Friday, October 21, 2011


I’m feeling a little guilty not to have posted yet about the #Occupy movement. But I have been, shall we say, pre-occupied. There’s a few reasons I’ve been procrastinating on it:

1) Legitimately busy. Now accepting prayers for my job search.

2) Trying to figure out the right balance of internet-anonymity and self-revelation.

3) I am mortified that people aren’t sure whether I’m in favor.

So I’m going on the record now: I am in favor. I’m in favor of people’s movements. I’m in favor of more democracy and less corporate influence on government. I’m in favor of closing the yawning gap between rich and poor.

Of course, there are things about the movement I’m struggling with, and here comes the self-revelation part. My spouse works on Wall Street. Not anywhere that got bailed out, and not anywhere that directly benefited from CDOs and credit default swaps and toxic assets and all the other horrific financial instruments we all learned about on Planet Money. But he does work in finance, and near Wall Street itself. (Incidentally, many of the places that did get bailed out and did benefit from screwing with poor people's hopes and dreams and credit scores are located in midtown. I know that Wall Street is a cultural symbol, and it wouldn’t pack the same rhetorical punch to occupy Park & 53rd or whatever.)

So I’ve been struggling a bit, and here’s where I am. Economic injustice is complicated. It is interconnected and subtle. We are all complicit in it, in some ways, or at least most of us are. It’s like empire. It’s like patriarchy. There’s not just one bad guy who makes it all happen – it’s in our hearts and our heads; it's in our anxieties and our desires for fancier toys.

When you know some of those Wall Street guys (mostly guys), it’s hard to look at them and be like “Yes! These people! They are the villains!” Mostly they’re cisgendered guys in their 20s and 30s from middle- to upper-middle-class backgrounds who have spent a lot of time thinking about math, and not a lot of time thinking about social issues, who have worked their butts off their whole lives and are aware that it was really hard but unaware of the ways they’ve benefited from privilege (it’s invisible to the privileged, that’s what makes it insidious). They want to pay off their student loans and they’re anxious about what will happen when their (middle- to upper-middle-class, but probably struggling) parents get older and/or sick. They want to live in nicer homes than they can presently afford, which is a universal desire if we’ve learned anything at all from this whole mess.

Most of them are in the 99%, but I suspect that the 3 million wealthiest Americans (the 1%) are similarly lacking in evil intentions and sinister mustaches. Many of them are probably interested in having a government that serves the needs of all the people. Many of them are probably just as puzzled as the rest of us about how to make that happen. Many of them probably feel alienated by the 99% slogan.

So I’m standing by what I’ve said before and I’ll say again: God doesn’t make bad people. If you want to separate the wheat from the weeds, it’s going to be more complicated than skimming off the top 1% (or if you’re not of my political persuasion, the bottom 47%). It’s going to be more complicated than Wall Street Suits versus protesters. (Also, PLEASE remember that a lot of the “suits” are administrative assistants and HR representatives and other support staff. Be kind.)

We need to do something about this. I hope we can do it together.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

A Sermon on Luke 16:19-31

Hey readers! I am deeply embroiled in non-blog work, so I thought this would be a good time to pull this sermon from the archives. I preached it at a quite-affluent congregation that was presenting me with a preaching award. Having chosen a date and committed to preaching from the week's lectionary I faced a set of texts that were all pretty harsh on wealthy folks. I offered this sermon on Lazarus and the rich man.

The summer that I was eight, I packed a bag of t-shirts and swimsuits and my Girl Scout sash, and I went to sleep-away camp for the first time. I was excited about the campfires and the polar bear swims and the marshmallow roasts and the badges–I loved badges–and all of those things happened, and they were great. But there was a lesson I learned that I never expected.

You see, I was one of the later girls to arrive, and when I introduced myself to the girls I would be sharing a tent with, they told me that there was already an Emily who had arrived before me. So, they inferred, my name at camp could not be Emily. It would have to be something else. Later, I would learn how better to deal with duplicate names. I would learn to suggest that we go by “Emily T.” and “Emily M.” I would come up with nicknames that I didn’t mind, like “Em” or “Emmie.” But on this occasion, I was asked what my last name was–at the time it was “Mott.” I said “Mott, like the applesauce,” and giggling with glee, my tentmates decided that I would be called applesauce.

By the time my parents came to pick me up one week later, I was an emotional wreck. I’m sure that the "bug juice" and the late nights had something to do with it, but to me, the biggest reason was this: I had gone a whole week without ever being called by my own name.

Names, it turns out, can be very important. Our names are how we are known to the world; they say something about who we are–about our cultural backgrounds, our family histories; they identify us in a way that feels much deeper and more personal than our social security numbers. We put our names on things. Sometimes just for practicality–perhaps you write your name inside books so that friends will remember to give them back to you. Sometimes not for practicality at all–we put names on our front doors or our welcome mats. We wear them on jewelry and monogram them onto towels. Names, it turns out, matter to us a lot. You cannot–or at any rate, should not–change someone else’s name to “applesauce” simply because you find it more convenient.

But names and the way we use them also say a lot about power, privilege and status, and who has it. If you have an enormous amount of money, you can splash your name all over midtown skyscrapers, like Donald Trump. Our city is marked by the names of the richest of the rich, even years after their deaths–Rockefeller and Carnegie, for instance. A hundred years ago, immigrants coming through Ellis Island used to have their names changed to sound more “American” by the immigration authorities. And while women are ostensibly legally equal to men, and have been for ninety years, we still change our names if we marry a man at a much higher rate than men do if they marry a woman.

Names, the way we use them, the way we change them, say a lot about power. And that was absolutely true in Jesus’ time, just as it is in our time. It is especially true in the Gospel of Luke, the account of Jesus’ life which is addressed to “Most excellent Theophilus.” The word translated “most excellent,” kratiste, was most commonly used for government officials, and although we don’t know much about Theophilus, his name is preserved forever in scripture. The names of many powerful people are preserved forever in Luke’s gospel: a few that you might remember are Emperor Augustus, Quirinius, governor of Syria, and Joseph of Arimathea, the wealthy man who arranges for Jesus’ body to be buried.

Luke was very concerned with power and status, and is constantly reporting the names of authorities, and who was the son of whom. At the same time, Luke is full of reversals, starting from the very beginning of the story: Mary’s Magnificat, the poem that she sings as she expects the birth of Christ, sings of a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” And from that point on, dissonance rings through the text, as the narrator reports on who has power and money while the Messiah mingles with outcasts and poor people.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we find Jesus speaking to the Pharisees, who have been grumbling about the odd company he keeps and ridiculing him for his attitudes about wealth. Jesus tells them a parable about a rich man. The terms which Jesus uses to describe this man convey opulent wealth. Both purple dye and fine linen were luxury items, and this man is dressed in both. Every meal this man eats is a magnificent feast. And he lives in a gated house, although gates were about as rare in ancient Israel as they are in modern Manhattan. This man is a caricature of wealth.

Lazarus, meanwhile, is a caricature of poverty. The Greek word used to describe him means not just a poor man, but a beggar. Lazarus is described, in the passive voice, as “having been thrown” at the rich man’s gate–having been tossed aside. He is covered in sores, and these sores are being licked by dogs–an image which would have been even more repulsive in a society where dogs were seen as filthy pests, not beloved pets.

So we have these two men, dramatic portrayals of wealth and of poverty. And as we would expect in Luke, there is a reversal. Lazarus is taken into the bosom of Abraham and the rich man tormented in the underworld. But what we might not expect is this: the poor man has a name and the rich man does not. What’s more, Jesus gives the poor man in this parable the name of one of his dearest friends–Jesus names the fictional beggar of this parable after Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus raises from the dead.

It pushes against our expectations to identify a beggar by name while the rich man remains nameless. It is such a transgression of social norms that many try to “fix” or “correct” it. The rich man has been called “Dives” by tradition, but dives is not a name–it is the Latin word for “rich man.” Scholars have combed through old manuscripts, wondering whether there is an older version which names the rich man. And one commentary I read actually mixed up the two men, assuming that the name must belong to the rich man, saying that “the poor man” ended up in the bosom of Abraham while “Lazarus” suffered in Hades.

We know instinctually who is supposed to have a name in a story, and who is not, and this story breaks the rules. I think that is precisely the point. Parables are stories that contain layers upon layers of meaning. Is this a story reminding the privileged to be attentive to the needs of the oppressed? Yes it is. Is this a warning that there are consequences for individuals and societies who are indifferent to the suffering of those around them? Yes it is. Is this a story about a man so self-absorbed that he thinks he can boss Lazarus around even from the depths of Hades? Yes it is. Is this a promise of justice for those who feel ignored by the powers that be? Yes it is. Is this a foreshadowing of Jesus’ resurrection? Yes it is. And is this a story which, by defying our expectations, demands that we pay attention to who we know by name and who we lump into faceless categories? Yes, it is that too.

This is a story which calls us to give some attention to the way that we tell stories, the way we understand the world. It is a story which, by refusing to play by the rules, asks us a question about whose rules we will play by. Because there are still people whose names we use, and people whose names we do not use. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, Donald Trump and Martha Stewart, Lady Gaga and President Obama. These are people whose names and histories and personalities are intimately familiar to us, even if we will never meet them. And there are people–millions of people, sometimes billions of people, often oppressed or underprivileged people, whom we collapse into categories: Africans; the homeless; the elderly. We speak of them, sometimes, as if they had one mind, one experience, one personality, almost like the Borg, that Star Trek villain made up of individual bodies connected by one computerized hive mind.

If you watch for it, it will not be long before you hear some gross generalization about the hopes and dreams and experiences of some category that includes millions of people. “The mentally handicapped benefit from structured activities like the Special Olympics,” someone might say. “Africans need to be educated about safe sex. They need access to modern technology.” “Domestic violence victims have no self-esteem.” I am not saying that these statements are universally wrong; they have bases in statistics, in the real world. And the scale of suffering in this world is too great for each of us to encounter each starving child, each trafficked woman, each African AIDS patient, as an individual. But if we accept these categories uncritically, we fall into the trap of seeing powerless people as objects, rather than created, beloved children of God. People can come to be seen not as people, but as obstacles to step over, unfortunate souls to condescend to, nameless, faceless masses.

The call of faith, the challenge that Jesus gives us in this story, is to pay attention to who has a name and who does not, to challenge the categories that define us and others, to see one another not as rich and poor, Samaritan and Judean, tax collector and priest, Pharisee and Sadducee, but as people. The call of faith is to build community across the barriers of Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, handicapped and able-bodied, young and old. The call of faith is to know that no matter how little someone has, no matter how marginalized, no matter how oppressed, everyone has a name, and God knows them by name and loves them–and us.

This is deep at the heart of the message of Jesus, but it runs so contrary to the ways of the world that it keeps slipping through our fingers–even our stories of benevolence sometimes are framed in language that forgets to see needy people as people. There’s a wonderful old Christmas carol called “Good King Wenceslas,” which tells the story of a king named Wenceslas who looks from his window and sees an unnamed poor man gathering wood late at night in the snowy woods. He gathers food, drink, and firewood to give the man and his family a Christmas feast. It is a kind act, to be sure; benevolence beats apathy every time. Wenceslas, I think, is following Jesus: he is giving of himself, caring for the “least of these,” reaching out across social boundaries. But in the song, Wenceslas’s name is remembered, and the peasant’s name is forgotten. The poor man becomes a prop, an object through which Wenceslas’s kindness is demonstrated.

It is precisely this which Jesus is calling us to turn away from when he gives Lazarus a name. He is inviting us to reach across boundaries and categories, to engage one another as human beings, to turn away from the dehumanizing messages of this world about who matters and who does not. He is inviting us, the Body of Christ, the church, to build models of the kingdom of God right here, by being in community with one another, communities that cross lines of age, race, social class, ability, and sexual orientation. Perhaps he is inviting me to learn the names and stories of the panhandlers outside my home and workplace. Perhaps he is inviting you to travel on the upcoming mission trip to Zimbabwe and meet Zimbabweans with particular stories and particular hopes and dreams. Perhaps he is inviting congregations to think about whether we welcome street people as graciously as we welcome affluent people.

When Jesus names Lazarus, but not the rich man, he is trying to shake us out of our indifference, our exhaustion with the great suffering of the world (and it is exhausting), and to remind us that each and every person–even Lazarus, even us, is a beloved child of God. Each and every person–even Lazarus, even us, is known by name.

There is a call to action, there, friends; there is a call to peel away some of our protective apathy, to take off our blinders, to allow ourselves to be wounded by others’ suffering, as God is wounded, and to do something about it. But there is also a word of comfort: Lazarus’s value in the eyes of God cannot be taken away from him. And neither can yours. Your value does not come from accomplishments, or college degrees, or your resume. Your value does not come from intelligence or attractiveness or wit. Your value does not come from having a nice home, or successful children, or a lucrative stock portfolio. It does not even come from your church work or your charitable work. (It does not even come from winning a preaching award.) Because no matter what you have or don’t have, no matter how you’re doing in the rat race, no matter how well-loved you are at church or at home or at work, your value comes from being a created and beloved child of God.

When Jesus names Lazarus, he is inviting us to live in the reality of the Kingdom of God: the reality that we are made in God’s own image, and that we are known by name and loved. And when we know that, when we really receive it and know the love of God for ourselves and for our neighbors, it makes linen and purple cloth seem less important, and clothing the naked more important. It makes fine feasts less important, and welcoming strangers to the table more important. It empowers us to open the gates, to look people in the eye, to care for one another, not out of obligation or fear, but out of love. Because we know that in the Kingdom of God, Lazarus is loved and called by name. And so are we.

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Philippians: When Church Ladies Collide

I recently spent a Saturday with family, including my grandmother. (She learned that I blog here. Hi Grandma!) I was still struggling with and rewriting the sermon I was going to preach the next day. “Would you like to practice on us?” grandma inquired. “Maybe,” I replied, “I’m not sure it’s quite ready yet.” “What are you preaching on?” she asked. “Philippians,” I answered. “Never mind,” she said, “Don’t practice on us after all. I can’t stand Paul.”

I get where she’s coming from. We’ve talked about this before, and her problem with Paul mostly has to do with his problematic teachings about women. (I’ll write about those someday soon, I promise.) I used to feel the same way, and those words that bother her still bother me. But I’ve changed my mind about Paul, and it’s because of things like these verses from this Sunday’s lectionary passage, also from Philippians:

I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life. (Philippians 4:2-3)

I didn’t used to pay attention to passages like this one, passages that speak so clearly and specifically to someone else. They seemed so distant, written to speak to some other place and time. But I am so glad they’re in our Bible. For one thing, they remind us that epistles are “someone else’s mail,” written to particular communities, often about those communities’ particular problems, frequently in response to letters from those communities that we will never get to read.

But more importantly, they record a Paul who speaks not just about women, but to women. Passages written to women leaders in various local churches (there are several of them) make it clear that Paul saw women as compatriots and “co-workers,” leaders of the fledgling church.

I wonder who Euodia and Syntyche were? We’ll never know. Clearly they were having some sort of disagreement that was affecting that church community. What we do know is this: Paul takes their dispute seriously; he urges them to resolve their differences; he affirms them as colleagues, leaders, and Christians. He doesn’t dismiss their argument as frivolous. He doesn’t make snide remarks about “cat fights” or “parking lot matriarchs.” He doesn’t try to use his status to force them into silence or out of leadership. I've seen some churches do worse in the twenty-first century.

Maybe we still have a few things to learn from Paul.