I’d like to introduce our guest writer for the month of September, The Rev. Dr. Sam Persons Parkes. I first met Dr. Parkes a year ago at the Academy of Homiletics. I was immediately impressed by his energy, creativity, and commitment to helping other preachers become better at their craft. As we have come to know one another better and to collaborate on projects, Sam has become a critical conversation partner, colleague in ministry, and good friend. As a local church pastor and an academically-trained homiletician, Sam is uniquely able to teach and write both as a pastor and for pastors. Sam has recently joined the Preaching Consultation Team that is working with me to develop a national strategic plan for improving preaching in The United Methodist Church. I know you will enjoy Sam’s unique teaching style and creative insights into the lectionary passages, especially the Old Testament readings, for September as he presents his series, “Preaching with the Season of Creation 2016.” – Dawn Chesser
Sam Persons Parkes is the pastor of Cloverdale UMC in Dothan, Alabama. Sam earned his M.Div. from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University and the Th.D. in homiletics from the University of Toronto and the Toronto School of Theology. He has been a contributor to the Abingdon Preaching Annual and to the recent Abingdon Theological Companion to the Lectionary. Sam is serving in his 25th year under episcopal appointment in the United Methodist Church and is a clergy member of the Alabama-West Florida annual conference. He likes to spend his time cooking good food and then attempting to run it off. He is the father of two exceptional children who keep his academic fancies grounded in the concrete world.
-Rev Dr. Dawn Chesser
WEEK 4: Christ spends all of his privilege to change our thinking.
In this last commentary that I am offering, let me recap something I said in my first post in this series. For me, preaching ought to be more about good news than about bad news. Else, we are not proclaiming the gospel. However, the gospel is not true without a clear acknowledgement of just how bad the news can be. That’s why sermons ought to be very clear-eyed about the deep trouble in our world. We must be honest.
But trouble is not the end of the story. Church is not the only place where people hear bad news (or good news either, for that matter). Turn on a talk radio station. Bad news. My Facebook feed is often full of troubles … with the occasional cat video thrown in just so we can stand it. People come to hear us preach, asking, “Is there a Word from the Lord?” All of us come to church asking, in the words of that Peggy Lee song, “Is that all there is?”
So when we preach from a lectionary periscope, sometimes the boundaries of the lection do not offer us any good news. Today may be one of those days. As I read this parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, good news is hard to find. There is one moment: When Father Abraham (I imagine Lazarus nestled to his bosom in a large rocking chair) states that Lazarus “is comforted here” (Luke 16:25). So one could write a sermon about the God who keeps account of who got what in this life and intends in the afterlife to even the score. And you know what? That would certainly be good news for many on this big blue ball. But I have this congregation, see. And I know them. And I love them. And I’m wondering if there can’t be some good news that would not only reveal God’s bent toward justice, but that would also empower them (and me) to live more just lives.
So for the good news, in this parable of much bad news, I am turning to the larger story, the gospel story about a God who crosses great chasms.
Trouble in the Text: The rich man never sees Lazarus as a person.
But first I had to get clear about the bad news. Do you have a lectionary study group to meet with and hash over the texts? I’m a verbal processor (as you might tell from the length of my posts!). I deeply appreciate having a group of others who can help me see the texts more plainly. You could even do this with your congregants! John McClure offers a helpful method for doing this in The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Leadership and Preaching Meet (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995). But I digress.
So my lectionary group was discussing this parable, when Fr. Peter Wong, rector at the local Episcopal parish, opened my eyes to see the depth of the trouble here: Even by the end of the parable, the rich man never sees Lazarus as a human subject, but only as an object, a class of item different from him or from his family (i.e., those like him). He stepped over Lazarus at his gate every day. In the tormented agony of Hades, the rich man asks Abraham to “send Lazarus” to cool his tongue like a servant might do. And when Abraham removes that possibility, he asks that Lazarus be sent to warn his family! As if his five brothers had not also been stepping over Lazarus at the gate of the family estate! Even in hell, he cannot see Lazarus as fully human. Even the Greek text seems to indicate this failure. In vs. 19, the first word is anthropos (human being) followed shortly by plousios (rich) = there was a human who was rich. Then in verse 20, the first word is ptochos, a poor one. Anthropos is curiously absent from the description of Lazarus. He is dehumanized from the beginning.
Then look at all the contrasts: The rich man is a big spender; he wears purple and fine linen; Lazarus wears his sores. The rich man feasts; Lazarus starves. Lots of trouble. But then, after their deaths, they experience divine reversal: The rich man is in agony; Lazarus is comforted. So while the news is certainly good for the Lazarus-es of the world, I’m guessing that most of us don’t experience even this promised reversal as good news; or it’s good news only in the way that warnings are good news!
The law is full of warnings and exhortations! Moses and the prophets are not reserved about the treatment of poor people. Finally, the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus “from the dead” to convince his family. And Abe is honest: Even if someone “rises from the dead,” the wealthy family still won’t be able to see past the poverty to the person. Luke uses the phrase, “rise from the dead” only one other time in the gospel – in 24:46: “[Jesus] said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day.’”
Will Jesus’ resurrection then change everything? Well, to some, says Jesus, not really.
Trouble in our world: Privilege can prevent us from seeing the humanity of another.
I could fill this section up very quickly. But the point of the parable for us seems pretty simple. Privilege, if we have it, often has a blinding effect. The Oxford Dictionary defines “privilege” as a “special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” 1 Usually, that privileged group is the dominant one in a particular culture. (This page from the American Psychological Association has lots of resources on the topic: http://teachpsych.org/page-1588340.)
What Jesus seems to be telling us is that seeing past our privilege is tough to do. Look, I know some of us are preaching in communities of people who will roll their eyes at the first mention of the word “privilege.” If that’s the case in your situation, and if people are going to more or less turn you off, then … don’t mention it! Some words take on a “bomb-like” function in the culture and just sonically explode into the sanctuary, and it takes a few minutes to get people back on board with you. But it seems to be that with our theme, “A Season of Creation,” privilege is a key concept to unpack. According to Genesis, God gave us dominion over the creation (1:28), but there is a difference between dominion and domination. Our refusal to act in ecologically-just ways is a function of human privilege, our (primarily the global north’s) ability to use the creation in any way that suits us. We just don’t want to see what havoc our choices are wreaking so that we can preserve our choices/way of life/economy, and so on.
I am a highly-educated white male living in North America. In many ways, I am at the tippy-top of our cultural hierarchy. Regardless of whether it FEELS particularly privileged, it is. And I am blind to so many ways that I get the privilege of just not having to think about some things. Because I am a man, I never have to worry about going on a date with a stranger and being unsafe. If I’m in a bad mood, nobody blames my gender for it. Because I’m middle class, if I get into a legal situation, I can probably hire an attorney. Because I live in a middle-class neighborhood, I can eat healthy food in ways that are convenient for my lifestyle. Because I’m Christian in America, a bumper sticker supporting my religion won’t get my car vandalized. I won’t be socially penalized for not knowing other people’s religious customs. However, I am fat. And so I DO see a few things in the culture that my thin friends can’t always see. People often assume my general health must be bad because I’m about 100 pounds overweight. However, that’s not true! My health metrics are excellent. Thin people never have anyone look at them and assume they are lazy just because of their size.
Privilege is blinding culturally, ecologically, theologically, sexually, and racially. But a lot of people, the dominants, just don’t care! Many of them have their own version of “Moses and the prophets” (worst band name ever, by the way). Many of us had parents who taught us to care for others, to be kind and compassionate. And we believe these things, yet often fail to act on them. In fact, preachers, our worship services are full of peril in this regard. Sometimes when we talk about these issues in worship, we create this short-circuit from actually doing something in response to our talk. We relieved the social pressure by having a conversation about privilege, but that made us feel just good enough. In fact, we feel proud that we belong to a church that isn’t afraid to wade into these difficult cultural issues. But then there’s the coffee hour and lunch and suddenly we are right back where we were. And God’s Word hasn’t made one damn bit of difference. Well, Jesus said it probably wouldn’t.
Grace in the text: Christ sees our humanity, crosses the chasm, and enters into it.
That’s why repentance is always linked to rising from the dead! I’m not talking about feeling-sorry repentance. I’m talking about metanoia-style repentance, or changing the way you think! The rich man thinks that if Lazarus rises from the dead, it will create repentance in his brothers. “Nope,” Jesus says, “probably not”. However, in Luke 24, Jesus says “the Messiah is … to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance (metanoia) and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations …” (46-47).
That’s what makes the difference, I think. Hearing the law (what we ought to do) is important, but it will not change us on its own. For our thinking to change, we need to see and know something else. We need to see that God sees us, that our humanity is beheld; it is beheld in judgment, and it is beheld in grace. Just as God heard the cries of his people at the beginning of Exodus and sent Moses, just as God heard the cries of widows and orphans and sent the prophets, so also God beheld women and men, slave and free, Jew and gentile. God beheld our beauty, and God beheld our deep brokenness. And, in my sanctified imagination, I watch God fret over all the words that God had given to us to help us live good and free lives, all the laws that we had broken. And God understood in that moment that ethical instruction, while crucial and important, was not enough. And God gathered up all of God’s glory, power, and might. God collected all of God’s purity, and excellence, and holiness. God beheld God’s own knowledge and wisdom and authority. And left it.
And God’s second pre-existing person who was “in the form of God, [but] did not count equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Philippians 2:4-6). No one could possibly have more privilege than God, our Creator and Redeemer. No one! But church, look at what God DID! God spent God’s privilege, every bit of it because God saw us in our humanity and instead of shaking her head and giving more laws, she gave HERSELF! Hallelujah! She took her Word and imbued it with flesh. And when being human wasn’t enough, he became a Jew, a member of a proud but often despised people on a little land bridge connecting three continents. And when that wasn’t enough spending, he became homeless. And when that wasn’t enough spending, he became ridiculed and despised by the religious authorities. And when that wasn’t enough spending, he was shamefully betrayed by his own students. And when that wasn’t enough spending, he was dressed up like a clown-king and beaten bloody. And when that wasn’t enough spending, “being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7-8).
There is no chasm that God will not cross, there is no privilege that God will not spend to change our thinking. God continues to teach us how to live ethically, but not without first submitting to our pride, our violence, and our domination.
Where did it all begin? God heard…
God heard the cries of her people.
Grace in our world: Christ still crosses the chasm and enters our humanity
Repentance begins with listening, my friends. Spending our privilege begins with seeing one another in our full humanity. How can we help the people with whom we preach to listen to people who are not like us? Of course, I always believe in the power of a good story to help.
Let me tell you about my friend, Lisbeth. She is a big spender. Lisbeth lives in my community, Dothan, Alabama, a hub-city in the deeply socially conservative South. More than 50 percent of the United States’ peanut crop is grown within 100 miles of Dothan. It’s country, y’all. And it can be a very hostile environment for homosexual and transgendered people. Some years ago, Lisbeth along with some intrepid others began a PFLAG (www.pflag.org) chapter here. They listened. It’s been slow building, but now there is a sizeable group that meets monthly for mutual support and kindness in a world where being out as gay or transgendered can even be dangerous.
Being a teenager is hard, but it’s even more difficult if you identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Lisbeth listened to that truth. She learned a while back about the stats for LGBTQ youth in the United States. LGBTQ youth are far more likely to suffer from violence and depression, to use alcohol and drugs, to be bullied at school and online, to feel unsafe anywhere, and to seriously consider attempting suicide.2 We may or may not agree about the practice of homosexuality, but there’s a lot more at stake here than opinions. Lisbeth understands that it’s not about “gays”; it’s about human beings. All our youth are important, and Lisbeth has been an advocate for them in many ways in our community. But she and some others have recently begun to establish a youth group specifically for LGBTQ youth to support one another in their often overlooked and oppressed lives.
Now, Lisbeth is not gay herself. Her children are not gay. Lisbeth is just a woman. She could, in her considerably privileged status, simply ignore the fact that we have these youth at our cultural gate. But that would not be who Lisbeth is. She is a human being capable of seeing other human beings who need support and encouragement. Lisbeth is a Christian – and a Methodist to boot. She has appropriated the gospel and made it her own, at some considerable risk to her personal reputation. In her story, Jesus continues to cross that great fixed chasm and the Word becomes flesh yet again, our knees bow, and our tongues confess that Jesus, the privilege-spender, is actually our Lord.
The Elements of Sermon Unity (see series introduction in Week 1)
Doctrine: The kenotic incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.
Felt Need in the Sermon: How can I open my heart to listen to people whose lives are not like mine?
Dominant Image for the Sermon: Big spender, meaning ultimately the Christ who is willing to stop at nothing to change our thinking.
Mission in the Sermon: Finding ways to listen to one another and understanding our privilege.
Other Creation Themes in the Sunday Lections
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 – Jeremiah’s witness to the utter destruction of his people finds a glimmer of hope in this lection. The prophet buys a field in a wasteland – not a great investment! But this is no mere real estate transaction; it is a sign-act on the part of the prophet, a way to convey God’s word to the people: this devastation may last for a long while. But eventually, the land and the people will be healed. Can you find stories of ecological hope in the midst of our climatic wastelands? Are there acts that people are taking now that may yield good results only past their own lifetimes?
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16 – A psalm of deliverance and God’s pledge of both presence with and saving action for God’s people. And yet its promise that “I will protect those who know my name” seems odd in the face of the Old Testament reading! How do we find God’s promise of deliverance relevant to the people with whom we will preach?
1 Timothy 6:6-19 – What a marvelous fit with the gospel lection! Or on its own. Paul sings a song about the virtue of contentment with one’s food, one’s clothing, one’s money. The “footprint” of the rich is often destructive morally and, we know, ecologically. However, Paul does not condemn the rich de facto, but encourages them to use their privilege in good works and generosity.
Please also see "A Season of Creation: Dwelling” by Taylor Burton-Edwards
1 “Privilege: Definition of Privilege in Oxford Dictionary (American English) (US),” accessed August 15, 2016, http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/us/definition/american_english/privilege.
2 Anna Almendrala, “Queer Teens Face a Shocking Amount of Violence and Discrimination,” The Huffington Post, 30:21 400AD, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/-queer-teen-in-america_us_57ae40b7e4b007c36e4ee46b.
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