalties are going to feel angry and disgraced. And when powerful people feel disgraced, they can react in dangerous ways. That’s what the religious leaders and Herod and Pilate did when Jesus would not give them even a small piece of his loyalty and allegiance.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian in the years before World War Two. When Hitler and the Nazi party came to power in the early 1930’s, they co-opted the German Lutheran Church as part of their strategy to control the citizenry and build support for policies against the Jews, who, they said, had killed Jesus. Bonhoeffer was one of the leaders of the Confessing Movement in the German Church, resisting the alliance between government and church. He was eventually imprisoned and, as Allied soldiers were approaching to free the prison where he was kept, hanged 29 days before Germany’s surrender. Bonhoeffer counted, and paid, the Cost of Discipleship, which is the title of his most famous book. I recommend it to all of you with the warning it will change your life. Count the cost, and I don’t mean the price of the book ($ 10.80 at Amazon or Barnes and Noble).

Bonhoeffer said that for the Christian, there are no direct loves – between husband and wife, parent and child, friends, neighbors, anyone or anything. For the Christian, Christ always stands between us and anything and anyone else. All our relationships are in and through Jesus. Anything and anyone that we love beside Jesus is a barrier to following Jesus. Anything or anyone that we think is ours, and is not at the free and complete disposal of Jesus, is something that stands between us and Jesus. That’s what Jesus meant when he said none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. That includes family, and friends, and money, and house, and nation, and community, and even church. None of them are ours. We surrender our children at baptism. We surrender our spouses in Christian marriage. We surrender everything when we surrender our lives – not just our hearts, but all – to Christ. That’s the cost of following Jesus: everything.

This morning, I invite you to the Lord’s Table. Did you hear what I said? Whose Table? Who supplies your needs? Who feeds you with his very self? Who gives you every good gift that you have, and stands between you and every gift?

When you come, surrender everything but Jesus at the chancel rail. I promise you’ll go back to your pew infinitely lighter. And if you don’t, as a friend of mine used to say, we’ll refund you 100% of your misery.