Monday, November 5, 2007

Stewardship the World Needs

This sermon refers to Isaiah 1:10-18 and Luke 18:1-8.

The afternoon before our first frost last week, I harvested the final armful of zinnias. Bright with the intensity of summer’s colors, they’re no longer sticking their tongues out in the garden, daring Jack Frost to shut them down—but they make quite the Last Hurrah, and it’s November, for heaven’s sake.

Two days after that first frost, I removed the screen and replaced the storm inset at our front door. No more slapping shut of a screen door—the summer percussion section at our house has been silenced. It’s a sound we rather like, and we hope it doesn’t bug the neighbors… but now that door closes with the whoosh we need to keep winter out. And with that, I know the season has changed.

So does the cat. His morning run is down to ten minutes now. “Enough of this,” he mutters, as he bounds in.

Cycles of death and rebirth surround us and sing to us, all year around. The Christian Year declares the calendar year dead and gone near the start of December, when Advent will blow the last fluff out of the milkweed, and we start hearing how a shoot will rise out of the stump of Jesse. On the heels of the winter solstice, Christmas will kindle the soul with Incarnation, even while it exhausts the flesh when we pursue the wrong spirits. Then, well before our northern gardens even think of awakening, the Church Year will aim us into the Passion of Jesus Christ for the world, and reach its climax in our yearly renewal by immersion into the mystery of his life and death and new life in Spirit and truth.

As if reminding us of two thousand years of experience at this gracious cycling, the liturgical year right about now opens the curtain on the full cast of characters who have gone before us in the Way of Christ. All the saints, all the souls, all the children and women and men so centered on God that Jesus knows them as his people, his friends, his apostles (not “fossils”, as one of our young members charmingly thought they were called, but apostles, people who worship God in how they live their lives)—many of them rather eccentric by the standards of their peers. Which explains why so many did not die peacefully in their beds, but harshly in collision with the very world they sought to serve.

Let us not be fossils! Though wars have been fought over possessing the bones of the saints, there’s nothing edifying about having the remains of even the very holiest of them. By contrast, saints and apostles and all God’s children who have left a mark on their world have done so by the intensity of their faith, the good cheer of their hope, and the bright colors of their love. They are the zinnias of God. Even in the last hurrah of their deaths, they make us ask “How’d they do that?” even while we know the answer is “God.”

The Church goes so far, in her creeds, to say that the children of God are so freed by God’s Spirit and truth that they’re always humming a tune that we can hear (if we listen), everywhere still touching hearts and minds and wills through their ever-told stories (if we listen), and still at work—or is it now, for them, at play?—in that great endless chain of receiving and giving, receiving and giving, which theologians call the Communion of Saints.

Though that chain is endless, it is that way because people of God like you and me choose, one by one, to extend its influence in their world. That is an important message to give on Stewardship Sunday, isn’t it? A call to purposely center ourselves on God yet more fully, however eccentric a choice that may seem by the standards of the very world we would serve.

And there’s Zaccheus in our Gospel, helping us hear the call. His story explodes any claim that the Gospel of Jesus Christ doesn’t talk about money. Zaccheus puts forward an entire economic plan for social justice—50% of his income to the poor, fourfold restitution if he has defrauded anyone even without knowing it—and Jesus approves.

Yes, maybe it helps that Zaccheus is rich. Perhaps that’s part of what makes him bold to even have a plan. On the other hand, that hardly explains his enthusiasm, does it? You and I are privileged to live in a culture that values philanthropy. I mean voluntary giving. Would that we could point to federal foreign aid, a shamefully low percentage of our gross national product, or to federal domestic assistance, on the skids for years now—but while we won’t find inspiring evidence there, the voluntary giving I mean is the kind that you and I exercise in stewarding our own resources. Americans are creating a culture that affirms giving—but, even so, do Warren Buffett or the Gateses give 50% of their income?

It isn’t just because Zaccheus is rich that he’s on a roll. It’s that he has received through the love of God in Jesus Christ the very powers that his economic plan displays. He has received from Jesus the reality of inclusion, the experience of restoration, and the promise of salvation. Before Jesus shook his tree, Zaccheus was a chief tax collector, rich but shunned as a collaborator with Roman imperial rule, possessed of a good heart but unconvinced that he had a place in the heart of God. Sliding down that sycamore, Zaccheus stood on new ground.

What did Jesus do for him? On the surface, all he did was invite himself to lunch at Zaccheus’s house. But instantly, the action went deeper as the crowds watching all this mutter their verdict about Jesus (“Look, he’s no judge of character, is he?”) and their judgment on Zaccheus (“He is a sinner.”)

By going to the chief tax collector’s house, Jesus makes of it a judgment hall, a courtroom. He is not the judge. He is the attorney for the defense, Zaccheus’s advocate just by being there.

What sounds like self-defense is also Zaccheus responding to the muttered judgment of the crowds. “Yes, I am a sinner, Lord: but I will give half of what I own to the poor whom I know you champion, Jesus. I will join you there, even if the poor may be among those attacking me. If it is discovered that I defrauded anyone, I will repay fourfold.” That would be way beyond the most stringent demands of the law of Israel.

Zaccheus gives Jesus his resolve as response to the honor Jesus has shown him by his visit. This is not an attempt to bribe the judge. Jesus is not the judge. He is the advocate who champions not only the poor, but all who want a place at his table of radical equality, all who want to turn the tables on the cult of luxury and the culture of violence.

So Jesus announces to all within earshot, “Today salvation has come to this house… I have come not to judge, but to save the world… to seek out and save the lost, both poor and rich… to save households from the burden of unyielding poverty and to save households from the burden of unyielding wealth.”

Today, one of those has yielded. A chief tax collector in charge of certified public accountants trained to track every penny, every denarius, announces his plan to give half of what he owns, and from his own money restore fourfold any false claims he levied on behalf of imperial Rome. That is the arithmetic of grace.

In stark contrast, we hear today about the rulers of Sodom and the people of Gomorrah. And the subject isn’t sex. It’s the relationship among money, religion, and justice.

The words are an oracle of the prophet Isaiah, rumbling down to us from 800 years before Luke told his story about Zaccheus. Isaiah’s words are a perfect foil for setting-off Luke’s story. His words are important and challenging to hear on a parish’s stewardship Sunday.

In a nutshell, Isaiah reports God’s extreme displeasure at the religious practices of Sodom and Gomorrah. They’re doing what they were brought up to do: killing bulls, lambs, and goats by a hammerblow to the head to stun them, then slitting their throats so both their blood and their meat could be offered in sacrifice to God, an ancient form of worship which was to the people of Sodom and Gomorrah—as to all the people of Israel at that time—old-time religion. You’ll recall that it was still alive and kicking in the first century, when Jesus came on the scene.

Scholars of religion tell us that the purpose of this kind of sacrifice was for the nation to get God on their side, to get God the judge to rule in their favor, and to keep God on their side by maintaining sacrifice upon sacrifice.

Messy as it sounds, it all became a cult of luxury, religion aimed at protecting success. “It’s part of our standard of living to offer to God what is expected, a goat, a lamb, a bull.” A bribe. God, we’ll do this for you if you’ll do this for us, crown our society with success, keep us Number One.

According to Isaiah, God says, “No, thanks! Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings like these is futile.. I am weary of bearing the burden of your festivals and assemblies. If you keep this up, I will hide my eyes and block my ears. Yours hands are bloody. Wash them. Then go to your room. You’re grounded.”

No, in fact that’s not God’s way. Instead are these wonderful trusting empowering words, “Come now, let us argue it out.” This is a Jewish God, and it’s not just rabbis who debate. All God’s children get the opportunity to learn in volley back and forth with God whose gifts are patience, inclusion, restoration, and salvation.

The religion God values, the stewardship the world needs, centers on these imperatives: Cease to do evil… Learn to do good… Seek justice… Rescue the oppressed… Defend the orphan… Plead for the widow.

Religion that advocates for justice, that promotes radical equality. This prophetic standard shows us where Jesus comes from, puts Zaccheus in the long chain of prophetic stewardship, and links him to the communion of saints.

How will you extend the influence of that great chain of receiving and giving, receiving and giving, in your world?

How will we ensure that we aren’t worshipping at the altars of a cult of luxury and a culture of violence?

Will we let the saints—today especially Zaccheus and Isaiah—speak to us about justice?

Today, this week, how will you welcome the Spirit of God in Jesus Christ to shape within you a passion and practice of radical equality, at home around your dining table, here in your church, in your relationships at work and school, in the world of your influence?