Sermon for September 1, 2013

Proverbs 25:6-7, Hebrews 13:1-8,15-16, Luke 14:1,7-14

I.

     Once again the second reading today is from the ancient Christian essay we know as Hebrews. We have been reading selections from Hebrews for several weeks now. Today is our final reading from this book of the Bible.

In these weeks we have considered the themes of this ancient essay used by primitive Christians to express their faith. On this last day with this book of the Bible, let’s summarize the themes of Hebrews.

First, it is written as ancient world religions are giving up on the idea of sacrifice to gods. This first century decline in sacrifice as a religious practice took place in many of the religions of people in the Mediterranean basin. A new first century religious spirit brought new religious activity as the old temples were abandoned or destroyed. People sensed that God is not rightly worshipped by the killing of animals, but by living a compassionate and courageous life. As the ancient sacrificial system dies, Hebrews sees Jesus as the end of sacrifice, and the end of that way of relating to God. Jesus is cast as the final sacrifice. Christianity is cast as a faith on the cutting edge of change.

Then secondly Hebrews points to faith as the most important thing. By faith we are saved and led. And the great first century Christian ode to faith is found in the chapters of this book.  Faith, confidence, and trust in Jesus, not sacrifice, molds and shapes our lives.

Third, in Hebrews not only sacrifice, but all the symbols of the old faith tradition are not discarded, but reworked as metaphors for a new vision of hope for the world. The old Hebrew faith is not so much rejected as it is reshaped so that it becomes refocused on the plan of a loving God for this wayward planet. In Hebrews, our religious tradition is not the truth in itself.  But our past points to our future truth, still being shaped in the hands of a loving God.

Fourth and finally, in these closing chapters of Hebrews, the way of Jesus, the new life in Christ leads us into a new ethic for Christians. God calls faithful and loving people to live in a new way so that their own lives and the lives of those around them might be transformed by the winds of change blowing through the first century.

Do you remember those Ten Commandments from the book of Exodus? Part of the old Hebrew tradition? Well, these verses today are the Ten Commandments of the book of Hebrews: the new commandments we are given to mold and shape our life together. These new Ten Commandments echo the old commandments, but they are also different. That’s the way Hebrews is. Not only in this first century essay are the commandments slightly different, but how they work is also different. They are not presented from on high with the sense that you must obey them or else. Nor are they presented as simple and easy suggestions. They are presented as principles which help us in our personal lives and in our life together, an agenda for a new Christian community. What are the Ten Commandments in this chapter of Hebrews? We have them in our verses this morning:
1.    Be compassionate for love matters more than anything else.
2.    Show hospitality. Offer food and shelter to those in need or in transition. Hospitality is the most important virtue.
3.    Remember those who are in prison. Visit them. Why? Because prison is the most hopeless place humans find themselves, and if we are a people of hope, that is where we should be. In light of the great numbers of prisoners we have in this nation and state, this is a timely commandment.
4.    Practice faithfulness in sexual matters. Human sexuality is best found in faithful relationships. Faith is important in Hebrews, and it means living in trust and confidence with your partner.
5.    Keep your life free from the love of money. This is a significant commandment in our society so often marked by greed. And the best way to live this commandment is to give some money away.
6.    Stop being afraid of everything. You have God on your side, quit acting out of fear.
7.    Consider our leaders, and move them with our own example, actions, and votes to do the right thing whether they want to or not. Stop blaming them.  Change them.
8.    Focus over and over again on Jesus who is always there.
9.    Go to church now and then, and praise God instead of whining about things.
10.  Share your stuff. It’s good to share your things; it makes everyone happier, including you.

These ten guidelines from Hebrews shape a way to live, a vision for life which is still useful for us, and in some ways may be more applicable to our own time and place than the first century out of which they come. We say farewell now to the book of Hebrews.

II.

     If Hebrews today presents an agenda for right living, the reading from the gospel of Luke focuses everything on just one principle: humility. Jesus tells a story based on an ancient proverb or saying: our first reading this morning. Now humility may be difficult for us to work with. Some of us really need to learn to speak up for ourselves, and humility may not be the most important virtue for which to strive. Others of us have become so self-centered in this narcissistic age that we are unable to conceive of humility let alone live by it.

However, the humility of which Jesus speaks in his banquet parable may not have much to do with the strength of our own self esteem. In the example he gives, humility happens when we let others lift us up rather than ourselves. Humility involves letting others into your world and life, allowing others to express their opinions about you.  We get into trouble when our own opinion of ourselves does not let others express their regard for us. Humility is allowing others to express their opinions about you. Sometimes those around us might need to be encouraged to constructive criticism.  And sometimes they will offer words of praise. But the point of humility is that others have an opportunity to honor the humble guest.

And the parable is a call to all banquet halls (a metaphor for all congregations, communities and families) to be places where people are lifted up rather than put down. It is a call for our congregations and all family and loving partnerships to be places where people feel gently affirmed and lifted up, even as they place others in the seats of honor.

In the parable, humility is achieved by allowing others into your world and life, being aware of them, and then breaking bread with them. But then notice how the parable closes. Those on the edges, the poor, those in need, are also invited to the banquet.  All are invited to the table of the Lord. Deeper humility is found when we admit outsiders and strangers to the fellowship we share, into the community of caring conversation and mutual regard.  And in that larger mix, as people live and break bread together, we will all find our place, discovering at this banquet there really is no place more important than another.

Humility is an important Christian virtue, but this morning it is not so much about our self esteem as about our willingness to open our lives to those around us and their opinions.  Perhaps in our own time when everyone is shouting as loud as they can at the top of their voices about how right they are, and how important their opinion is – well in our own time, this call to gracious humility may be the most important commandment of all. Amen.

 

Sermon for August 25, 2013: Change

Isaiah 58:9b-14, Hebrews 12:18-29, and Luke 13: 10-17 

I.

     The ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus lived before Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. He wrote before Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Only fragments of his work remain, containing some of the most ancient human reflections on life. One of his sayings is, “You can never cross the same river twice.”

He meant that a river is constantly flowing, changing, and becoming something different. Even if on the surface it looks like the same river, it never really is. The waters of change constantly flow.  And that is the way life is. We cannot cross the same river twice.

Some say we live in a sea of change. Sometimes change comes suddenly. And we know that things will never be the same. Sometimes it comes slowly, so that we can barely see it. We think of ourselves as being constant, but we all grow older. We see growth in our children. We may not see change in ourselves, but we see the changes more easily in the aging faces of our friends whom we may not have seen for awhile.  Or we remember those days before copy machines when we used something called carbon paper.

Sometimes we think of our lives in chapters marked by the major changes or transitions that have occurred. We bundle the months or seasons, years, or decades together as that chapter of our life shaped by relationships, work, or places.

Sometimes we look forward to change. Without enough change, life becomes dull.  At other times we wish things could just stay the same. Perhaps we long for a time and a place from our past when things seemed to be stable we felt better or more secure.

Sometimes we focus on the change in our society. We note how technology, media, values, and issues seem to change constantly. We feel the pace of change quickening.  We feel buffeted by change, or rocked to the core by what seem to be the overwhelming waves of change that surround us.

Sometimes we feel, especially as a summer ends, as school begins, as the leaves take on their pre-autumn dusty greens, that change is the way the world turns, as days, weeks, months, seasons, and years mark the flow of time that defines our lives.

II.

      The lessons today speak to a particular kind of change. It is the change that sometimes takes place in one’s faith or religious perspective. These changes in one’s faith view can be difficult to navigate, and the lessons help us focus on this particular change or transition. They speak to moving away from the religion that nurtured us into a deeper compassion and a wider vision of God’s hope for the world. The passages today speak to that river of faith that is never the same, but flows on into the deep eternal.  And that river of faith by which we gather is never the same as the waters of baptism flow into eternity.

In the passage from Luke we see Jesus moving out of the religion in which he was raised, into a deeper compassion and a wider vision of God’s hope for the world. He says that compassion, healing, and acts of necessary kindness are more important than Sabbath living. Jesus and all the people in this story have been nurtured and sustained by Sabbath living.  And we should not reject Sabbath living too easily. Sabbath living is a very good thing.

You know that second or third commandment depending on how you number them: Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.  Sabbath living is a deep tradition in the Jewish faith. We see its importance in the first lesson from Isaiah:

If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
If you call the Sabbath a delight
And the holy day of the Lord honorable;
If you honor it, not going your own ways,
Serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
Then you shall take delight in the Lord,
And I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob. 

     Honoring the Sabbath meant recalling the seventh day God rested in creation. Sabbath helped people remember the creating God.  The Sabbath shaped time itself into weeks. And even our secular age, we still treasure our weekends.  Sabbath was a day of rest, a time to renew: respite from being ground down by the endless toil of life. Sabbath limited the amount of labor that could be extracted from animals and people, and in that sense was a call for justice. It was a time for gathering in synagogues, for building community through shared conversation, common worship, and meals together. It was a time for meditation, reflection and deep personal prayer. It was a time for study of the word, when everyone, not just the leadership was given the opportunity to reflect on the word and will of God. Sabbath living had much to commend it. It was the womb which bore the likes of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Jesus. It was important to live the Sabbath.

But like all religious life, Sabbath living can degenerate into Sabbath rules. Regulations and following the form can become more important than the spirit in any religious enterprise.  And in the time of Jesus, many felt that the Sabbath meant following the rules, that any work whatsoever, including acts of compassion, and assistance, healing and care, violated the current Sabbath regulations.

Here in Luke we sense Jesus moving away from the Sabbath womb that bore him into a deeper compassion. It is not so much that Sabbath is a bad thing for Jesus. It’s just that Jesus is molding a deeper faith, a faith based on his relationship with a loving Abba or father, a faith that is grounded in caring for the people and world around us.  As Isaiah also says this morning:

If you remove the yoke from among you,
The pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
If you offer your food to the hungry
And satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
Then your light shall rise in the darkness
And your gloom is like the noonday.

     Jesus changes living in the Sabbath so that Isaiah’s connection between compassion and a day of rest is restored. For Jesus, and in the passage from Isaiah, there is no better day to heal than the day it is needed.  For Jesus as well as Isaiah there is no better day to heal than the Sabbath. Jesus deepens and changes the faith in which he was nurtured as he moves from Sabbath rules to the healing inherent in Sabbath living.

III.

      The passage from Hebrews is part of our sequential reading from this book of the Bible. It also speaks to moving out of the religion that bore us into a deeper vision of God active in the world. Hebrews speaks to that river of faith that is never the same, but flows on into the deep eternal.

This passage from Hebrews is frankly difficult to understand. But it does indicate that the religious traditions of this world are not an end in themselves but point to the ways of heaven, to the sacred. It says that what was experienced long ago in the wilderness is now a deeper metaphor for how we relate to God and one another now. Hebrews speaks of how a faith grounded in mountains and altars, shepherds and priests, sacrifice and ritual, ancient law and custom, would be transformed into a faith that speaks of heavenly mountains, the loving shepherd of the universe, the God who sacrifices for the sake of love, as ancient rituals become the symbolic procession of the people of God through the ages. The ancient faith and its practices that bore the people of God for so long, has given way in Hebrews to a new faith born in the love of God, as each piece of the past becomes a symbol for a future hope.  Our past faith in Hebrews is a womb, a cocoon that gives birth to something bigger, wider, deeper, and more loving.

The passages for this Sunday from Isaiah, Hebrews and Luke speak to change; the changes in our lives, and the change that sometimes takes place in our faith or religious perspective. They speak to moving from the religion that bore us and has sustained us over the years into a deeper compassion and a wider vision of God’s hope for the world. They speak to that river of faith that is never the same, but flows on into the deep eternal.  That river of faith by which we gather is never the same, as the waters of baptism flow into eternity.

How is your faith changing? Have there been sudden new insights? Or have things slowly evolved as you have grown wiser? How has God deepened the words and images you use to describe hope, faith, and joy? How has God been making you a more compassionate and loving person? And if you are not all that happy with the way things are in your faith life, remember that God is moving us along the path, bringing us out of the cocoon which has sustained us. Each one of us is still being constructed. Our faith is constantly changing. And God is not finished with us yet.

Sermon for August 18, 2013

Jeremiah 23:23-29, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56

We all face disagreements, arguments, and struggles with others as we go about life. People, by our nature, do not always see things in the same way. In fact, people disagree about most things. If you put two Lutherans in a room and ask them to consider an issue, they will probably have at least three opinions. And each of those thee opinions would probably be dearly held, grounded in scripture, and non-negotiable. We all face disagreements, arguments, and struggles as we construct our daily lives.

Some would say we live in the most contentious of ages. There may be some truth to that. In some ways, media and our consumer orientation have driven us all more deeply into our own opinions and perspectives, reinforcing our preconceived notions about what is right, our sense of certainty about our own opinions, and our capacities to reject those who think differently from us.  In an age of infinite choice, it’s hard to find agreement on even basic issues. It’s hard to find agreement in politics. Many in religious circles are divided on a host of issues. Reality television thrives on interpersonal tensions, drama, and conflict.

Yet contentiousness has always been a part of who we are as humans. And sometimes that contention has led to violence of unspeakable proportions. Today’s gospel lesson from Luke brings us into the crucible of disagreement, argument, and the struggle between people. In fact, today, it seems that Jesus is hot under the collar. Today he seems to be saying that conflict is an inevitable thing, especially in the family. How could that be? Would not Jesus be pro-family? Would he not want everyone in our families to just get along with each other?

Well, families usually have disagreements. People in families do not always agree. For first century Christians, family life may especially have been a problem. When Christianity was a new religion, as people became Christian, probably their families objected to their new religion. Why would you join that new religion that’s being persecuted? Isn’t it a cult? What about all the radical people dying for their faith, as we learn in the Hebrews lesson today? Christianity would have been a divisive thing in many cities and families in the first century. And those Christians would find family life especially contentious. Eventually Christianity comes to support and sustain family life. But not when this is written. Conflict would be inevitable in the family.

The second lesson in Hebrew points to what may make that conflict in families especially difficult. The great ode to faith in Hebrews, which we began last week, continues this week with the story of martyrs. By faith we are saved. By faith we are led. Be faithful, be courageous, be firm, and be strong in the persecutions to come. All of that points to the tensions and conflicts between Christians and the Roman culture and authorities which would make the decision to become and be Christian difficult for one’s family to understand.

But religious conflict and different religious perspectives are not limited to Christians or to the first century.  Families are still be separated by beliefs, values, religion and politics. And the first lesson indicates that religious conflict can run deeply. Jeremiah is written at a time when there were two different perspectives on what a prophet was and how a prophet acted. One view was that prophets had visions, dreams, trances, or ecstasy, and in those ecstatic experiences had special insight into God. The view of Jeremiah is different. Insight into the sacred, insight into God is not a matter of dreams and trances, but a matter of wisdom about how one lives life. Finding and following the will of God, working for justice, peace and compassion were the pathways into the sacred, rather than ecstasy for Jeremiah. The lesson shows the conflict between ecstasy and wisdom as the window into the sacred in the first lesson.

All this conflict. The lessons from Jeremiah, Hebrews, and Luke all have conflict as a common thread. Perhaps there are several things we can say about conflict.

First, if you are facing a conflict, remember that it is a part of life, and that you do not need to feel badly if you are having trouble with conflict. All of the lessons in some ways accept conflict. There is something freeing about that.  At this point in my life, I’ve generally forgotten most of the arguments I’ve had over the years. But there are a few things that still are difficult for me, as they are for anyone. I don’t need to perfectly resolve all the conflicts in my life. And I don’t want them to take over my heart and fill me with anger or bitterness. But I don’t need to be a perfect person either. And some things should not be forgiven lightly, and will take awhile.

Second, conflict reminds us of what is important, and that some significant things that matter. We never really fight about insignificant things. When we seem to be arguing about something stupid, we usually are arguing about something deeper that we have not yet discovered. Conflict helps us to identify the important. It is often a gateway into some deeper issue. And sometimes we need to think about, pray about, and reflect on our arguments to find that really important thing God is trying to tell us.

Third, when it is healthy, conflict is usually the first step in a longer journey, in a process in which we are moving along as time passes. We can get stuck in conflict, but generally we sense we need to move along; that there needs to be some resolution; that compromise may come later; and that joint solutions are possible and coming. If you seem stuck in conflict, and you are at a point where you are ready to move on, try praying for awhile for the well being of your adversary.

Fourth, in the Bible, conflict is silver, but reconciliation is gold. It’s fine in the defense of some important principle to go for the silver now and then, but when it really matters, go for the gold. Prize the compromise, forgiveness, mutual affection and regard, gentleness of spirit, and gracious love that overcome conflicts. These treasures can be yours regardless of the state of the heart of your adversary. These things are actually our basic principles upon which the faith is founded. Love, rejoices in the right, but does not insist on its own way.

Finally, it is helpful to remember that there is some likelihood that we will end up spending eternity with those with whom we struggle. Heaven is a big place, filled with many people. There is no indication whatsoever, that when we get to heaven, only the people who agree with us will be there. In heaven we will all be blessed with deeper insights into the will of God. But there is no guarantee that the will of God will prove us right and others wrong.  And most of those things we thought were so important, won’t matter in the end anyway.

We all face disagreements, arguments, and struggles as we go about life. People, by our nature, do not always see things in the same way. In fact, people disagree about most things. If you put two Lutherans in a room and ask them to consider an issue, they will probably have at least three opinions. But if those Lutherans stay in the same room long enough, by the grace of God, they will begin to find creative new ways of thinking together about the problems we face.

Sermon for August 11, 2013

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, Luke 12:32-40

How do we experience God? How do we feel the presence of the holy? When do we sense that God is near? How is God revealed to us?

We experience God in many ways. Sometimes we encounter God as we go about our daily lives.  Suddenly sometimes God, who has been lurking in the background, comes to the surface as we go about the tasks of the day. A song, the light of the sun, a remark or the arrangement of a set of details can move us to an awareness of God.

Sometimes we experience God in an intentional way. We come to a sacred place, like a church or sanctuary. And we engage in religious actions like prayer and rituals, and in this space and with ritual ceremonies like Holy Communion, we feel the presence of the holy.

Sometimes we experience God in reflection or meditation. We may need to quiet our minds and hearts in order to hear the still small voice of God like a friend calling us to deeper levels of wisdom.

Sometimes we experience God in the musings we have on the lives we have led and the way we have gotten to this point in our journey. As we review our lives, we see the pattern of life given to us by God. We sense the sacred shape of our lives.

Sometimes we experience God in an encounter with another, a stranger perhaps, who calls us to think in new and different ways.

Sometimes we experience God in the act of caring for someone in need, in the act of compassion and generosity. We may even see the face of Jesus in the face of the poor or the suffering.

We experience God in many different ways: daily life, intentional acts of worship and prayer, in reflection and meditation, in thinking about our lives, in encounters with others, and in acts of compassion.   Since Williams James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experience we have come to think that there are many different ways to approach God.

But as you think about your own experience of the sacred, your own experience of God, I suspect that there is not a single person in this room who would say that God comes to us when we all stand around an altar and sacrifice an animal such as a goat. No, we would say, that’s not sacred at all. It’s just weird.  The sacrifice of a goat?

And yet, this is precisely the world view of the faithful at the time of Isaiah, the first lesson today. This is precisely the view of the sacred that is disintegrating at the end of the first century when Hebrews was written, the second lesson today.

For in the ancient mind, in many primitive cultures, in the Americas, in the ancient Middle East, in ancient Greek and Rome, the gods are approached through sacrifice. Sacrifice even comes from the word sacred. Sacrifice involves the killing of animals, altars and temples. Priests are in charge of sacrifices. Sacrifices may be called for by a calendar of holy days. Sacrifices were used to prepare for battle, atone for sin, give thanks for victory, or plea for healing or a bountiful harvest. Sacrificial rules and regulations were important part of the law of the land. And in many parts of the Bible you can see this sacrificial approach to God. Some parts of the Hebrew Scriptures were written by priests who were writing down the regulations needed to do sacrifice well.

But we don’t do sacrifice anymore.  We see the first ancient challenges to sacrifice in the prophet Isaiah this morning. Isaiah writes in the 5th century BCE, in what Karen Armstrong and Karl Jaspers call the axel age, when human awareness deepens and expands in so many different ways. God is thought of differently. The thoughts of the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah are part of this new awareness.

God, the real God, Isaiah says this morning, is not interested in sacrifice. Look again at the words:  What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation– I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

Here is one of the earliest insights that God is not found in the endless killing of animals. Where then is God experienced for Isaiah? Look again at the words this morning: Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the LORD.

God is experienced, the sacred is found, not in the ritual of sacrifice but in the way we live, in the compassion and justice which marks our life together, in our pleading for those who need help, and in our willingness to argue with God. Yes, argue with God, to grapple with important matters in sacred dialog with God and each other. For Isaiah, compassion, justice, and dialog are the sacred way: how we experience God.

Although sacrifice and the temple system continued through the centuries, this alternative vision of God calling for compassion, love, and justice also began to flourish, as more and more people began to sense that what mattered to God was how we lived rather than what animals we killed.

The second lesson is from Hebrews. Hebrews was written in what Guy Stromsa and others refer to as the second axel age, in the later first century, when belief in the old pagan gods was on the wane, when sacrifices in the temples of all religions was no longer valued, when people were turning to new understandings of how God related to us, and how God was experienced.  All sorts of new ways of thinking about God, cults and mystery religions began to emerge as the old temple ways declined. The decline was furthered by the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem around 60 AD. Jews everywhere were finding themselves centering their faith on the Torah and local synagogues rather than a national temple for sacrifice which stood no more.

Through the chapters of Hebrews, one senses the collapse of the sacrificial system that was part of the first century. The writer of the book says that God is not found in sacrifice. Indeed, Jesus is described as the end of all sacrifices, the final and permanent sacrifice of God. Because of the sacrificial death of Jesus, sacrifice is no longer needed. Hebrews ends what Isaiah begins.

How then do we experience God in Hebrews, if not in the temple, if not through the sacrifice conducted by priests? Look again at Hebrews this morning. God is found in something called “faith.” And here we have the great hymn of faith, the historical summary of the faithful for which the book of Hebrews is famous. Our trust, confidence and hope given to us through Jesus will bring us into the presence of God. By faith we are saved. By faith, we are led. By faith we yearn for a better place, a better life not only for ourselves but for all. And by faith, we will all find our destiny in the bosom of Abraham.

The first two lessons today lead us through our primitive human history into our own experience of God: through faith, through justice, compassion, and sacred conversation, through prayer, and ritual and song, through time alone and time together, through all that is good even in the ebb and flow of our own age, so that we say now we experience this sacred love of God in many ways.

And what about Luke today? The third lesson?  It was appointed because we are reading pieces of Luke Sunday after Sunday this summer. Has it something to say about how we experience God, about this tremendous journey of the human spirit bracketed by Isaiah and Hebrews?

I think so. Regarding how we experience God, I think the passage from Luke reminds us that we never know when or how God will show up. Our God is a surprising God. We don’t know when God will come, or how God will work with us in our lives. We know not the day or hour or means God uses to work the sacred into the tapestries we weave. We can pray for something. But God may answer that prayer in ways we did not expect.  You can wait for something, but discover something else in the meantime.  You can work for something and be interrupted by something else and in all of those some-things, the sacred may be swirling as God approaches.  And  Luke says with matters of the sacred, with the presence of God, it is best to be simply prepared, living as best we can, listening for that voice that comes sometimes in the night, sometimes in the cry of the suffering, sometimes in the whispers of the ones we loves. We experience God in many ways these days, and we never know when God will show up.

Sermon for August 4, 2013

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21 

The lectionary or cycle of lessons read in church is found in the hymnal beginning on page 18. It is a wonderful thing. For example, slowly during this summer season we make our way through the gospel of Luke, one piece at a time, reflecting on the teachings of Jesus. Last week we read the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke in chapter 11. This week we have the parable of the rich man in Luke chapter 12.  And we will get to this story in a minute. But the piecemeal approach can be difficult as well. When everything is divided into little pieces, we sometimes do not see how the pieces are connected. We may miss the point if we don’t see the connections.

Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer in chapter 11 laid out not only a way to pray but also the basic principles for human life: the way to live life, an agenda for living based on four yearnings so deep they are the breath of human hope: may the right prevail (the kingdom come), may we all have every day the bread and resources we need, may we all forgive so that we are not consumed by cycles of hatred and violence, and may we have the strength we need for the challenges ahead so that we are delivered from evil.

May the good, true and right prevail. May we have what we need. May we stop hating and killing one another. May we be able to meet the challenges ahead with courage and hope. These are the four yearnings of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke. In the chapters that follow chapter 11, these prayers become organizing principles for life and living, the foundation for a new way to look at society.  And this passage about inheritance and storage barns is part of that section in which the church of Luke addresses the way to live in changing and challenging times.

One issue facing the church of Luke is the economic implication of the prayer of Jesus.  Luke does not shy away from economic matters at all. Luke, more than any other gospel, lifts up the cause of the poor. Luke, more than any other gospel, lifts up the dangers of wealth. Luke in Acts lifts up the example of how the church shared everything in communal living. And yet through both Luke and Acts women and men of means are lifted up by name as persons who support the mission through their generosity and grace. It is as if Luke sees difficulty with affluence, but also sees abundance as a good thing.

Actually, he may see abundance as a necessary thing to accomplish the four principles of his prayer: we want the right and economic justice and a sense of honesty in economic life, we want all to have enough, we seek resources available to all so that we do not destroy ourselves in envy and hatred, and we want to foster economic courage and wisdom so that we can make it through hard times.  All of these things require the gathering and use of economic resources, prospering if you will. Yet the accumulation of abundance, necessary for life, can also be challenging to those who are accumulating.

We might say today that this passage about inheritance and barns full of surplus are united by the theme of economic abundance and capital formation. In both the inheritance question and the story of agricultural surplus the formation of capital and its preservation is important, but also limited in its ultimate value.  We need some capital to accomplish things. But for Luke that’s not the most important thing.

Let’s talk about inheritance just a bit. Pastors walk in and out of wills more than one might think. In our society it is probably more customary for the surviving spouse to inherit the estate. If the surviving spouse dies, then the custom is probably that the children will receive the estate in equal shares. We prize the principles of family and fair distribution upon which these customs are based.

In ancient Hebrew culture, the inheritance custom is different. Primogeniture is the custom. Primogeniture is the custom that the first born male heir receives the entire estate when a person dies. We would not want it to be that way. It does not seem fair, and would just cause friction in the family. As we read this story, in our minds, Jesus should point out the unfairness of unshared estates and stand up for equal distribution of the estate to all heirs.

But as much as we do not like it, primogeniture was used for a reason. In the ancient and medieval mind, the estate often was an economic agricultural unit that required a certain scale in order to be viable. The purpose of the estate was not served best by dividing it up into little pieces, but by keeping it together so that it could continue to sustain all of those dependent on it. It made sense to keep things together rather than to divide the estate into several smaller pieces.

In the first century, when Luke was written, the ancient custom of primogeniture was not consistently practiced. Different ways of inheriting an estate were developing which involved dividing things among the heirs. This passage is written in a time of transition on these matters.  In another story of Luke, the story of the prodigal son, the sons each have a share of the inheritance. In Roman custom, the estate may be divided or given to the more ambitious of the offspring.

So the question of inheritance would have been a topic of discussion in the church of Luke. Did the economic life proposed for Christians require the distribution of the estate among all heirs as a means of justice?  Luke, the champion of the poor, does not provide a clear answer. Jesus says, “Who am I to judge?” Not a bad responsive question for Christians these days for all sorts of issues including this one.

For even though primogeniture violates our sense of fairness, it does lift up the importance of the estate itself and the purpose of this and all estates rather than the rights of individual heirs. For someone like Luke, the individual rights of an heir may be important, but estates would have a social economic responsibility that precedes the right of the individual to acquire something.  We might say that there is an understanding in Luke of the need for capital formation in order for a group, community, or society to accomplish its economic well being.  Capital formation is allowed and even understood as necessary in this gospel so famous for its compassionate insistence that we care for the poor.  Primogeniture may have been part of this vision of the purpose of capital as first Century Christians struggled with their wills.

The next story is also about capital formation, the accumulation of goods and wealth. The excess is built as it always accumulates – through that fortunate combination of opportunity, risks taken, hard work, favorable circumstances and good fortune.  When it all comes together, the barns start to fill up.  Again such abundance is necessary for human life to thrive. It is even prayed for in the prayer of Luke.

But according to Luke, capital formation and accumulation is challenging as well. It lulls us into thinking that it provides security.  It starts to become an end in itself rather than a means to a greater good of economic well being for all.

At first in this story and in our lives, it seems that money can bring happiness and security. And yet we know that health, love, friends, family, and God are all more important.  And we know how risky investments can be.  And we know that in the end, something else provides that basic security we long for.  In the story, the farmer dies. And the good life he envisions comes to an abrupt end.  One wonders how his inheritance will play out. But one thing is clear in this story. Accumulating capital, even for the sake of the common good, may lull us into a sense of false security. Our real security is grounded in the One we know through Jesus. Our real security is grounded in God’s right and good. Our ultimate security is grounded in our relationship with a God whose love transcends even death. That, rather than any of the things of this world, gives us confidence, hope, and security.

Grounded in this confidence and hope, this loving compassion revealed in the life and death of Jesus, the capital and estates formed in these chapters of Luke have a purpose. They do not exist to insures an individual’s security. God has formed them through us to provide for the good and right to be done. They exist so that we all have what we need. They exist to foster good will in our homes and communities rather than hatred. They exist so that we might be encouraged to face the challenges before us.