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The Church Alive: Called to Action Through Easy Indifference – Luke 16:19-31

Caitlin Trussell with Augustana Lutheran Church on September 25, 2016

[sermon begins after the Bible reading]

Luke 16:19-31 There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26 Besides all this, 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.’ 27 He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ ”

[sermon begins]

The first thing to note about this parable is that it validates dogs’ reputations for giving unconditional love. That dogs show up in a parable should come as no surprise to Coloradans.  There are so many dogs that each household could have two if they were spread out evenly.[1]  The dogs in the parable nurse Lazarus’ wounds and likely keep him company.  If anyone is looking for a theology of dogs – there you go.  Jesus gives them airtime…and in the gravitas of a parable, no less.

The second thing to note about this parable and parables in general is that they are generally considered exhortative, not predictive.  Many a Bible reader has attempted to predict and describe the afterlife based on this parable and other choice verses.  More than one Bible scholar would invite us to resist this impulse to predict and describe.[2]  Rather, we can hear this as an exhortation by Jesus which means there’s dire urgency that requires action now, here, in the present.

For the entire gospel of Luke, Jesus increases the intensity around caring for those who are suffering.  Time and again Jesus is either easing someone’s suffering himself or talking to his disciples about it.  Jesus also ratchets up his challenge about money, about how money can create distance between the moneyed people and the people who don’t have any money.  The parable today is a case in point.

The only thing the rich man and Lazarus have in common is proximity to the gate.  The rich man is walking inside it and Lazarus is lying outside it.  The gate binds them together and yet they are worlds apart.  The contrast between the two men is stark.  The rich man is covered with purple and linen.  Lazarus is covered with sores.  The rich man feasts sumptuously while Lazarus longs to satisfy his hunger with food that falls from the rich man’s table.  Jesus problem with the rich man doesn’t seem to be his wealth.  It seems to be with the rich man’s indifference as evidenced by Lazarus’s continued suffering at the gate.

If Facebook emoticons are any indication, people are moved by stories of people spontaneously helping people.  Starbucks just set up a media company led by a former Washington Post senior editor.  This company will focus on “stories featuring Americans who have inspired and shown extraordinary measures of compassion and citizenship in their own lives.”[3]  Humans seem to be hard-wired to respond with deep emotion particularly when someone risks something to help another person.  On the flip-side, there’s deep offense when someone doesn’t.  Jesus’ audience of disciples and Pharisees likely share these very human reactions.

Last week, Pastor Ann and I spent some time worshiping and swapping stories with clergy colleagues. Augustana is one of 166 congregations in the Rocky Mountain Synod of ELCA Lutheran Christians.  The Synod is made up of El Paso Texas, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, and Colorado.  The bishop convenes us for Theological Conference every fall.  This year we had the privilege of hearing from Andy Root, Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary.[4]  Dr. Root is convinced that the church is called to engage deeply with people’s stories.  Not to offer solutions to someone’s deep pain but to be present in the face of that pain.

At the same time, Dr. Root was telling story after story of his own and other people’s as examples of being present when someone is feeling deep pain. There was one story that came alive quietly for part of the room.  Dr. Root was going into detail about a wife and mother of two babies who had to identify the body of her husband at the morgue.  Some of us were sitting around a colleague whose husband died suddenly several years ago.  She too had to identify her husband in a morgue.  She sat quietly with her hand over her eyes as she listened to the story with the rest of us.  The colleague next to her put a hand on her back and continued to sit with her.

Similarly, there are some stories that hit deeply this past week.  It’s one thing to talk about someone dying in the abstract and it’s quite another to witness someone’s death – either in person or recorded.  As a country, we’re trying to talking about these deaths as a racial abstraction when for many people these deaths are real blood on the ground.  After reading and watching and reading more, I’m not sure what we’re going to do as a people.  What I am sure about is that indifference to the pain of our black brothers and sisters as well as the fear of police officers is not an option for the church.

With these large scale human issues, helplessness can immobilize people from responding.  Jesus’ brings it down to two people – the rich man and Lazarus.  The chasm that separates them is paper thin in life and cavernous in death.  Let’s look at how this parable ends.  Father Abraham says to the rich man, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”[5]  Luke’s audience for this parable would be in on the joke as they listened to this end of the parable because they know the end of the story.[6]

At the end of the gospel of Luke, Jesus is executed on a cross, dies and is buried.[7]  Three days later, at early dawn on the first day of the week, the women arrive at Jesus’ tomb to find it empty – no body to identify.[8]  At first, their grief and terror know no bounds. Then they are reminded of Jesus’ words to them while he was with them – “Remember how he told you that the son of man must be handed over to sinners, and be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”  Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women go tell the apostles only to be told that it is an “idle tale.”[9]

When Jesus finally appears more widely to his disciples, he has this to say…

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”

Can you hear the bookend with the parable there?  Father Abraham invokes Moses and the prophets in the parable.  Jesus, after his resurrection, invokes their fulfillment and says that forgiveness is for all the nations.  In the simplest of terms, Jesus on the cross hangs over and against the parable… There…Is…No…Chasm.

My friends, we have a God who goes to hell and back in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  We are reminded by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesian church that:

“God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.[10]

A God who goes to hell and back for you…and for the nations; with you and with the nations.  Jesus death on the cross is where the story of our deepest pain is held and met by God.  Not only our pain but the pain of the world because darkness is not dark to God. [11]  Darkness is where light is born.[12]  As Church we are alive in Christ as we hear and proclaim this good news.  This is our call to action through easy indifference, by our baptisms through the cross of Christ.  Thanks be to God.

 

[1] Dogs Vs. Cat Map of the United States. November 2, 2015. Brilliant Maps: Making Sense of the World, One Map at a Time. Link: http://brilliantmaps.com/dog-vs-cat/

[2] Rolf Jacobson, Karoline Lewis, and Matthew Skinner.  Working Preacher podcast on Luke 16:19-31 for Sunday, September 25, 2016.  http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=795

[3] Aamer Madhani, “Starbucks CEO Dipping Toe Into Media Content” USA Today, September 7, 2016.  http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2016/09/07/starbucks-ceo-dipping-toe-into-media-content/89922526/

[4] Andrew Root, Biography and Work, Luther Seminary. https://www.luthersem.edu/faculty/fac_home.aspx?contact_id=aroot

[5] Luke 16:31

[6] A word of thanks to Dr. Matt Skinner and Karoline Lewis, Luther Seminary, who makes the connection between the parable and the end of Luke on the Working Preaching podcast for September 25, 2016.

[7] Luke 23:1-56

[8] Luke 24:1-12

[9] Luke 24:11

[10] Ephesians 2:4

[11] Psalm 139:12

[12] Genesis 1:1-5

Hymn sung together following the sermon:

ELW 655 Son of God, Eternal Savior

Son of God, eternal Savior,
Source of life and truth and grace,
Son of Man, whose birth among us
hallows all our human race,
you, our Head, who, throned in glory,
for your own will ever plead,
fill us with your love and pity,
heal our wrong and help our need.

As you, Lord, have lived for others
so may we for others live;
freely have your gifts been granted,
freely may your servants give.
Yours the gold and yours the silver,
yours the wealth of land and sea,
we but stewards of your bounty,
held in solemn trust will be.

Come, O Christ, and reign among us,
King of Love and Prince of Peace,
hush the storm of strife and passion,
bid its cruel discords cease;
by your patient years of toiling,
by your silent hours of pain,
quench our fevered thirst of pleasure,
shame our selfish greed of gain.

Son of God, eternal Savior,
Source of life and truth and grace,
Son of Man, whose birth among us
hallows all our human race,
by your praying, by your willing
that your people should be one,
grant, O grant our hope’s fruition:
here on earth your will be done.


Words: Somerset Corry Lowry (1855-1932), 1893

MIDI: Everton (Henry Thomas Smart (1813-1879)

 

Matthew 15:21-28 “When Stalin and Mother Teresa Agree on a Point”

Matthew 15:21-28 “When Stalin and Mother Teresa Agree on a Point”[1]

Caitlin Trussell on August 17, 2014 at Augustana Lutheran Church in Denver

 

Matthew 15:21-28  Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

 

 

 

Each of us grew up somewhere.  Some of us grew up on farms in the Midwest, others in cities, some in the South, a few of us in other countries.  Myself, I grew up on the East and West coasts – I like to say I’m bicoastal.  My husband grew up in a mid-sized Nebraskan town.  My kids are growing up as Colorado natives.  Some of you are likely 3rd, 4th, or 5th, generation Coloradans.

The point is, we all grew up somewhere.  This means our childhoods have a somewhere, a location, a place.  Chances are good that our place also has people.  Whether these people were good to us or not, our childhood places have people.   These people birthed us, taught us, fed us…formed us.  You get the idea.  As children, we grow up in the places of our people.  They become our people the minute we’re born into them.

Flipping it around, the minute someone is born they are born into us.  We become their people.  This happens at a lot of different levels all at once.  The child is born into a family, into a neighborhood, into a region.  On any given day, you might hear me say something like, “My people are heading over to a swim meet;” or “My people are going to lay low this weekend.”   However we acknowledge it, however much we like or dislike our people. Our people are there – intentionally and unintentionally forming us and us forming them.

In the previous stories to ours today, Jesus is moving between deserted places with the people he was born into, in his country of birth.  In the story today, Jesus is in a new place, the district of Tyre and Sidon, with a new people, the Canaanites.  And, oh, this Canaanite woman.  She wastes no time in getting Jesus’ attention.  The exchange that follows is shocking.  Did Jesus just call her a “dog?”  Biblical scholars wrangle with this text early and often.

In our wrangling with this text, we can see that the disciples want no part of this woman as they ask Jesus to send her away.  “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.”  Jesus doesn’t send her away but tells her that he is, “sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  His place, his people.  Did he say this to voice what everyone else was thinking?  Might that also be why he made that “dog” comment?  After all, the Canaanite people are the people of mixed marriages and conflated religious practices.  They are not to be trusted nor visited.  They are unclean, impure.  Pick a nasty label and insert it here.  There is bad blood between Jesus’ people and the Canaanite people.

The Canaanite woman knows all these things – bad blood included.  And still, this mother shouts after Jesus and the disciples.  She demands their attention.  Not on her own behalf but on behalf of her child.  She and her child do not live in a vacuum – meaning they do not live only as two people disconnected from other people.  Oh no, this woman’s shouting has bigger implications for the whole people.

On a small scale, and maybe with less shouting, this congregation similarly brings children the necessary care they need.  Through the baptismal font, children are baptized in what can easily be interpreted or dismissed as a sentimental moment.  But it is oh so much bigger than that.  Through the waters of baptism is a demand that God keep God’s promises to this child.  Through worship, children are in the mix with their sounds, voices, and bodies included right along with the whole people of God here.   Through the Children & Family Ministry, children have Sunday School, Squiggle Time, Youth Groups and more to meet them where they are developmentally so that they may find words for their faith.   Through the Music Ministry, children sing and make music all the while connecting with God, each other, and tradition.  Through the Augustana Early Learning Center, children receive care and instruction Monday through Friday – some on full scholarship, some on subsidized tuition.  Through Augustana Arts’ City Strings program, neighborhood children receive violin and music instruction regardless of inability to pay.

As a congregation, we are similar to the Canaanite woman.  There are children in our care and we make every effort to do right by them which sometimes means doing the hard thing not the easy thing.  But what else might the story of her faith hold for us?  We do violence to this woman’s story if we simply rip her from the page and guilt everyone into advocacy.  Advocacy being the act of lending your voice to those who cannot advocate for themselves.  I think if we have any chance of seeing our story in her story we need to take a detour.

For this brief detour, I invite Oswald Bayer into our conversation.  Bayer is Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology at the University of Tübingen in Germany as well as an ordained pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Württemberg.[2]  Stated very simply, Bayer’s argument for a Christian ethic goes something that goes like this:[3]

Everything we have is gift – from the basics of food and water to help in times of sickness and imprisonment.   The quintessential act of our dependence is over a meal; a meal of fellowship “where separation, isolations, and loneliness are overcome.”  We are truly dependent creatures – dependent on God and each other for everything.  In this dependence, we are able to see our “own fellow human beings simply as those who find themselves in the same situation.”  I especially like how Pastor Bayer puts this next part, “Thus the least of our brothers and sisters (Matt. 25.40) will not just be the others, strangers, with whom we are called to show solidarity…Rather, from the very outset we are those people…We are the same as them, for we too are in fundamental need.”[4]  In other words, those people are our people!

Jesus sits across the table from the woman who demands a place at it for herself and her child.  In Bayer’s words, this is a meal of fellowship that overcomes separation, isolation, and loneliness.  By extension, Jesus sits us at a table that overcomes separation, isolation, and loneliness.  And we are given a voice at this meal on behalf of our children.

Make no mistake, prioritizing children is not sentimental, nor is it easy.  This means that when our plans and systems fail children, we are free to launch into those conversations to help those children.  These conversations might happen in our neighborhoods, in our congregation, in our country.  These conversations are real, right now, as we talk congregationally about improving security in the Early Learning Center or group dynamics in Confirmation.  These conversations are real as we talk nationally and globally about children at the border, children in Ferguson (Missouri), children in Palestine, children in Liberia.

Some of us may believe that helpful action should happen locally and some may believe that it makes sense to focus helpful action globally.  However, local and global concerns are not mutually exclusive but part of the whole.  So simply pick a place to start and start helping.  We can so quickly fall silent when the children who need help begin to number in the hundreds or thousands or hundreds of thousands.  Along with falling silent, it’s a quick slip into inaction.

Dr. Keith Payne studies the collapse of compassion in the face of fear.[5]  In his work, he is triggered by similar comments from both Stalin and Mother Teresa.  Stalin reputedly said that the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of a million is a statistic; and Mother Theresa said, “If I look at the mass I will never act.” In Dr. Payne’s words, “When Stalin and Mother Teresa agree on a point, I sit up and pay attention.”[6]  The point is that in the face of great numbers of people suffering we end up doing nothing because of our own fear. We fear that we can’t possibly help them all so we end up helping none.  We fear that taking on so much pain crumbles our shaky hold on our own emotions so we shut them down and focus someplace else.  Stalin counted on it.  Mother Teresa acted in spite of it.  Most of us are neither Stalin nor Mother Teresa.  Regardless, pick a place to start helping children and go for it.

The Canaanite woman shouted at Jesus across cultural boundaries on behalf of her child.  In part, these are real boundaries of culture and race that take care and respect to navigate successfully across our differences.  But in total, these boundaries collapse under the weight of the cross.  What Jesus Christ does for you, Jesus Christ does for all.  The people you think of as your people who come from your places is an artificial category of location.

Christ’s death on the cross makes all people your people.

Because Jesus died on a cross for all people, including you.

 

 

Responding to the sermon, the congregation sings this Hymn of the Day:

Lord Jesus You Shall Be My Song As I Journey[7]

Lord Jesus you shall be my song as I journey
I’ll tell everybody about you wherever I go
You alone are our life and our peace and our love
Lord Jesus you shall be my song as I journey

Lord Jesus, I’ll praise you as long as I journey
May all of my joy be a faithful reflection of you
May the earth and the sea and the sky join my song
Lord Jesus, I’ll praise you as long as I journey

As long as I live, Jesus, make me your servant
To carry your cross and to share all your burdens and tears
For you saved me by giving your body and blood
As long as I live, Jesus, make me your servant

I fear in the dark and the doubt of my journey
But courage will come with the sound of your steps by my side
And with all of the family you saved by your love
We’ll sing to the dawn at the end of our journey

Les Petites Souers de Jésus and L’Arche community, 1961; Translation by Stephen Somerville, 1970



[1] Read about Mother Teresa at http://www.motherteresa.org/.

Read about Joseph Stalin at http://www.biography.com/people/joseph-stalin-9491723.

[2] Oswald Bayer. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oswald_Bayer

[3] Oswald Bayer.  Freedom in Response: Lutheran Ethics: Sources and Controversies (Oxford: University Press, 2007), 19-20.  In these two pages, Dr. Bayer offers a succinct argument for categorical gift over and above Kant’s categorical imperative. I recommend them to you if you, like me, are into that sort of mind candy.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Keith Payne. “Why is the Death of One Million a Statistic?” Psychology Today blog: Life on Autopilot on March 14, 2010.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Evangelical Book of Worship, Hymn 808.  (lyrics reprinted under OneLicense.net A-705796.)