Sunday, February 28, 2010




I.
    One of you sent me a news story recently, and I’m sorry that I don’t recall who, about how powerful the Texas Board of Education is and how anti-science they lean.  The irony of that part of the story is, for the last several years the chairperson of the 15-person Board was a dentist.  Most of us have high hopes that our dentists have an appreciation for science.  The fact is that there are significant numbers of scientists who embrace fundamentalist Christianity at church even though they work in a science lab throughout the workweek; science takes a back seat to their religious commitments. 
    Science can even be portrayed as an enemy of religion.  Most of these same people use wired and cellular telephones, drive cars, fly in airplanes, take prescription medications, and vote in electronically operated voting booths.  Christian fundamentalists are so determined to make everything in the Bible literally true, that they toss science in a pinch and, in the process, create a false dichotomy and tension between two legitimate ways of seeking truth.
    Evolution is a scientific theory of how the world began, and many of its proposals can be established.  The initial spark or impetus cannot be proven, but the changing of life forms and the Earth’s structure over time is impossible to deny.  The fundamentalists are now spreading around the word that there are essential scientific facts widely known by “the establishment,” which would undo many of the tenets of evolution if the rank and file could only get their hands on them.
    Creationism is a faith perspective held by those who believe the ancient Hebrew myths describing how the world came into being are literally true as to historical and scientific perspectives even though the stories assume a cosmic structure that never has existed.  Those who hold to this view reject the possibility that we have figurative or symbolic literature in our hands; literalizing it doesn’t honor it as the fundamentalists hold, but rather literalizing the ancient stories that open the book of Genesis ruins their intent and effectiveness.
    The antievolution people on the Texas School Board want textbooks written that call anyone who believes in evolution “an atheist” and parents who teach their children evolution “monsters.”  Clergypeople who advocate evolution are to be designated “morons.”  This is both sickening and scary.
    The problem other than the willingness to brain wash kids who are required by law to attend schools overseen by the Texas Board of Education is the role of the textbook publishers.  Because there are so many schools in Texas, and the state, thus, buys millions of high-priced and overpriced textbooks, the publishers can play a key role here.  The publishers of science texts as with most other publishers are most often in the business to make money, not to make difference.  If the Texas School Board influences these publishers to take a pro-fundamentalistic perspective in what they publish, not only will the students in Texas be affected by the half-truths they are willing to tell, but also students in many other states because the texts sold in Texas will be sold widely elsewhere as well.  The publishers aren’t going to tailor a text to the demands of Delaware.
    Science and religion are not enemies.  In the western world, most of the early scientists were theologically informed and grappling with the best theological thought of the times in which they lived even as they rethought cosmic structures and invented telescopes.  Most of them did not renounce religion in order to go as far as their scientific investigations would take them.  The enemies of the early scientists could do no worse in their societal contexts than to accuse them of blasphemy and to make them enemies of the church.  That very tactic is still in use today.
    The fact, however, is that religion properly conceived and lived out doesn’t intend to nor is its place to limit the constructive efforts of science.  Similarly, it is not up to science to tell religious folk what they may believe about God--what their options or limitations are in the realm of faith.  The most well-trained scientist can be a person of faith and can be entirely faith-orientated without buying into biblical literalism.  And, the solidly established and devoted person of faith can be the most avid enthusiast for scientific progress.  This gets us to where we want to be today as we try to lay out some principles of spirituality for the scientifically grounded seeker.
    I doubt that those who are scientifically grounded and who affirm an honest literary-analytical approach to interpreting scripture rather than a willy nilly literalistic approach are very moved at first blush when they read or hear of traditional spiritual practices--especially if they are presented as requirements for those who are truly faithful, those who are really committed to God. 
    One of the serious problems with how the Christian faith is presented to vast numbers of people by the majority of those who claim the right to tell others what they need to know and do about their faith is that, honestly, the list of evident and hidden expectations is kind of deceptive and yet binding for those who expect to be at the top of the heap.  Initial entry into Christianity is a relatively simple process involving largely intellectual assent--saying, “Yes,” to a handful of doctrinally based questions typically devised by the leader who has appointed herself or himself gatekeeper to the realm of God.  There’s not much use, though, in getting in if you don’t take up the Tier Two expectations--tithing (not to just any Christian movement but, ironically, to the organization headed by the gatekeeper); a prayer life focused on material gain; an active antagonism toward those who conceive of faith differently than those in the community being built and guarded by your gatekeeper--in particular, a rejection of any recognition that the worldviews of ALL of those who wrote what became scripture are completely unrelated to a scientific or a post-scientific perspective.  Non-literalists tend to be rather instantly turned off by such claims, and as a result they may turn their backs on any kind of organized religion altogether. 
    Adam Frank has written a book, recently released, called The Constant Fire:  Beyond the Science Versus Religion Debate.  And it is about time to get there, isn’t it?  Here is one of Frank’s pivotal quotes:

The constant fire is the aspiration to know what is essential, what is real, what is true. It emerges from the elemental experience of the world as sacred. Mythic narratives are one expression of that aspiration. Scientific narratives are another.

Fundamentalists are strongly disagreeing with him on his approach, but a key part of how Frank, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Rochester, looks at this complex concept is by appealing to William James, the psychologist, and to Rudolf Otto, the theologian. 
    From James, Adam Frank, wants to emphasize that the core of religion is not dogma at all; rather it is religious experience, and William James’s most famous work was his Varieties of Religious Experience so there is no narrowly conceived notion of what religious experience may entail.  Even so, there are people that you know and plenty of people I know for whom experience is considered secondary or even unimportant when placed next to doctrine.  For many of the anti-science fundamentalists, there is no question that believing what they hold to be the “right” facts supersedes religious experience hands down. 
    Rudolf Otto coined the term “numinous” to describe the utter holy, which many take to be God.  Not all do, though.  I think Otto’s “numinous” very close to Karen Armstrong’s “great mystery” for those of you who read her.  Frank’s contention is that plenty of scientists find their way to the numinous doing their scientific work.  They may use entirely secular language to describe what they have experienced and not even think in terms of anything in the realm of religion, but they may still have encountered precisely what religious folk claim to have come upon when they say, “God.” 








II.
    I’ve known a few saints in my day, and among them are Dr. E. Glenn Hinson.  A great person of prayer, he is also a brilliant academician and a prolific writer.  Last year he was honored for fifty years of teaching, and he’s still at it. 
    He earned two doctoral degrees--a Th.D. in New Testament studies from Southern Seminary and a D.Phil. from Oxford in early Church History.  A popular professor wherever he has taught, he has spent the bulk of his energies since I have known him--which has been about thirty years--teaching and promoting spirituality.  I have loved every book of his that I’ve ever read including his tome on the history of the early church, but two of those many books changed my life:  A Serious Call to a Contemplative Lifestyle and A Reaffirmation of Prayer
    His courses were tough to get into.  I finally lucked into one the summer before Lindon and I got married--she also being one of his students and fans.  He wrote a prayer for our wedding that was extraordinarily meaningful to us and our guests.  The course in which I studied formally with Glenn was titled “Prayer in Christian Tradition.”  One of the best courses in my long academic career. 
    A truly gentle soul, he was one of the prime targets the fundamentalists wanted to tear down when they took over our seminary and our denomination.  They called him a heretic, which--of course--means he would be joyfully welcomed here, and in response he preached one of the most powerful seminary chapel sermons I ever heard called “Am I a Heretic?” 
    The war the fundamentalists declared on Hinson was an interesting one to observe.  They had power, money, and anger as their ammo, and he had all the brains minus any evident animosity.  They won the seminary, and he won as a scholar and as the one who took Jesus seriously.
    Glenn’s perspectives on spirituality are an interesting mix of Baptist, Quaker, and Roman Catholic ideas and practices.  Names he has most frequently referred to as influential in his development are Trappist monk Thomas Merton and Quaker philosopher Douglas Steere. 
    Rabbi Jeremy Kagan, in his book, The Jewish Self:  Recovering Spirituality in the Modern World, makes the startling claim that “human awareness of the spiritual center of existence...has been fading continuously for more than three thousand years.”  A critical part of this process of loss, he insists, was the loss of the great Hebrew prophets two and a half thousand years ago.  “At that point,” he explains, “we lost sight of the transcendent Source at the foundation of our individual being and of our world, and we came to understand ourselves and our world as essentially physical.”  Kagan doesn’t comment on this, but another contributing factor to a spiritual loss has been antipathy toward silence.
    The most popular and widely attended Christian services today are busy and boisterous.  Few folks seem to remember, or care to remember, that when Elijah was complaining to God about the absence of drama in many of the divine visitations, God said, “If you want to ‘hear’ me, center on sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12).  That’s an uncomfortable, if not scary, thought to modern seekers who know how little quietness there is in our lives and how little seems to be available, even at our religious gatherings, when we do a quick mental glance through a typical day or week.  Mother Teresa said,
We need to find God, and God cannot be found in noise and restlessness. God is the friend of silence. See how nature--trees, flowers, grass--grows in silence; see the stars, the moon and the sun, how they move in silence.  We need silence to be able to touch souls.
    An electrician was at my house yesterday trying to fix up some really old wiring in one of my outlets.  His wife called him incessantly, demanding to know when he’d be home; every call, naturally, delayed his return home because it interrupted what he was needing to do just to leave things safe until he can return to me this afternoon, hopefully without his telephone or his wife.  Once while she was railing at him, he hung up on her and looked at me and said, “I can’t tell you what I’d give for a few hours of silence. Do you have any specials on getting rid of wives, Reverend?”
    “No,” I said.  “We’re all sold out of those de-wifing ceremonies at Silverside!”
    I imagine there’s a great deal of silence in Chile today.  Another natural disaster of catastrophic proportions with over 200 pronounced dead and some 2 million others affected so far.  This says nothing of those who are threatened by the resultant tsunamis.  We simply can’t absorb the depth of the pain and loss.  Hopefully, Pat Robertson will speak up soon and help us understand. 
    There comes a natural point in the initial response to a horrible tragedy when silence takes over.  There are no more tears to be shed for now.  A voice has grown exhausted from weeping and wailing.  There’s no energy left for asking God or anyone else, “Why?”  Silence takes over, and we are left to peer into the abyss--we, here; and the one or ones whom we have lost somewhere else.  Oliver Wendall Holmes insightfully referred to silence as a poultice that comes to heal the blows of sound.
    Silence also often sets in after elation.  We can be so overcome with joyous emotion that no words or sounds can be uttered or made for a while. 
    The Apostle Paul wrote of prayerful sighs too deep for words, which has led me to propose in another context that, perhaps, the most profound prayers we ever pray are the wordless ones.  After all, how could I possibly articulate the profound gratitude I feel for the privilege of being a dad?  How could I tell anyone with accuracy how profoundly painful it felt to have to say my earthly goodbyes to my Dad in the critical care unit of St. Mary’s Hospital in Knoxville nearly a decade ago...or how much pain remains when I long to hear his voice but cannot?  How can I express what great music does to me, for me in the depths of my soul?
    My ears tell me that one of our favorite congregational hymns here is “God of the Sparrow.”  In the words we sing, there is question upon question.  “How does the creature say Awe?  How does the creature say Praise?  How does the creature cry Woe?  How does the creature cry Save?  How does the creature say Grace?  How does the creature say Thanks?”
    Benjamin Disraeli once said that silence is the mother of truth.  And Gandhi realized that, “In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive and deceptive resolves itself into crystal clearness.” 
    The teacher/preacher who wrote the book of Ecclesiastes said poetically and insightfully that there’s a time to speak as well as a time to keep silent.  Not all conversation is for speaking just as not all prayer is for speaking.  There are appropriate times for intentionally choosing to be silent. 
    Did you know that there’s a psychological disorder called “sedatephobia,” which is a fear of silence?  I think that’s legit.  I think there are those who truly fear the silence.  These are people who could no more envision silence as an important part of spiritual practice than anything in the world largely because they’d be uncomfortable or terrified of the silence.  These are the people who sleep with music playing, those who have to have their televisions on while they read, their iPods plugged into their ears as they get through the demands of any given day.  Getting this treated is very important because we must at times wait in silence in the presence of God. 

The Lord is in the holy temple.
The Lord is in the holy temple.
Let all the earth keep silence.
Let all the earth keep silence before God.
Keep silence.  Keep silence.  Before God.

   
 























III.

    Jesus taught:

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from God in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you.

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you. 

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by God who is in secret; and God who sees in secret will reward you (Matt 6:1-6, 16-18 NRSV adapted).

Spirituality for the scientifically informed:  cleansing, communion, and compassion.
    For today, we will leave out the juicy tidbits about religious hypocrisy except to say that there’s a right way and a wrong way to  undertake spiritual practices.  They are for our private benefit initially, leading to positive benefits for others, but fanfare is out of the picture 100% of the time.  When I say spiritual practices are initially for our benefit, I don’t mean that they make us better than those who neglect them or that God appreciates us more than God appreciates those who practice no spiritual exercises at all.  Each one of these acts makes me more spiritually fit.
    It’s interesting to me that science confirms the importance of each of the spiritual practices that Jesus isolated in the passage we’ve just read.  We can look at these with a completely secular eye and find the importance to health and wholeness that each one contributes:  cleansing, communion, and compassion.
    Not everyone should fast, but there’s a broad range of people who can enjoy physical and emotional benefits that come from fasting.  One of the most obvious is cleansing--ridding the body of toxins.  Very few health sources would argue against periodically putting oneself through a detox process.  Fasting is a healthy choice for some folks to choose toward this end.
    Fasting is a rest from food or certain types of foods for specified periods of time.  Our Muslim friends fast from sun up until sun down during their sacred, month-long season of Ramadan; unless there are health difficulties preventing it, they are to abstain from all foods and beverages except water while the sun is shining.  I hadn’t paid much attention to this essential aspect of Ramadan until I had a Muslim student in class one year who wanted to learn more about Christianity so I invited him to lunch...during Ramadan!  He was ultra polite as he drank his water, and I finally said, “You know, if we were just going to drink, we should have gone out for coffee.”   
    He said, “Oh no, Sir.  No coffee either, but this is a great thing.  It’s just that I can’t eat while the sun is up during our sacred season.”  Still, I felt terribly awkward and uninformed.  Why didn’t I just invite a rabbi out for bacon and eggs as a followup?
    Why do Muslims fast?  Well, Time magazine asked that same question last August.  Not only are they honoring the initial revelations from God to Mohammad through Gabriel, but also devout Muslims are growing in their ability to be self-disciplined.
    Jesus also preached about the importance of prayer as a spiritual discipline, but not as devising a daily to-do list for God.  Prayer is good for your health, current studies seem to reveal, and as I say that I don’t want to promote that idea that prayer is a selfish and self-centered act.  We appropriately pray for others as well as ourselves in a balanced prayer life.
    Herbert Benson, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Mind and Body Medical Institute in Boston, has published results of his research arguing that regular prayer, along with general stress management, can reduce visits to doctors and other health professionals by 50 percent. Now, I’m not recommending that you skip medical visits any more than I’m telling you that you should definitely get into fasting.  I’m just presenting some facts confirmed by scientific research.
    Dr. Benson has for years been studying whether patients who pray and who have others praying for them do better than those who don't have that support. Benefits have been established even when the patient didn’t know that others were praying for her or him.  These kinds of results have been confirmed in similar studies at Duke Medical Center. 
    Out of the realm of needing or wanting anything, though, prayer has long been regarded as helpful if not essential for the seeker and the person of faith.  I have to tell you this, though.  There was a study done at Fuller Theological Seminary a few years ago about clergy challenges.  The results did not paint a pretty picture.  One of the statistics that I report to my seminary students when I’m teaching a course I call “Preaching in Personal and Social Crisis” is that 86 percent of clergy believe in the importance of prayer at some level and practice it on behalf of their parishioners, but sadly at the end of the day the ministers have no energy left for prayer and so do not pray for themselves.
    Remember that an essential part of the practice of prayer is communion with God.  I do not know to speak about many of life’s complexities, and I don’t need to tell God what to do for the people in Chile.  That doesn’t mean, though, that I skip out on prayer.  I bring my need to God in silence.  No words need to be spoken.
    Religious activity should generally lead to taking action for the benefit of others.  Compassion is an outgrowth of a healthy emotional and spiritual life.  People who are fulfilled do not, cannot, keep the good they have to themselves.  If prayer doesn’t eventually lead to compassionate acts for others, I think it’s safe to say what someone took to be prayer wasn’t.  I stress again that it’s perfectly in order to pray for ourselves and our dear ones, but prayer that is real eventually finds itself offered on behalf of others--and very naturally so.  A healthy person quickly realizes that words alone offered to those who struggle or hurt are terribly empty.  Acts of compassion are both natural and essential for the healthy person.
    Amen.
   
   
   

Sunday, February 21, 2010






I.
My mother grew up in the old-time, old-time revivalistic tradition where nearly every religious service was an emotional roller coaster.  She remembers as a little girl being taken to a tent revival meeting by my Great-grandmother, Granny Ingle, that was especially emotional with people wailing in remorse for their sins, dancing in the spirit, and speaking in tongues.  Mom says the preacher got onto heaven in the list of topics he was covering, and the emotional intensity of the congregation grew to greater heights.  Mom says she became convinced that they were trying to get a load together to send right on to heaven that night, and given how much more she wanted to enjoy life on this side along with the highly emotional people she thought were volunteering for the trip, Mom was quite sure she did not want to go heaven at all--at least on that run!
One of the several challenges of trying to think about whether or not a heaven might exist is that it’s gotten bad press from those who have wanted to use it to cop out on the present and by those who have wanted to use it as a kind of ultimate confirmation of the rightness of their cause simultaneously condemning opponents to an eternity excluded from God.  We understand that people living during horrendous times in this world  have longed for heaven as clearly an escape from the pain and suffering in this world; the slaves on the plantations of the old South, for example, truly longed to be free from the abuse many of them suffered on a daily basis.  Heaven, they believed, was an out for them, a place where they would be free and free from beatings and being treated no better than work animals.  Heaven was a constant theme in the spirituals they sang.  
Soon I will be done a with the trouble of the world...goin’ home to be with God.  
I’m just a poor wayfaring stranger, a travelin’ through this world of woe; there is no sickness, toil, or danger to that bright land to which I go.  
On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye to Canaan’s fair and happy land where my possessions lie.  I am bound for the Promised Land!
Thankfully, the conditions improved for those slaves and their descendants.  For them and many of our forebears who never had to suffer the oppression of slavery, life got to be and has remained pretty good.  We many of us are not reduced to mere painful survival; life can even be luxurious.  Therefore, few of us are ready to check out as much as a fraction of a second sooner than we absolutely have to.  Immortality, therefore, is not an escape for us; if we believe in it’s typically conceived as a spiritual continuation of the material niceties to which we’ve grown accustomed in this world.  
Freedom and deliverance from physical pain and struggle was more than enough of an immortal hope for the slaves; upper crust, upper class first-worlders expect much more of heaven.  Their favorite song about heaven is, “I’ve got a mansion just over the hilltop to that bright land to which I go.”  Talk of gates made of pearls and streets made of gold definitely sweeten the pot for the well-to-do contemplating immortality, and, frankly, if heaven isn’t upgraded for the high society types it’s probably not worth all the muss and fuss they think it takes to get them a guaranteed spot on the admissions roster.  I stress “guaranteed” here because the high and mighty in this world have no intention of facing the possibility of potential rejection--whether that bad news is delivered in purgatory or at the pearly gates.  They will pay whatever it takes in the here and now to make being turned away from the finest heavenly parties and accommodations impossible.  They expect to depart this world assured that they can pass through heaven’s reception area as easily as can anyone who wants badly enough to attend a function planned for President Obama by his excellent staff and astoundingly effective security detail.
I don’t have to tell most of you that I’m one in the Silverside community who believes in immortality; not all of us do, and those who don’t are as welcome as those who do.  Neither of us can prove our positions.  Like the super smart Dr. Hal Barker says, “There’s not enough information available on the subject to talk about it one way or another.”  I get where Hal is coming from, and I hope he will forgive me today for talking about it for awhile.
One of the facts about human development that should have changed how we teach children their foundations for spirituality is that the brain is not equipped to deal with abstractions until a certain developmental level is achieved.  Preschoolers can’t understand heaven as an infinite concept.  They may understand the concept that grandmother or granddaddy has gone to live in another place where we will not be able to see them for a very long time.  Trying, though, to talk about heaven as a part of immortality, life that never ends, is pointless until most people have hit their teens.  
I heard about heaven and life eternal from the time I was a toddler, but it didn’t start to sink in as a concept with a temporal quality until I was 12 years old or so.  I was at summer church camp for boys as usual, and the camp pastor had preached on heaven one evening as a place where the cycles of time kept repeating themselves, and not stopping--ever.  We had sung hymns like: 
When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time will be no more, when the morning breaks eternal bright and fair.  Then the saved of earth shall gather over on the other shore, and the role is called up yonder I’ll be there!
There’s a land beyond the river, that they call the sweet forever, and we only reach that shore by faith’s decree.  One by one we’ll gain the portals, there to dwell with the immortals when they ring the golden bells for you and me.
Back in our cabin for the night, the seven of us with our counselor talked into the wee hours of the morning about that.  I fluctuated between thinking such a thought was wonderful and such a thought was scary.
There was never a time after that when I seriously doubted a life after this one.  The details have changed a great deal in how I think about it, but that life continues out of this realm and into another realm made sense to me in so far as a concept ultimately beyond my comprehension can make sense.
The next big time to grapple with the concept was in college, in Greek class with my tough as nails but nonetheless beloved Greek teacher, Professor L. Dan Taylor.  Newbies to biblical Greek, Koine Greek, used to study first 1, 2, and 3 John followed by the Gospel of John.  Vocabulary and grammatical forms were said to have been simpler in these books than in other New Testament writings.  I’m not sure where the teachers of Greek begin these days with their Baby Greek students.  
We happened for the first time upon what in most English translations is rendered “eternal life.”  Our first encounter came right out of the gate, 1 John, chapter 1, verse 2:  
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us.
That’s the way the New Revised Standard translation has it, a good reliable English translation of the original words of the epistle.  Yet, there’s much more to it than that.  It turns out that in Greek “eternal life” or “life eternal” (ζωην αιωνιον) is an idiom.
Scholars out and out differ on whether the adjective, aionion, is a word dealing with duration or not; some say yes, and others say no.  This is what makes scholarship so much fun.  I would say with Professor Taylor that there is no compelling reason to render the word “eternal.”  But it does refer to a noticeable amount of time or a span of time worth taking note of.  He translated the idiom “life into [or unto] the age.”  He said it was God’s kind of life, and the temporality associated with it comes because God is eternal, not because the word itself is pointing toward anything quantitative.  
Professor Taylor also insisted that because this life is God’s life, one does not begin experiencing it when one passes out of this distinctively temporal realm.  Rather, anyone who so chooses begins experiencing God’s life in the here and now at precisely the moment she or he opens self to God.  Life in the next realm isn’t anything new; it’s a continuation of what has already begun in this world.  
II.
Edward Paul Cohn is not only my great friend, but also he is my Rabbi.  He is the Senior Rabbit at Temple Sinai in New Orleans, and he is widely known and respected as a preacher, teacher, civic leader, and interfaith activist.  Our friendship began before I got to New Orleans, bloomed while I served there, and has  continued to grow despite the fact I left the area.  He is a source of unfailing positive energy.  
His preaching is so effective because he preaches from the heart, because he is so well-read, because he understands human struggles, and, I have to say, because of his great sense of humor.  When I pastor of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church, his Temple and my Church were in the same uptown neighborhood.  I don’t think we missed a year doing at least one pulpit exchange where he would ask me to preach at Temple Sinai on Friday evening, and I’d ask him the Sunday of the same weekend to preach at St. Charles.  My people loved him, and, from what I hear, some twenty years later, they still do.
A couple once made an appointment with Ed to ask him to perform their wedding.  The bride was Jewish; the groom was Protestant.  They told him they really wanted both a rabbi and a Protestant clergyperson performing their wedding.  He told them there was only one pastor whom he knew who would be happy to participate in such a service; that would be me.  Without telling me that they were on their way, he called my secretary to make sure I was in the office, and he sent them to see me on the spot with this message:  “Rabbit Cohn says that you would be happy to join him in performing our Jewish/Christian wedding.”  What can you say to that?  Of course, I joined in the fun.
Little did either of us know what a hoot this wedding was going to be.  The couple told us they wanted to have their wedding AT the carousel in City Park.  Prepositions are so very important.  Ed and I arrived to find that we would be performing a wedding ON the carousel in City Park.  Thankfully we weren’t asked to ride the colorful horses as we gave them their vows, but the service did begin with the bride being brought to the groom by her father as they, symbolically I suppose, rode one of the carousel horses while Elvis sang, “I’m goin’ to the chapel, and I’m gonna get ma-a-a-ried.”  I hoped that the photographer and the videographer didn’t get any shots of my face during her horse ride.  I’ve always blamed him for that awkward hour, but at least I was there with my great friend, Ed Cohn.  
The ancient Hebrews had no trouble believing in an after life; everyone, many thought, went to the abode of the dead after this life was over.  There was no heaven or hell in the thinking of the ancient Hebrews, and by the way in Jesus’ day there remained those informed and devout Jews who believed in neither a heaven nor a hell.  Back to the more ancient world, though.  Everyone went to Sheol after her or his earthly life had ended.  There was no reward or punishment there; a person barely lived on as what amounted to a shadow of the life force she or he once had been.  The issue, then, was for many of the ancient Hebrews not whether or not life continued after death; there was no question about it.  However, there was no quality of life in that dark, shadowy underworld.  
The word, “Sheol,” is often used symbolically to refer to challenging times in life so difficult they are like a kind of death, but those who used “Sheol” in a non-symbolic way as indicated by one of the writers of the book of Job in these statements:

As the cloud fades and vanishes, so those who go down to Sheol do not come up; they return no more to their houses, nor do their places know them any more (Job 7:9-10 NRSV).
Even so, those in Sheol were not God-forsaken; indeed, one of the psalmists praises God for God’s eternal embrace.  The psalmist prayerfully asks God, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?”  She or he pauses and ponders and then answers her or his own question, “If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there” (Psa 139:7-8 NRSV).
Now, to say that every ancient Hebrew shared the identical perspective with every other ancient Hebrew on the subject of life after earthly death is non-sense.  Certainly there were those who thought that some could escape Sheol and have something more in the next world than a shadowy existence in the bowels of the earth.    Some of the ancient theologians believed that the especially worthy, the especially pious would find something more glamorous on the other side if Sheol and that the most remarkable would bypass it altogether.  
Some scholars believe that there were those ancient Hebrews who thought of Sheol in a way that some today view purgatory.  It was a place of purification for some, and for those who never escaped it was a place of punishment.  Luminaries, as I mentioned, might have had the chance to bypass Sheol altogether.  Once such luminary might have been Enoch.
To introduce you to Enoch, I have to ask you to plop down with me smack dab in the middle of one of those “begat” passages where only Tom McDaniel can accurately and quickly pronounce every name correctly.  This is from the fifth chapter of Genesis, and as the key father-figures are mentioned to us readers, we find a formula being utilized by the writer or writers.  A key person is mentioned; then we are told how long he lived before he had his first son.  Then we are told if there were other children.  Then we are told how long the key person lived after the first of his first-born son, and finally his total years of living on earth are given.

When Mahalalel had lived sixty-five years, he became the father of Jared. Mahalalel lived after the birth of Jared eight hundred thirty years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Mahalalel were eight hundred ninety-five years; and he died. 
Did you follow the formula?  I’m betting you did.  Here’s another.
When Jared had lived one hundred sixty-two years he became the father of Enoch. Jared lived after the birth of Enoch eight hundred years, and had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days of Jared were nine hundred sixty-two years; and he died.
These are old dudes!  But now a mysterious twist.
When Enoch had lived sixty-five years, he became the father of Methuselah. Enoch walked with God after the birth of Methuselah three hundred years, and had other sons and daughters.  Thus all the days of Enoch were three hundred sixty-five years.  Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.
Wow!  Dramatically fewer years than the others, but there’s no mention of his death.  “God took him.”  No Sheol for Enoch, for some reason.  Impressive huh!  We know next to nothing about him.  His name meant something like “wisdom” or “spirituality.”  He was the great-grandfather of Noah, of flood.  He lived on earth dramatically less than most men in his era seemed to be living, but he seems to have managed to escape the experience of death and any time at all in Sheol.  He must have been taken directly into the presence of God. 
In Christian scripture, specifically in the book of Hebrews, chapter 11 and verse 5, Enoch is given his place in the so-called “faith hall of fame”:  “By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and ‘he was not found, because God had taken him.’  For it was attested before he was taken away that ‘he had pleased God.’”  That’s all we know, but it’s a remarkable remembrance for us, and on Enoch’s side if there is any literal truth to the legend, which we must in good conscience question, he in a flash left this world and found his place in eternity.
III.
Many of us who are followers of Jesus would love it if Christian scripture just settled this issue for us decisively and permanently.  Sadly, that is not the case.  Neither the writers of what came to be Christian scripture nor the readers understood all aspects of the possibility of immortality in exactly the same way.  Speculation will go on; speculation must go on.
The Apostle Paul himself seems to have been unsure of exactly how it all came out, or else he changed his mind along the way.  From one of the first letters Paul wrote and part of the oldest Christian scripture segments we have, the book of First Thessalonians, Paul wrote, and I’m using Young’s Literal Translation here:   

And I do not wish you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, that ye may not sorrow, as also the rest who have not hope, for if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also God those asleep through Jesus he will bring with him, for this to you we say in the word of the Lord, that we who are living--who do remain over to the presence of the Lord--may not precede those asleep (1 Thess 4:13-15).

Paul’s earliest view of death is that it was a state of sleep until the end of time at which point the faithful dead would be raised to immortality.
Years later, when he wrote to the Corinthian congregation, in one of his letters to them he indicated that there were only two states--either to be in this body OR with the Lord.  It’s either life on earth or immortality--no intermediate or sleep state.  Still, there is no debate about eventual immortality for the faithful.
In the teachings that have been attributed to Jesus, there is no question that he, good Jew that he was, believed strongly in an eternal life after earthly life had ended.  Those who want life in the next world, open themselves to God and get it.  As I mentioned earlier, some Jews in Jesus’ time believed with him in a resurrection of physical bodies to immortality--namely the powerful Pharisees who were often at odds with Jesus.  The ruling class and the few aristocratic Jews who were around were Sadducees and did not believe in a life of rewards after death.  Perhaps they still embraced a belief in Sheol.
There’s the famous story from the life of Jesus where a Pharisee, Nicodemus, came to him in secrecy--since publicly they tended to verbally harpoon each other.  Nicodemus is a recognized teacher, and to his credit he was determined to seek truth from whatever source he could find it, even if his search took him to places of discomfort.  He was willing to tuck away his ego and tell Jesus that it didn’t take a camel scientist to figure out that he, Jesus, couldn’t be doing all he was doing unless God were with him.  An interesting conversation ensues about how someone can become a citizen of God’s empire, and Jesus tells Nicodemus that it can only happen one way; it has nothing to do with your pedigree or your birth certificate.  Jesus says the one way in is by being born “from above.”  To oversimplify, Jesus meant that one had to be connected to God, and that happened not by keeping rules or by doing lots of good deeds--as important as they were.  Being born “from above” is being born into God, opening oneself to the presence of God within, intentionally choosing to share God’s kind of life. 
Then, Jesus went on to explain, one will find that there’s a connection between this world and the next when one has been born from above.  Life with God in this world, leads naturally--inevitably--to life with God in the next world.  Jesus’ mission was to preach God so that people, in ignorance, might not perish.  Perishing in this world or the next, as Jesus meant it, is living in separation from God.  
You don’t have to believe in immortality to inherit it.  What we think about it doesn’t make immortality anything more or less than what it actually is.  If immortality is a reality, then if I doubt it, it is no less real.  If I believe in immortality, and it doesn’t exist after all, then my believing in it will not make it real.
My dear pastor, the late Jerry Hayner, told a story once about a hitchhiker he’d picked up, I think, when he served a church in a small town early in his ministry.  It’s a very different world now, even in small towns, and I don’t know who could risk letting a stranger climb into her or his vehicle.  Anyway, going back many years, Jerry picked up this guy, and when the man found out he was riding with a preacher, he proceeded to let him know eery frustration he’d ever had with any minister and all the things he didn’t believe.  One of things he didn’t believe in was immortality so he said to Jerry, “How can you believe such nonsense?  What if you’ve put all this effort in trying to get to heaven only to find out it doesn’t exist?”
Jerry gave him a great answer, I think.  He said, “Even if there is no heaven, living as a follower of Jesus give my life in the present meaning and purpose, and if this is all there is that’s enough for me.  I can die a happy man.”  Flustered the hitchhiker asked to get out at the next intersection.
I am deeply moved by the words often attributed to Francis Xavier though, most likely, we have no clue who first spoke them:

My God, I love Thee; not because
I hope for Heav’n thereby,
Nor yet because who love Thee not
May eternally die.
Now the Apostle Paul and my beloved pastor disagreed on this point.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians, trying to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak, 

For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:16-19 NRSV).
I think doing good deeds or jumping through any religion’s hoops or even seeking the most profound of truths as a basis for trying to earn immortality is a waste of time.  If there is a life after this one, it can be neither bought nor earned; it will come as a gift from God or more likely as the natural outgrowth of being born from above--that is, letting yourself be born into God and/or letting God be born in you.  
If immortality exists, and I think it does as you know, then I think it is only for the continuation of what is good and whole.  I do not believe in eternal punishment or damnation for anyone.  I do believe free choice prevails and that those who want nothing to do with God are not obligated to do so.
Rhetta Bemjamin introduced me to the poem, “Parable of Immortality,” by Henry Van Dyke, and I do believe it was in one of Rhetta’s famous notes of support and concern sent to me after my Dad’s death.  I have used it on a few occasions since--such as at the funeral of Elizabeth Stapleton.  This is beautiful and as profound as anything I’ve ever encountered about immortality:

I am standing upon the seashore.
A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze 
and starts for the blue ocean. 
She is an object of beauty and strength, 
and I stand and watch until at last she hangs 
like a speck of white cloud 
just where the sea and sky come down to mingle with each other. 
Then someone at my side says, 
“There she goes!” 
Gone where? 
Gone from my sight...that is all. 
She is just as large in mast and hull and spar 
as she was when she left my side 
and just as able to bear her load of living freight 
to the place of destination. 
Her diminished size is in me, not in her. 
And just at the moment 
when someone at my side says, 
“There she goes!”, 
there are other eyes watching her coming...
and other voices ready to take up the glad shout... 
“Here she comes!”
Amen.

Sunday, February 14, 2010



I.
When I was in my first seminary program, my curriculum required me to take an evangelism course.  I was uneasy at the time; looking back, I’m appalled.  It’s not that I think sharing one’s faith is a bad thing; done respectfully, it can be fine--important, even.  We could go so far as to say that speaking of our spiritual journey, in appropriate contexts, is natural.  
The strange thing is that some have tried to turn the sharing of faith into a teachable skill.  What percentage of people who are confronted with the news about Jesus in this particular way will embrace your take on Christianity within a one-hour or a two-hour or a one-month period?  Seems to me that this is very similar to having someone else write a script for you to read when you want to express your love for a special someone.  How sincere and heartfelt is that?
One of the books we read for this course, which was called “Building the Evangelistic Church,” was by Robert Schuller; it detailed the founding of the Chrystal Cathedral.  In Schuller’s story of how it all happened, he recalled that someone had once asked him how he could endorse the enormous expenditure of money on building the Chrystal Cathedral knowing that there are so many poor people in our country and around the world.  Schuller quoted Jesus, out of context, and said, “Well, the poor you always have with you.  If we’d given all our money away to the poor, the poor would still be around, and there wouldn’t be this magnificent edifice in which the people of Garden Grove, California, could worship God.”
I and some of my friends who hated the course with me were incensed!  What a callous comment!  What a self-serving perspective!  I complained about Schuller and that comment for years.  Now look at me.  I’m the pastor of a church with a beautiful edifice; it’s no Chrystal Cathedral, but it’s magnificent; and it’s money magnet.  Some of you built it; some of us now join you in paying to maintain it, and there are poor people all around.  I won’t preach Schuller’s prosperity gospel, but haven’t I come to rationalize just like him through the years?
It’s true that if all the wealthy people in the world gave every coin they had to help the poor of the world, we’d still have poor people.  There are countless reasons for this, but the end result is the same:  we’d still have poor people with us.  Some would say, and many have said by the way, that since there’s no way to eradicate poverty we have to get used to having the poor around. All we can do is to be grateful we’re not publicly poor or visibly poor and go on with life the best we can.  Giving away and/or selling all we have to the benefit of the poor may not help very much and certainly will not eradicate poverty.  So do we tiptoe around poverty or just ignore it altogether?
Let me make a bold assertion here.  There is no way to be a part of any legitimate Jesus Movement without being involved in ministry to the poor.  There aren’t many irrefutable statements one can make in this complex and diverse world.  Many of the teachings attributed to Jesus require analysis and may lead to a number of possible interpretations; his parables in particular are specifically designed with this in mind.  What I said about Jesus and the poor is not debatable, though; one of several reasons this is true is that it’s not based on a single teaching, but rather on simple observation of everything we know about Jesus.   Do you need to be told that Bill Sharp is a sports enthusiast?  Do you need to be told that Marie Neal can cook?  Do you need to be told that Barbara Reader loves nature or that I’m a fan of Dick Cheney’s?
Jesus was consistently concerned for the well-being of people who were poor, and, by the way, he didn’t have to go out to the fringes of any city or town to find them.  Most of the people to whom he ministered were poor.  Most of the people whom he encountered were poor.  Most of those who became his followers were poor.  A wealthy follower of Jesus was a rarity.  
Mary Magdalene was an exception.  She was well-to-do and was a big part of the network of financial support for Jesus when he was traveling away from his carpentry shop and had no means to earn his food and lodging.  
Joseph of Arimathea, too, was an exception.  He was in a financial position to own a private burial cave; very few people had those, and he said that Jesus’ body could be buried in his.  
Still, most of Jesus’ followers were poor and he himself far from a wealthy person.  Professor Bruce Longenecker teaches Religion at Baylor.  He’s a specialist on socioeconomic issues in first century Palestine.  He says that about 90% of the Jews living under Roman domination in the first century were relatively poor while some 10% of the Jews were wealthy.  There was no middle class.  There were levels of poverty, but no middle class.  
The poorest of the poor begged.  The next level up were day laborers who worked for a day here and there when someone would hire them, but there was no guarantee that anyone would.  A carpenter like Jesus was a skilled laborer; he could work when hired and maybe make a few items to have on hand that people with money could buy.  Remember, though, only 10% of the Jews had enough money to hire a carpenter, and the Romans by and large weren’t going to do business with the Jews over whom they ruled.  It’s not like Jesus awoke every day to an abundance of carpentry tasks.  As I said earlier, when he didn’t work, he didn’t earn.  He had some sense of how saving money worked, but he probably didn’t often have money to save.  Like most of his poor sisters and brothers, he mostly focused on today.  “Don’t worry about what you’re going to eat or drink or wear tomorrow,” he once said. “Each day has enough worries of its own, and that’s enough!”
It has not been uncommon through the ages for various groups to try to reshape Jesus into their own likenesses; and those who dare to do this are only a step or two away from molding God into their own likenesses too.  In our time and place, the prosperity gospel preachers are the worst offenders.  Bottom line:  they are disgusted by Jesus’ true circumstances as a poor, struggling carpenter.  How can you build a following in the modern United States with an object of adoration whose only material extravagance in a life that spanned some 33 years was one garment--not a closet full, but one?  
Professor Longenecker, again, insists that the “only way you can make Jesus into a rich man is by advocating torturous interpretations [of scripture] and by being wholly naive historically.”  But, “Who wants to be associated with that?” the prosperity gospel preachers ask.  Therefore they are rewriting the teachings of Jesus to suit themselves and their upwardly mobile, well-to-do congregants; and they are preaching that Jesus was rich.  Why?  Because, they say, God who controls all wealth wouldn’t let God’s special child struggle financially.  
The attitudes of these prosperity preachers are so self-serving that it’s sickening, but their congregants are willing to pay for preachers who will sell their souls and preach wealth as God’s will for all.  I guarantee you that if wealthy congregants suddenly cut off the funds to these preachers and their lucrative side interests, their sermons would change at once.  If you could somehow make poverty pay, as welfare and medicaid frauds have learned to do, the prosperity gospel preachers would change their tunes within a few beats.  
As it stands, though, there’s no way to make poverty pay in organized religion so the prosperity gospel preachers keep their sermons coming.  “God wants us to be rich,” they say.  Us who?  Us Americans, of course, and any other non-Americans that we like.  Poor people are disgusting, and most of them are poor because they’re too lazy to work!  Everybody knows that.  So who’d want to be one of them?  
Once a would-be follower of Jesus was so caught up in enthusiasm at the thought of buying into what Jesus taught that the person runs up to Jesus in a crowd and says, “I’m willing to follow up anywhere, Jesus,” meaning, “I’m willing to be your follower whatever that requires of me.”
Jesus said, “That’s wonderful.  It really is, but do you know what it’s like for me outside the limelight?  Let me be lovingly blunt so you can see if you really want to sign on for this.  Foxes have holes in which to rest and get protection from the elements.  The birds of the air of nests where they can rest when they tire of flying or want to enjoy a little bite to eat.  But I, the Son of Humanity, there are times when I have absolutely no place to lay my weary head.”


II.
I’ve had many wonderful opportunities in my career--my educational and my professional career.  One of the high points among the high points was the opportunity I had to study preaching with our country’s finest preaching professor, David G. Buttrick.  He would eventually become professor of homiletics and liturgics at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, a post from which he has kinda sorta retired.  Before that move, the Roman Catholics had hired him to teach some of their seminarians how to preach; some of the higher ups, not the highest ups, were aware that even in a communion-centered tradition, there was still the need and the place for excellent preaching.  There weren’t enough effective Catholic preachers around at that time so they came for Buttrick who at the time was a Presbyterian; he would eventually join up with the United Church of Christ because he found them more affirming of diversity.  It was at this point in his career that I was privileged to be his student.
Through a series of unexpected turns, after the classroom connection, David became one of my treasured friends--mostly from afar, but occasionally face to face.  David’s wife, Betty, is a terrific person also, and it hasn’t been unusual at all for them to adopt students as long-term extended family members. 
In a word, Buttrick is brilliant. He wrote the most significant book on preaching theory last century, and none have come close in this first decade of the twenty-first century.  I’ve been lucky with teachers all my life, but not often did I stumble into the classroom of the world leader in a field.  I did with Buttrick.
Why would he have given me the subject of the poor to deal with in this sermon series?  First, he didn’t want to make it easy on me.  Second, Buttrick is clearly a Jesus-centered preacher, and there simply is no more important fact about Jesus than that he was devoted to the poor and to helping ease their struggle any way he could.  
There is little comment on government in Christian scripture--probably because the Roman Empire ruled the people in the Holy Land, the Greek world, and North Africa.  In a PBS special about the Roman Empire, the narrator says:

Two thousand years ago, the world was ruled by Rome. From England to Africa and from Syria to Spain, one in every four people on earth lived and died under Roman law.  The Roman Empire in the first century AD mixed sophistication with brutality and could suddenly lurch from civilization, strength and power to terror, tyranny and greed. 
The people writing what became the New Testament, therefore, didn’t have governments of their own per se.  
In Hebrew scripture, however, there were pieces written during times when the ancient Hebrews were free--establishing, building, maintaining their own government. During those times, the people are told over and again in what became holy writ to build just political structures with untiring attention to the poor, notably widows and orphans but not limited to them, and attention as well to aliens in need who happen to be in Hebrew territory for longer or shorter periods.
Third Isaiah envisioned God as being fed up with God’s people doing their religious rituals for show and/or in such a way that conflict is created with others also involved in what is supposed to honor God.  Take fasting for example.  The object of fasting is to focus more intensely on God--not to compete with others who fast and certainly not to have something to brag about.  The God of Third Isaiah says in anger to those who fasting for the wrong reasons:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
How you prayed for the Haitians as much as I have?  Did you pray for them morning AND evening every day since the earthquake hit?  If not, no wonder God likes me better than God likes you!  See how ridiculous this kind of blab is?  God says, “Is not this the prayer I choose?  A prayer for the Haitians looks like money for those who have it to spare, not like well wishes from afar and not orders from you to me that I should make things better for them!  I have no money at all.”
One of places we must not go with our thoughts any more in our Gathering today is to poverty in Haiti or anywhere else “over there somewhere.”  I’ll tell you why.  When we do that, we find it all too easy to ignore the poverty at our own doorstep.  I’m not saying the local poor are more important than the poor at a distance, but if the only place we ever look at poverty is hundreds or thousands of miles away from us where we are most likely never going to set foot, we don’t get the real picture.  Let’s look right here first.  
In our country, in 2008--the 2009 data are still being gathered--roughly 40 million of our fellow citizens, some 13% of us, lived below the poverty level.  Yes, some are just barely below the line, and others are way below the line.  The poorest of the poor are hungry and homeless.  Of those 40 million folks, 12 million are children.  Poverty hits to some degree according to ethnicity.  African Americans are the poorest among U.S. American citizens, followed closely by Hispanics.  
In the first world, one of the most hated of the parables attributed to Jesus has gotten the nickname “Dives and Lazarus” or “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”  “Dives” is the Latin word for someone who lives in luxury.  It’s a story of the ultimate reversal of fortunes.  Two men, in earthly life--one wealthy and one the poorest among the poor, find themselves in the next world, and the rich man is begging while the poor man is safe, comfortable, and well supplied.  Some scholars think Jesus might have taken an old Egyptian tale he may have known about and put his own twist on it.  Sadly, the true meaning of the story, or the depth of the story’s meaning at least, is most often lost because so many readers try to literalize the details of the story.  It’s a parable; the details are non-historic by their very literary nature.  Truth is not bound to or limited by history.
So here’s the deal.  There was a filthy rich man who flaunted his wealth in a place where most people were poor and only a handful rich.  Among the most blatant evidences of his wealth flaunting were his daily feasts.  All caught up in wanting to look rich and be rich, he actively ignored one particular beggar who stationed himself at the gateway to the rich man’s house.  The beggar was there every day; very likely having no home to go to, he may often have slept there.  
There are so many levels of possible meaning to the story even though the main point is to compare the two contexts for begging and the surprise twist shown in the change of fortunes.  
I wonder if that is why Ralph Vaughn Williams in his piece for harp with orchestra gives five variations to “Dives and Lazarus.”
The rich man was so caught up in keeping up his purple finery, linen even, and with the planning of daily feasts that he made it a point never to notice the poor man who asked for a little help when he could, but who hoped the fact that he was there obviously in need, his open sores being licked by wild dogs, would motivate the rich man or some of the many uppity-ups coming and going by the gate to help a little bit.  The poor man would have had plenty of food for nourishment if the rich man had been willing to toss him the food that had fallen on the floor during one of his todos.  He wasn’t.
In life, the poor man, the beggar, surely felt Godforsaken, but when he died Jesus is careful to say that God’s own messengers carried his soul into the next world and sat him beside the soul of the person who had laid the groundwork in this world for understanding that there were not many deities flitting around.  There was just one God.  I’m talking about Abraham.
Soon thereafter the rich man also died; perhaps he chocked on some shish-kabob.  We don’t know what kind of transport he had out of this world, but it wasn’t limo!  He awakens in Hades, the abode of the dead.  Jesus never used the word “hell,” and in this parable there is no exception to that.  Jesus had in mind Hades as a place of self-separation from God.  There was really no flames, but torment was real.
Now the rich man is begging the poor man, how dare he!, to bring him a little water to quench his thirst and to tell his wealthy brothers not to make the same mistakes he’d made.  No can do.  You see, there’s a wide chasm in the next world fixed between those who have said that they want greater intimacy with God and those who have said God isn’t worth worrying about in any world.
Interestingly, God never makes an appearance in the parable.  Abraham is speaking in the next realm, and he says to the rich man, “In earthly life, when you ignored the beggar, you were ignoring God.  It’s too late to undo it now.”  
III.
     Tevye, in “Fiddler on the Roof,” is having a conversation with God one day as he delivers the little milk he has to sell, and he speaks from the heart to God:  “Dear God, you made many, many poor people.  I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor.  But it’s no great honor either!  So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?”  Good question!  How would the world have been less a grand experiment if all the people were comfortable, and there were no poor people?  How could that possibly have diminished the world’s potential?
     Voltaire’s character, Candide, is rather obsessed with the quest to find the best of all possible worlds even though his mentor, Dr. Pangloss, insists that whatever world is before him is the best of all possible worlds.  Candide has to investigate the possibilities for himself.  At the same time, he hopes to find the great love of his life from whom he has been separated.  One of his many journeys takes him to El Dorado, a place where everyone is wealthy and everything constructed on or of precious gems or ores.  Surely, THAT is the best of all possible worlds.  Attracted to it and encouraged by the inhabitants to stay, Candide ultimately leaves--taking gold and gems with him with the king’s blessing--because something is still missing there.  Absolute wealth didn’t fill the void in Candide’s heart.  So, wealth does not satisfy Candide’s deeper longings, but he certainly takes advantage of the opportunity to pocket plenty of riches with him when he leaves El Dorado!  Most people are going to avoid poverty if they can at all, but not everyone.  
     There have been those who left riches behind and willingly embraced poverty.  Francis of Assisi was one of those.  He was born into a home where money was not a problem.  His father was a very successful cloth merchant.  Francis, which--by the way--was a nickname not his given name (Giovanni), loved snazzy clothes, good food, and fine wine!  He was a serious partier, but his values were called into question when he had to spend some time in jail.  
     There was a war between the city-states of Assisi and Perugia. Francis was taken prisoner by the Perugians.  Not only did he lose his freedom, but also he lost his health while incarcerated.  His privileged financial status back in Assisi didn’t matter a whipstitch in a Perugian prison.  No money.  No freedom.  No good health.  It would drive most anyone to do some soul searching.  
     After his release, Francis found himself praying in a church near Assisi that had fallen into serious disrepair or had been badly damaged in the fighting between Assisi and Perugia.  He believed he heard the voice of Jesus addressing from a crucifix hanging in the church, telling him to repair the damaged church.  Francis took that seriously.  In Assisi, he sold his horse, and he felt free to take some of his father’s expensive cloth and sell it too.  He gave the money he made to the priest of the church in which he had prayed, and Francis’ father was furious.  He condemned Francis for wasting money on churches and beggars, which he evidently took the priest to be.  
     Before a magistrate, Francis’ father asked for help in bringing his son to his senses.  As the hearing began, Francis took off all his clothing and handed them to his father.  He said that his true father was his Father in heaven and that he would no longer be attached to money in the way he had been.  
     In an imaginary conversation between Francis and Lady Poverty, whom he was said to have married, followers of Francis, shortly after his death, had Francis speaking to her:

All living beings held you in great contempt. All people ran from you and, as far as they could, cast you aside. Even though there were some who couldn’t escape from you, you were no less contemptible and despicable to them....But after the Lord of lords came, taking you as his own, he lifted up your head among the tribes of the peoples. He adorned you as a bride with a crown, exalting you above the heights of the clouds. Yet, even though a number of people, ignorant of your power and glory still hate you, this takes nothing away from you because you live freely on the sacred mountains, in the strongest dwelling-place of Christ’s glory.
Francis, once wealthy, begged each day for enough nourishment for that day only.  This was the rule for his followers, called the Franciscans.  They were a begging order, thus called mendicant friars. 
With full respect for this amazing man, I doubt that anyone who has always been poor can praise poverty.  Perhaps someone who has been rich can do that, but even then only in an environment where her or his physical needs are often provided for.  One of my parishioners in Baltimore remains a very successful businessman, and when I say “successful” in reference to him I mean wealthy.  He grew up very poor in a rough section of Baltimore and vowed that he’d get out of that squalor.  He did, and he did big time.  He has a huge poster hanging in his office that proclaims, “Poverty Sucks!”
So what did Jesus mean in his preaching when he said to the poor people who were listening, “Congratulations, you poor people!”  Had he lost his mind?  He continued by saying, “You poor folk are rejects by many religious types, and you are certainly rejects by the powerful Roman Empire; but you are exalted citizens in God’s Empire.  Congratulations!”  Jesus wasn’t congratulating them BECAUSE they were poor; he was congratulating them because in God’s Empire, which one day would be the one and only empire there was, they were serious somebodies.  
Jesus had been brought up on the book of Deuteronomy, which taught that in communities of people who live by God’s dreams and designs, there should be no poor people.  This assumes, however, that those who inhabit these communities are living by love God/love neighbor standards.  Jesus hadn’t found that kind of community in any kind of widespread expression so he said realistically, not idealistically, “The poor you’re always going to have with you because few communities are going to value equality and dignity for all their citizens.”  It’s very telling that those who tried, after Jesus’ execution, to establish a community of people absolutely devoted to Jesus’ core teachings fairly quickly ended up as a society of sharers who gave all their money to the community so that everyone in it could share its benefits equally, including economic benefits.
Our country, even under a President who ranks as sincerely compassionate with a top few among all of those who have led this nation, cannot claim by any means that we as a nation value equality and dignity for all.  We absolutely do not.  Our actions show that we do not.  There are many of our citizens who do believe in equality and dignity for all, however; and they live accordingly.  They are tireless crusaders for the well-being of the poor, among other often-denigrated types, but the impact will never be felt as strongly as it must until many more citizens join in. Individual attention to the poor is vitally important and can’t be criticized or discouraged in any way, but until poverty is attacked institutionally it’s going to have the upper hand.
Trickle Down Economics don’t work, but Trickle Down Compassion does.  If compassion for the poor remains consistent in the oval office instead of being interrupted by four years here and eight years there we may get somewhere.  A day may come when someone asks, “So how are the poor doing?” and the answer is, “Well, the poor we still have with us, but there are fewer of them; and those who remain poor are better off than they were a few years ago.”  That wouldn’t be enough, but it would be a start.