Sunday, September 29, 2013

SERMON- CROSSING THE GREAT PIT...Luke 16:19-30...Sept. 29, 2013

To many scholars this story is the climax to how the author of Luke presents the good news or gospel
of Jesus. Luke's primary emphasis is on bringing justice to human  life and our capacity as human participants to foster more just environments. His thesis Luke 1:52 says,  “God hath put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the humble and meek.”

This story also illustrates that the really deep questions of life are actually the most down to earth and practical issues, ones that any of us can become fully conscious of and involved in. When I was once deep in the preparation of a sermon my wife brought me me down to earth by saying. “ Jim, you ponder the really deep questions of life don't you? ' Who am I?' , 'Where am I going?' And most often, 'Where are my keys.?'

This story is truly a living symbol in that it has the capacity to grip ones whole mind and heart in a way that mere word descriptions could ever do. That is how Sacred texts are intended to work. It is the image of the 'deep pit' 'a bottomless chasm' which causes a permanent separation of persons who should be together, connected, united in life. But through negligence a pit so deep and wide has formed there is no hope of crossing it in either direction. A startling image of the potential of huge permanent losses and regrets. And this horror, keep in mind, is caused by human carelessness. This pit was allowed to grow deeper, not by cruel intention but by neglect, by carelessness, unthoughtfulness. It fits with Jesus' teaching, we truly can ' have eyes but not see, ears but not hear.' The rich man just simply 'cared less' than a human is allowed to, and get by with it. This story alerts us to our carelessness toward those around us right now in this life and the irretrievable harm it can do to our soul. We risk losing our essential humanity when we 'care less.'

One day I was careless with a skunk. Visiting my uncle's farm I was shown how to check my cousins traps and told how to handle the live animals caught. I was shown how to handle a skunk so it did not spray its stink on me. Sure enough, a skunk was in the trap the next morning. Carefully I managed to handle it , keeping it tails down. I headed to the house holding it by its tail. As I got near I began to yell, ' I've got a skunk, I've got a skunk'. I was already hearing fantasizing the praise coming from everyone about my achievement. Nearing the house in my exuberance I became 'careless' , the skunk got too close to my body, pulled itself up and sprayed me down good. The skunk got a way, my mother sent me to the barn, told me to hand out my clothes to be burned and instructed me I'd be sleeping in the barn until I was fit for human company. I had a moment's carelessness.

This story is about six well off brothers and a sick beggar man. Like most natural families the brothers care for each other but the sad thing is their care pretty much stops with their own circle. One of the brother's died. He is described as very wealthy compared to most. Lazarus is the only figure in all of Luke's parables that he gives a name. He names him Lazarus, 'God comforts.' Thus seeming to say, 'you had best take a good look at the Lazarus figures in our world' for our attitude about them shapes the person we will be forever. At first Lazarus is just a sick sore-infected beggar man. But when the two die suddenly they are both the same, both fully claimed by their human mortality. Both with no more control over earthly situations. They left behind only the aroma of how they had lived. The one who was so favored by this life is now pictured in much suffering and the one so cursed in this life experiences great joy.

The rich man and the poor man are in stark contrast to each other. They live side by side. The see each other come and go. All that separates them is the front door of the rich man's home. But they never connect because the rich man does not let his gaze, his attention, his care go toward the poor beggar. Because of his position and power the rich man had a greater obligation to close this gap, to cross the deepening pit, than did the poor beggar. But by not looking, by pretending the beggar and his suffering did not exist he turns away from him. Luke is showing us that it is here, in this life now, that the most serious chasms or pits exists It is the pits between us and our fellow humans in this life that need our attention, that we need to cross time and again. These are the chasms we can and must do something about. Luke is saying that any eternal pit of separation only exists because we have allowed pits and chasms to grow beyond measure right now in this life. The wealthy man could have easily behaved in a way that the pit between him and Lazarus could have been kept crossable. He could have crossed it by giving Lazarus opportunity and responsibility to do the same. He could have offered conversation to Lazarus. He could have kept face to face open eyed contact. He could have taken interest in his suffering and sought some ways to relieve it.

My skunk carelessness was real but not the serious moral and ethical carelessness this story is warning us about. All our close relationships.... family, children, spouses, friends, colleagues at work, friends at church have some measure of a pit separating us all the time. When we notice that someone is behaving differently, is withdrawing from normal interaction... that is our cue to step across the pit now. Don't ignore, don't wait and let it grow. Also, we are to learn that we have obligation to those groups and individuals in our culture who are different than us and maybe from the social norm. The ones we'd first prefer to turn away from. We either allow those differences to separate or we are earnestly cross the pits that otherwise become ones we can never cross. When others are struggling against being ignored in our social order or denied their rightful place, we need to offer our word and hand in support, cross that pit now. How thoughtfully we relate and gently cross such pits with honest communications and up-building words and deeds is all that prevents them from becoming eternal separations. Crossing these pits in our present lives is what our human experience here is most about. We are reminded, this kind of carelessness with life brings the greatest regrets imaginable. So our charge and warning is to keep crossing those potential pits in this life or else they will succeed in becoming separations that can never be crossed. Jim H.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013


This thread, and others of Phil Garner's, has been an unusual and important experience for me. I identified myself earlier as one who at age 40 withdrew, after being fired from an eight year promising ministry with no reason given me for why, from my beloved heritage of mainline COC. In time I became a pastor in the UCC and Presb(USA). As a 'liberal' I have had many times over the experience of realizing that I must, to maintain integrity as a Christ follower, to give up an endeared certainty or absolute belief  for I discovered they are not really that certain or absolute. I think the amount of change I've experienced is rather unusual in a life time. No one who knew me or myself could have predicted such a change was in my fate. I think such giving up these absolutes and certainties is a general characteristic of spiritual growth and living by the Spirit, walking by faith ,not by sight etc. I sense that many in this thread group have had their share of this kind of eye opening experience. It  can involve strong sadness and  hurt, being misunderstood and disappointing ones you love. I say all this to get to these points. 

Though it seems to me that spiritual growth involves a broadening and ever more inclusive process rather than the opposite, I would not want to leave the impression that if one  gives up enough certainty or becomes 'liberal' enough that one eventually escapes what it means to sit face to face with another person just as sincere and truth seeking  and realize you have very real and uncomfortable differences. Every church fellowship has arguments, some of them being more productive than others but strong disagreements nevertheless. So we never arrive at some place of no more  need for change, and the tensions involved, is expected of us on our journey. I noticed long before my major changes that a solid translation of 'repent' is to 'see differently afterward.' On the spiritual journey we often come to 'see' some things very differently than we did before. This is a good sign but also a frightening one. An example- I came to 'see' that the NT contains no 'pattern' for the church the way I had placed so much confidence in. It simply doesn't and yet most mainline COC history of  the past 150 years is based on that tragic supposition. Many of the things valued and considered 'truth' for the church came out of that idea imposed on scripture. Intelligent/sincere  people can continue to believe and follow that their whole life.  Unfortunately we can't responsibly wait for everyone to become convinced of  very needed change we have come to whole heartedly  understand and visualize.  Great harm happens to  the many when needed change is not occurring. From such presumptions as the 'pattern' idea  the church  is set up for arguments that no one can win without rejecting the supposed loser.  So there is one church  split after another. As much as we  love  those caught up in such mistaken perspectives on the Bible  I would lie to think that a great spiritual  price has not been paid by such a misguided belief and practice. So what is our responsibility in such a situation?  

Some of us, for whatever reasons, wake up to the disappointment, ' I have to give that up ' for any number of beliefs and practices in our communions. The same for me has been the doctrine of inerrancy of the Bible and a primarily literal interpretation of these Sacred materials rather than a more symbolic one, which I have found to be the natural language of religion. When one finds themselves 'seeing' that important practices and beliefs in ones community are simply not healthy or reflective of the Spirit of Jesus, what do we do? What is our obligation following Jesus? For me it meant the necessity of leaving the community though it will always be very important to me. No one ever finds a replacement for their church of origin. There is so much emotional attachment  to the COC and will be till the day I die. Fortunately,  I do not think my response is what is required or is always the best response with ones new perspectives. I would say you now have a greater responsibility to your fellowship when you become aware of Spirit quenching beliefs and practices. Because every group is in process of change toward what can be  genuinely 'better and more Christ like' church communities, just in different ways and different issues. 

So it is a matter of how we can best be a contributing  'agent of change' to that 'better' you know in your heart you have discovered. To arrive at the  need to  leave a fellowship is like finding we need to leave our family. If that is what is required there is an enormous price. But if we see, what is likely more typical, that our task is to stay and help support change we should take seriously what that also requires of us. For example we may not be ready or think it is most responsible for us to announce that we no longer believe that instrumental music in worship is wrong. We may even suspect it can be an avenue for a church to greater praise God if that is the gifts the members have. But if a member in your church is having to take up the struggle of owning openly that to condemn music, and maybe deny persons using their gifts in that area, is quite wrong; as one who also knows that, would you not have at least the responsibility to let that struggling burdened person know that you personally believe they are right but that you are not yet feeling able to be open about it? I am asking you this ? You may see this as cowardice. I don't.  I'd like to hear how you view such a  typically  real  situation. This way you do not discourage the out front agent of change, such as a woman expressing her concerns that  teen girls are not asked to help serve communion or lead singing etc, but you do take the real risk(Risk I think  is always a necessity in bringing change of any kind. To not take  some risk at some real level is to be content to not be an agent of change. This is central I think to any Christ model of living.) that this woman will respect your need to not yet join her openly. I find that when sincere open changers( ones in our communities who bring a particular gift of potential change) are given this kind of honesty and support they will not violate your trust. But the risk is certainly there, ALWAYS. 

 I have to think if we sit back and let the open change makers take all this heat and often abuse without giving them at least this kind of indirect support is very self deceiving and spiritually dangerous. This contrasts to the  attitude,  'I'll just  be quiet, let the open changers take their knocks  and see what happens.' If one can't be supportive in that way than maybe the  most spiritual  path would be to leave this fellowship and find a place where what you have discovered is 'better and more Christ like' is already the status quo. For by sitting back you are not contributing to the spiritual change you have been informed in your heart that needs to happen for the better.

 My rambling may make little sense to you. But, stumbling upon this group of truth seekers, many from my own background, I wanted to give more explanation of the dynamics of the changes in belief that I have experienced. I have blogged for the past two years in an effort to describe the nature of the spiritual/psychological process I have and am experiencing regarding such  personal change. I do feel I owe much to my  heritage, the Chruch of Christ.  It was so good to me in so many ways, and maybe an honest statement of why and how my changes have happened can be my gift to ones in such a process themselves. I say this also realizing that most of you are several decades younger than I am. 

Blessings to you all. 
An example of my blog: