Monday, September 27, 2010

Data, Lal and Lazarus

This is my opening illustration and my closing from yesterday's sermon on Luke 16:19-31:

One of my favorite TV shows ever is Star Trek: The Next Generation.

I liked the original series, too, of course, with Capt. Kirk, Mr. Spock and Dr. McCoy. But I really love the second series in the franchise, with Capt. Picard, Commander Riker, Mr. Worf, Dr. Crusher, Counselor Troi, Mr. Data and the rest of them.

Some of you may know that show, some may not. Production ended years ago, but for those who are willing to stay up till midnight—or who are able and will program their TiVo’s or VCR’s—there are daily opportunities to boldly go where no one has gone before.

The character named Data is an android. He is not so much a robot, but an artificial life form, a kind of living, walking computer. He does not feel, which is to say, he does not have feelings, exactly, but he wants to, is all the time trying to become more human. In one episode he decides that he wants to be a father, and so he goes into his lab and creates another android, a smaller version of himself. She is female and Data gives her the name Lal, which is Hindi for “beloved,” and he begins to teach her about… life. Eventually, sadly, Lal suffers a cascade systems failure…she dies… but before she does she enriches Data’s life, and the lives of all the others.

I tell you that because I want to recount one remarkable scene in that remarkable episode. Data takes Lal to Ten Forward. Ten Forward is like the officers club, the gathering place for the crew, a place of conversation and socializing. Sitting at the bar Data invites Lal to eat something. She does not require food—but Data has learned, and he is trying to teach her, that eating, and not just eating but eating together, is a really big part of what it means to be human.

“Order something,” he says to Lal.

“What should I order, father?” Lal replies.

“Whatever you like,” says Data.

“But how do I know what I like?” asks Lal, and Data the living computer does not know how to answer.

It is a remarkable question, I think. “How do I know what I like?”

We each and all of us might likewise ask, “How do I know what to think? How do I know what to believe? How do I know how to behave?” How do I know what it means to be not only human, but Christian? How do we learn that, for ourselves, how do we teach it to our lals, our beloved, our children? How, indeed.

The key to this text is at the end: they have Moses and the prophets. Let them read them. Oh, no, Father Abraham. They don’t read their Bibles, but if someone goes to them from the dead…

Just as we have the Bible. Let us read it. Together. That is how we know what we are to like, and be like. That is how we know what is just and right. That is how we know what’s wrong with this picture of Lazarus and the rich man. That is how we know there are consequences, blessed and dire consequences to our actions. That is how we know what we know, and how we believe what we believe. That is how we learn ourselves and teach our kids: we have the Bible. We should read our Bibles. Together.

Oh, no, Father Abraham. We don’t read our Bibles. But if you send us a miracle, a financial miracle, a healing miracle, then we will believe and be changed!

If we do not read the Bible that we have, if we do not study together, Father Abraham say to us that we will not be changed even if someone should rise among us from the dead.

Monday, September 06, 2010



I have been thinking about my grandmother—we called her Memie—who lived to be 104. And one week longer.

There are lots of things I remember about her, about the days we shared, just the two of us. She raised me, more or less: my mother was one of the first working mothers in our neighborhood, and my sister had long-since started school. Dad was almost never home, and so there were many days when it was just we two.
Here is something I remember: when I did start to school, Mom and Dad saved my report cards, but Memie saved the pictures I drew—kept them in a drawer in her dresser.

But it is those days before I went to school that I have been remembering of late. Almost every mornings Memie would make me my favorite breakfast—“puppy food” (boiled eggs, bacon, buttered toast, crumbled)—and almost every day, I would write her love letters.

Our house had a den, and in the den was the TV, Dad’s recliner, Mom’s chair, and Memie’s chair and ottoman, on which she rested her legs. There was a fireplace, too, and in front of the fireplace there was a raised hearth. Daddy had this old, black, heavy manual typewriter, with round keys—I think it was a Royal or an Olivetti. Almost every day, after she had cleaned-up the breakfast dishes, Memie would park her crooked frame in her chair to do her needle work, to watch the game shows and soap operas. I would drag the typewriter out of Dad’s study, put it up on the the hearth, sit cross-legged in front of it, roll piece of paper into the thing—and that was no easy task for preschool fingers, getting the paper straight, if I ever did—and then I would clack-clack-clack until I had poured out my heart to her.

Every day that I wrote to her, I wrote her the very same message:

“Dear Memie. I love you. Do you love me?” And then I added this: “ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOP…” All the letters of the alphabet, all of them in caps, first, then again in lower case… and my numbers, too, 1,2,3 all the way to zero..
Then, scrch, scrch, scrch, as I ratcheted the paper a few lines, then clack. clack. clack: “Love, Tommy”

How long it took me to hunt-and-peck that daily missive, I have no idea. I feel sure it took a while. But when I was done I would pull it out of the typewriter, sshhrrrp!, and take it to her. I would stand at her shoulder as she read, and she always read it out loud. Then she would hug me around the shoulder and say, “This is why I love you so, because you are so sweet to me.” And I would say, “I love YOU because you are sweet to ME.”

And so it went, day after day: Memie cooking for Tommy; Tommy writing for Memie.

And whether it would occur to you or not, to wonder, it has occurred to me to wonder if my love of writing, whether e-pistles, letters to you, articles, commentary and books, isn’t somehow anchored just there in those days, there at the hearth and Memie’s chair… if all these years later, all I am doing, really, is clack-clack-clacking-out my love for you, my love for God, in hopes that you, or God, or both, will read what I write, hug me around the shoulder, tell me I am loved…


I remember another day with Memie. Just we two.

It was cold and rainy. And dark. There was no fire in the fireplace, of course, just ashes from the night before and wind whistling down the flue. There was no light on in the den at all, except for a small bulb just above Memie’s right shoulder, by which she could see to do her needlework. She had bad arthritis, and when the weather was cold and wet she suffered. Really suffered.

This one day, I remember Memie asked me to get her an extra blanket and put it on her, which I did, wrapped it up and down around her legs, tucked it in on both sides between the ottoman and chair. And then I tucked myself in next to her as close as I could get.

I don’t know whether I wrote her a letter that day or not… but there we were, and there we stayed, two of the weak ones, two of the little ones, one way or the other, held together by love and sweetness and a small cone of light from a 40-watt bulb, just enough light and warmth to keep the cold and dark and rain at bay.


Just a couple of little snapshots, little pictures of days long, long ago—and I had almost forgotten they were there, stuffed down in a drawer of my brain somewhere. But I am so glad I found them: they are so sweet to my memory, and poignant.

I served her in the ways I could, and she served me… we were sweet to one another, and in that sweet service we showed our love for one another.

That is what service, is, I think. A way of showing love.

And not only a way of showing love, but a way of growing in love, of doing love. Do you remember how the book of James says, “Show me your faith without your works and I will show you my faith by my works.” Surely that is true of love, as well as faith; that love without works is dead; that love, real and lasting love, is shown and grown and deepened by works, by service.


For the last couple of weeks I have been preaching on Intentional Discipleship… I started with Connect—connecting with God, connecting with each other, and how we cannot be the kind of disciples Jesus called us to be or wants us, for our sakes, to be, apart from each other. Independent is not a Christian adjective.

And then Grow: growth through Study and the Means of Grace. Putting ourselves into position through worship, reading the scriptures, prayer and communion, to receive the spiritual food, the Miracle Gro, we need to become lush and fruitful disciples.

And today: Serve. Serve.

Perhaps it is appropriate that tomorrow, according to the secular calendar, is Labor Day… a day set aside by Grover Alexander and the US Congress in 1894, begun to appease, really, all the angry labor unions whose members had suffered so much during the Economic Panic of 1893, when unemployment was over 18%.

Be any or all that as it may… I have been wondering when work, or labor, becomes service. I suspect it has something to do with the question of why we do it, and for whom. It our labor is done only for ourselves, then it remains labor. But when it is offered more widely, it is service. When indeed it is offered as a sign of love… not just a means of survival, or of growing wealth, but of growing

Intentional Discipleship: Connect, Grow, Serving those whom Christ loves.

Let me tell you one more Memie story. She lived to be 104, but long before that she wanted to die. Prayed to die. She suffered so much… and she asked me, “Why won’t God take me home? I am doing nobody any good; I am just a burden. Why am I still here?”

“You’re here for us,” I said. “Jesus told us to take care of the weak ones, the little ones, the ones who cannot take care of themselves. You are letting us do what Jesus told us—teaching us to serve, and serve others, like you have always done.

Sometimes when I am frustrated at the church, what it is and what it isn’t, I remember that Jesus loves the church: established it, keeps making and remaking it, and that the best gift I can give him, is to love it too, because he does. Looks upon us in mercy, all of us held together by love and sweetness and a little cone of light, as if from a window in heaven, just enough to protect us from the dark and the cold and the rain.

Connecting. Growing. Serving. Those are the ways we are clack-clack-clacking our love for him, and for each other: loving those he loves.

Meanwhile, this morning, as he does so many mornings, Jesus has once again made for us our favorite meal. And that is why we love him so, say our prayers and sing our songs, clack, clack, clack, because he is so sweet to us.

And that is why he loves us so...

Christ our Lord invites to his Table all who love him…

Saturday, September 04, 2010

A Parable

I was in Highlands this last week and partly to counsel a couple I will marry in October. I asked them, as a part of that conversation, what they did when they got mad. She said, "I shut down. I just get quiet."

He says, "And I cook. I figure that if I make us a good meal, whatever it is that is bothering us, we can talk about it over dinner."

She said, "And most everytime, he has made this really good meal for me, and after the first bite I cannot for the life of me remember what I was mad about."

Let all the people say, "Ding! Ding! Ding!"

May it always be for us, too, that coming to the table causes us both holy amnesia and wonderful reunion.