September 25, 2016

19th Sunday after Pentecost, LSS CEO Jodi Harpstead

Luke 16:19-31

I bring you greetings from Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, serving on behalf of the six synods of the ELCA in Minnesota in all 87 counties of the state.

What’s new at LSS?

  • We have completed our campaign and begun the building of the debt-free Center for Changing Lives for Youth in Duluth. We expect to open in June of 2017.
  • Our Sr. Companions have reduced emergency room visits and insured that their clients haven’t missed clinic appointments across Minnesota.
  • We have 41 people with disabilities now living in host family homes as an alternative to 4-person group homes, and we have an October training scheduled in Duluth for our first host family homes for youth.
  • Our adoption staff is shifting its focus from International Adoption to adoption of children out of MN foster care.
  • We have offered our Camp Knutson to the youth from our Brainerd youth services and our Camp Noah to the children of Ferguson, MO and the children of refugee families.
  • Our discussion guide, My Neighbor is Muslim, went to all the Lutheran pastors in Minnesota, all the Lutheran bishops in the U.S., and one major corporation in Saudi Arabia, to calm fears and promote understanding.

And now this – from the Gospel of John:

“I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10

And this, from the Gospel of Luke:

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day.”

So was this rich man not living abundantly as Jesus wanted? What’s wrong with this picture?

Of course, the answer is in the next sentence:

“And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.”

The moral of the story is not that all rich people will suffer in hell – but that those who do not share their abundance will surely suffer separation from our loving Creator and God’s intention for God’s children – one way of thinking of hell.

In addition to telling this parable and others, Jesus also showed us what he meant by abundance while he lived here on earth. Did you know that Jesus turned water into 180 gallons of wine at the wedding in little Cana? You’re probably more familiar with the 12 baskets of leftovers after Jesus fed thousands of people with five loaves and two fishes. And do you remember Jesus telling his disciples to put the net on the other side of the boat? From there, they hauled in 153 fish – for breakfast.

Each of these miracle stories is about Jesus producing over-the-top, way more abundance than what could possibly be consumed, and for whom? For everyone present – including every one of the peasant folk of his region of Galilee. And these stories never say everyone there received an equal share – they say that everyone “ate and were filled”, for example, with 12 baskets left over.

I have come to believe that these stories are God’s way of demonstrating that God put enough resources on this planet for everyone to live in abundance, if we only figure out how to share them. In fact, perhaps God put enough resources on this planet just to see if we would figure out how to share them!

A favorite book of mine is “The End of Poverty” by economist Jeffrey Sachs, who did the sophisticated math and figured out that, in the new millennium, we now have enough capital on the planet for the first time in history to end abject poverty in our lifetimes – if we choose to do so.   That book was written before the Great Recession, but by now, I’m betting that math is true once again.

So prior generations could not have ended poverty across the planet, even if they had wanted to – there was not enough to go around. But now there is, and we have that choice!

So what stands in our way? Oh, nothing but sin….

A sin we are particularly focusing on as LSS begins its second 150 years, is the sin of distinguishing between our neighbors on the basis of race. I understand that Gloria Dei is also exploring how we might all work toward racial equity, and of course you would, because that’s what the descendants of the Augustana Synod of our Church would do.

This year I was pulled into confronting the handful of voices shouting hate for LSS because we have resettled Muslim refugees in Minnesota.  And then, on July 6, Philando Castile was killed a mile and a half from our Saint Paul offices after being pulled over for a broken tail light.   And we have yet to hear the whole story of Jeronimo Yanez, the officer of color who shot him.

Being confronted with both of these realities in the same year has allowed me to compare the progress made by the refugees LSS has settled since World War II with the progress of other people of color in our communities.  I can see that when refugee populations gather en masse in certain communities, they bring their intact culture and language from other countries to neighborhoods in MN, and this gives them strength and pooled resources and allows them to help each other get a foothold in a new land.

On the other hand, LSS was founded the year the Civil War ended and three years after 38 +2 Dakota men were hanged in Mankato.  European immigrants brought African-Americans to this country as slaves, and killed thousands of the indigenous peoples in this country and Latin America.  Those who survived were separated, stripped of their culture, and forced onto the worst land in the country and the worst neighborhoods in our cities.

Ever since, we have expected these neighbors to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, in the spirit of true American individualism, but we have neglected to share the bootstraps.

The Gospel of Luke doesn’t pull any punches, does it? Luke’s Gospel is full of commentary on how God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In today’s lesson, Luke names Lazarus, the poor man at the gate, to show him honor and remind us that God knows every one of his children by name. While Luke calls the rich man – “a rich man.” Nameless……

Hmmm… Have I been the rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day, while at my gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores?

Ouch! That’s hard to hear in Minnesota where we are supposed to be above-average! But the data is clear that, while Minnesota remains one of the most prosperous states in the country, we have some of the worst data in the nation on the differences in prosperity based on race.

So as we begin our second 150 years at LSS, we have chosen to confess all those things that we have done and those we have left undone. And to ask God to forgive us, renew us, and lead us, so that we might delight in God’s will and walk in God’s name to the glory of God’s holy name.

Today, we offer you our new congregational discussion guide And Who is My Neighbor? written by Professor Eric Barreto, formerly of Luther Seminary – now of Princeton Theological Seminary – with responses by five pastors of color. Our guide also includes rich video materials from our 8 years of Anti-Racism Training at LSS and personal stories of five people associated with LSS who share their own racial journeys. We will preview some of these materials at your adult education hour this morning.

It is intended to be a grace-filled entry into the conversation on race – so it does not start with today’s hard gospel from Luke about rich people burning in hell! It allows people to explore these issues and ask their questions from wherever they are coming from. I would ask you to be gentle and generous with each other as you enter into this challenging conversation. Our guide ends with a list of ideas for those ready to get to work!

Blessings on your own journeys – individually and as a faith community – as you strive to be Gospel people in the world, sharing God’s abundance with your neighbors. And take this passage with you from 1 Timothy:

17As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.