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God's Script-Flipping Story

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I'm going to put myself out there and share something only my closest friends and family know: I love to watch "Christian television." From the time I was a young girl, I'd sneak into my parents red-carpeted television room, sit crossed-legged about a foot away from the TV, and tune in to hear my favorite televangelists scare the hell out of me. Literally.

I was mesmerized by all the glittered-up-big-haired ladies and their slick-haired-polyester-suit-wearing-prophetic husbands. I loved that they preached from a couch, sang from madonna mics, and wore fancy watches.

They seemed so stinking happy, so put together, and so very, very rich. Spiritually and materially. As I got older, I continued to tune in. Religiously.

I must have prayed what Billy Graham and his cohort called the "sinners prayer," at least a hundred times. Seriously.

And despite all the cheesy music; despite all the overly-affected-preacher-voices; despite all the over-applied mascara & hair product; I often heard some really good news while watching some really bad "Christian TV."

I heard words of promise and redemption. I heard testimonies from folks who told dramatic, but seemingly genuine stories about faith, hope, and healing.

But other times I heard something different. Other times I heard a message that was appealing and appalling at the very same time.

Some refer to it as the "prosperity gospel" or "prosperity doctrine."

There are different variations of this teaching, but the worst of its kind insists that if you're poor, sick, hungry, or wanting, it's most likely your fault. Your cursed condition is divine punishment for bad behavior. It's a kind of pseudo Christian sub-culture that shames and blames those who suffer, especially the poor and sick.

The flip side of this theology is that if you're wealthy and healthy, you probably deserve it. Your prosperity is simply God's blessing.

This kind of "prosperity" doctrine is often packaged in a triumphalist, feel good message: an amped-up reincarnation of Norman Vincent Peale's Power-of-Positive-Thinking. It might even be considered a modern manifestation of what Martin Luther called "the theology of glory," a theology that stands in stark contrast to a "theology of the cross."

It's proponents are endorsed all over the place: on self-help shelves at large-chain bookstores, on television stations and radio waves, even on Facebook posts, Twitter feeds and Pinterest boards.

And rather than invoking the countless words of the prophets who call out for social and economic justice, instead of reflecting on the many words of scripture that call us to empty ourselves of pride and privilege, instead of stressing the upside-down-ness of the kingdom of God, more and more folks are buying into this perverted prosperity message hook, line, and sinker.

But here's the thing: this kind of teaching is nothing new.

It even existed at the time today's lectionary parable, Luke 16:19-31, was written.

In today's parable we hear about two men. One is rich, while the other, (whose name is Lazarus) is poor. The rich man eats like a king, while Lazarus eats like a dog. The rich man covers himself with linens while Lazarus is covered with lesions.

One is blessed, the other cursed. Or so it seems.

In her reflection on this passage, The Rev. Dr. Barbara Lundfield (from Union Theological Seminary in NYC) argues that the first hearers of this parable were familiar with scriptures like this one from Deuteronomy 28: "If you will obey the Lord your God...blessings will come upon you." They were likely also familiar with verse 35 of that same chapter which reads, "The Lord will strike you on the knees and on the legs with grievous boils of which you cannot be healed, from the sole of your foot to the crown of your head."

As Lundfield suggests, Jesus was invoking familiar images to paint a powerful parabolic picture for his hearers; one where a rich man wears fine linen and purple cloth (connoting a prosperous and blessed life) and where a poor man is covered with sores and boils (connoting a cursed life.)

Then Jesus does what Jesus does best: he dramatically disrupts the status quo, and switches things up. Jesus takes these images of prosperity and pain; of blessing and cursing, and turns them on their head.

We see this most vividly, when the rich man and Lazarus die.

In their afterlife, the rich man gets tossed into Hades, a hellish place of torment and pain. Part of the rich man's torment- is that he can actually see the poor man, now cradled by "Abraham" in heaven.

Here the name 'Lazarus,' which can be translated as, "the one God helped" takes on particular significance.

The story goes on to describe how the rich man calls out from Hades, beggar style, for Lazarus to give him just a bit of water to quench his thirst. But Abraham replied, "a great chasm was fixed" between them.

Jesus isn't pulling any punches in this parable. He's telling it straight.

Jesus is painting a bold picture of the insider becoming the outsider, for all eternity. Jesus is making the one who was once invisible, now visible- to the very one who ignored him- for all eternity.

In this parable, like in so many others, Jesus is describing a new, holy reality that makes no worldly sense. In this parable, like in so many others, Jesus talks about a place where the first are last and the last are first and the weak become strong and the strong become weak.

Jesus is the ultimate script-flipper, my friends. And that's exactly what he's doing in this passage.

Jesus is describing two chasms in this parable: an eternal chasm, but also one that existed long before the two men died. It's a great divide that's still around today. It's that growing gap between rich and poor, the 1% and the 99%, the healthy and the sick, the insider and the outsider, the blessed and the cursed.

It's a divide that we can choose to ignore, or it's a gap we can seek to mend.

So how about this: let's join Jesus in flipping the script.

Let's choose to recognize those, in this life, whom we pass by, step over, or dismiss. Let's choose to see Jesus in folks we encounter everyday; especially those deemed ugly, broken, weak, or cursed.

Let's go and tell the truth: that a truly blessed life is one branded by the cross of Jesus Christ; and a life of prosperity, is one that imitates Christ's self-emptying, sacrificial love.

Let's go and find freedom in confessing, that when it's all said and done, we're all just a bunch of desperate beggars, longing for some scraps of Good News.

And in God's script-flipping Story, that's nothing to be ashamed of.