Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Crossing the Chasm

Bible readings for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost include Amos 6:1a, 4-7; I Timothy 6:6-19; and Luke 16:19-31

“If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

That’s an odd way for a parable to end, in a religion that is known for its central claim that Jesus Christ rose from his grave. If we didn’t know better, we might think that St. Luke does not find the resurrection the single most compelling feature of Christianity.

But that’s not what we’re hearing. We’re hearing how hard it is to get the full attention of a cohort of people who are swept up in what the prophet Amos calls “the revelry of the loungers.” The rich, that is, who sing idle songs, anoint themselves with the finest oils, lounge on their couches, but do not care that the country is in ruins, and whole communities of people suffering from want of basic necessities.

It is very hard to get the full attention of the wealthy. They have people who do their bidding and insulate them from the workaday world. St. Paul, writing to Timothy, knows this crowd. Not just those who are rich, but “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”

Trapped, says Paul. We all know that the poor get trapped. Miners in Chile get trapped when mine owners don’t care about safety precautions. Villagers in Pakistan get trapped when landowners don’t care if diverting floodwaters this way or that way sends water into this village or that one. America’s working poor and unemployed get trapped when our society has no finer gospel to preach than “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!”

It’s very hard to get the full attention of the well-to-do. And, to keep us from thinking that all those scripture lessons today are talking to someone other than us, let’s admit that it’s hard to pay attention to God when we’re feeling at ease in Zion and secure on Mount Samaria, however those phrases translate in our lives: Hard to pay attention to God when we’re undisturbed in the Purple Bubble of this quiet valley. Difficult to hear the divine voice when every moment of the waking day is scheduled and accounted for. Downright challenging to respond to God when one portion of ourselves is drugged and sated and all tucked into satisfaction with life, leaving available only our randomly jangling dissatisfied nerve endings to be attentive to the world, and to be coaxed into prayer.

I mean to suggest that we find some sympathy for the rich man in Jesus’s parable. We may be related to him.

He has lived his lifetime without giving his best to the world around him, without giving his best to God, and without giving his best to the many Lazaruses at his door. What this rich man called best he kept for himself, to himself.

Until he died, and there was no more keeping.

But isn’t it rather wonderful that, by the terms of Jesus’s parable, after death there is still more learning to do? I don’t believe that was the majority view in the religion of Israel, where the prevailing belief is summed up in Psalm 88:

“Do you work wonders for the dead? Will those who have died stand up and give you thanks? Will your loving-kindness be declared in the grave? Your faithfulness in the land of destruction? Will your wonders be known in the dark? Or your righteousness in the country where all is forgotten?”

No, is the implied answer. So God must meet us in this life to set right what is wrong.

And God does that. Disguised, often, as Lazarus. Or coal miners in Chile. Or displaced villagers in Pakistan. Or our own neighbors in need of transitional assistance (at a time when we’re shutting down offices of transitional assistance because, well, other things matter more).

By the terms of this stunning parable, God doesn’t give up on us when we die. If you’re Lazarus, that’s good news: you discover that the heart of God is not what you’d feared from the inequities of daily life. You learn that there is a place set for you at God’s table, and you’re seated there, not on the floor beneath.

But if you’re the rich man, you might wish that learning did stop at the grave. You discover that abundance doesn’t pass through the eye of the needle with you. In fact, you discover that what filled you in your lifetime wasn’t real and lasting abundance after all. It was stuff, and your primary relationship to stuff, consumption, has fitted you not to be carried away by angels but to sink into the realm of consumption, Hades.

That there is torment there suggests that a lifetime characterized by consuming stuff prepares us to become stuff to be consumed. That’s a dramatic way to say that human beings have a higher calling.

St. Paul describes that calling twice in his letter today. First, “Pursue right standing with God, reach for faith, demonstrate love, practice endurance, show gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession…”

And later he describes the calling again: “Do not be haughty. Do not set your hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment… Do good… be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up the treasure of a good foundation for the future, taking hold of the life that really is life.”

Last Sunday, a portion of Luke’s Gospel prepared us to see a sharp distinction between the children of this age and the children of light. Different values distinguish them. Children of this age are known for keeping. Children of light are known for giving.

Their values create a firewall between the two cohorts, and it’s nowhere described more forcefully than in that verse today, “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed…”, fixed by how lives have been lived.

In the after-death scene in our parable, that chasm cannot be crossed. Such bleak language is meant to drive home the message that in life, on this side of death, the deep gulf created out of conflicting values can be crossed, by choice; must be crossed, from keeping to giving, if we are to take hold of the life that really is life.

That such a simple basic lesson needs driving home by the prophet Amos, the apostle Paul, and our Lord Jesus Christ must go to show that it’s hard to get the full attention of the children of this age. And, truth be told, it’s hard to keep the full attention of the children of light.

What is required is that we pay attention to the world, where God is at work approaching the rich through the poor, and—when we have truly listened to Moses and the prophets and Jesus and Paul—God then works through what is rich within us, freed so we may give our best.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Commending a Dishonest Manager-- Huh?

The Gospel for the 17th Sunday after Pentecost is Luke 16:1-13. R. Alan Culpepper’s commentary on that passage in “The New Interpreter’s Bible”, Volume IX, helped shape my thinking about this parable. Tom Friedman’s column appeared in the September 12th New York Times.

Are you hoping I will talk about that parable, or that I won’t?

I will, and in part because Tom Friedman told me to. Not personally, but his column last Sunday paved the way, when he referred to a problem “we have not faced honestly as we have dug out of this recession: We had a values breakdown—a national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism.”

I smell both in today’s Gospel. But let Tom finish his sermon first: “Wall Street may have been dealing the dope, but our lawmakers encouraged it. And far too many of us were happy to buy the dot-com and subprime crack for quick prosperity highs.”

Friedman reminds us that what made the Greatest Generation great, facing huge obstacles like the Depression, Nazism, and Soviet Communism, was their leaders’ fearlessness when it came to asking Americans to sacrifice, and that generation’s readiness to do the sacrificing, pulling together for the good of the country and earning global leadership the only way it can be earned, by saying “Follow me.”

By contrast, he writes, our generation’s leaders never utter the word “sacrifice.” “All solutions,” he says, “must be painless. Which drug would you like? A stimulus from Democrats or a tax cut from Republicans? A national energy policy? Too hard… For a decade we sent our best minds not to make computer chips in Silicon Valley but to make poker chips on Wall Street, while telling ourselves we could have the American dream… without saving and investing, for nothing down and nothing to pay for two years…”

Thanks, Tom. We hear you. Now it’s Jesus’s turn. And what is he saying in this parable?

What is a parable? C. H. Dodd answers that in his book, “The Parables of the Kingdom.” “At its simplest, the parable is a metaphor or simile drawn from nature or common life, arresting the hearer by its vividness or strangeness, and leaving the mind in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought.”

Jesus teases us into this story, not of household-level debts and management, but of large commercial dealings. Eight hundred gallons of olive oil, a thousand bushels of wheat. The first-century commodities market.

Jesus takes us to a deeper place, as well. A place of radical decision. It may sound like the slave market, when we hear him say, “No slave can serve two masters; he will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.”

But it’s actually the very frontier of spiritual freedom to which Jesus takes us, when he insists, “In a like way, you cannot serve God and wealth.”

Think of all the times and places when he summoned working people to become his disciples. “Follow me,” he said, to fishermen in their boats, to a tax collector at his booth, to women in their front parlors and in their kitchens. And each time, he created a crisis, a moment requiring judgment, demanding response. You can’t give no answer in such a moment. It’s not an option to have no master. If you are silent at the frontier of spiritual freedom, then you have another master than Jesus and you have renewed your submission to being a child of this age and not a child of light.

In other words, to tease out the message of this parable, we must respect the firewall created between the people of this world and the people of the light, created by the choices they make. Those who belong to this age and those who belong to the light live among one another, they are called to respect and learn from one another, but they have very different values. One is content to drift among the rising and falling tides and currents of a market-driven world. The other is choosing to move with the mind and the heart of God—they may be erratic in learning these moves, may fail sometimes, succeed sometimes, but they try, they want, they practice a sharing of abundance, they value justice and mercy, they learn to roll with the mystery that the first shall be last and the last first, and, as we shall see, they learn to be resourceful.

Jesus locates his story in the business world, but he’s telling his parable to disciples whom he’s training in the ways of the Kingdom of God. To catch the sense he makes, we stand with the disciples on the children of light side of the firewall, and across that divide we watch the behavior of a shrewd manager and the business owner who is firing him. The message we take from Jesus, whatever it will be, respects that boundary, as he says to his little fledgling church, “Consider the behavior of this manager: his values are different from yours, but if you are as bold and decisive and resourceful in caring for the poor and preaching what is true and building human alliances in society, if you are as shrewd and effective in your calling as he was in the crumbling moments of his tenure, then your stewardship will make a difference .

There may be a world of difference between the impact, on one side of the divide, of those urgent words “Follow me” and, on the business side of that wall, the words, “You’re fired.” But in both cases, urgency requires bold and decisive choice. And in both cases, the hearer suddenly realizes that an old life has ended, and a new life requires change, fast and instinctual. Didn’t someone write, “New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth”? Oddly enough, both the summoned disciple and the fired manager find themselves in a thin place, in-between what was known and what will be, unchartered territory that each must suddenly navigate.

Okay, now we’ve put off this moment as long as possible. Why does the master commend the dishonest manager? It all depends on what you think the manager did.

Did he reduce the balance due from his master’s debtors by foregoing his own commission, sacrificing what would have been his, choosing to bank on another kind of wealth and indebtedness (call it goodwill or loyalty)? An interesting theory, but not based on any information Jesus gives us…

Or did the shrewd manager suddenly recall the ancient text in Deuteronomy that forbids Israelites from charging one another interest? This could have justified his reducing those debts to principal only. Is this a swift case of righteousness that put the master over a barrel, a canny chess move the owner could only shake his head at but couldn’t fight without losing face? An intriguing theory, but again nothing in Jesus’s telling leads us to it.

Or… is it, plain and simple as the parable states it, that the steward was cheating the master, and the master was rich enough that he could afford to notice more than the impact on his net worth. He experienced some collateral benediction from his debtors, for as long as those debtors thought the manager was still the manager, he acted with the full authority of the master. What he did glorified his boss, polished his reputation, earned him (who knows, perhaps for the first time) a good name—a new form of wealth, a new kind of net worth.

Such is a good parable, one that teases the hearer into active thought, and thoughtful action.

It brings home the fact that in the New Testament as a whole, Jesus has far more to say about how to deal with wealth than how to handle sex. If our churches occupied themselves proportionally, we could have more to say to our culture’s dishonesty, its devaluing of sacrifice, its get-rich-quickism, and its something-for-nothingism.

On the other hand, lest the Church get to sounding self-righteous, Jesus challenges the people of light to muster for God, and for the poor and the oppressed and the abandoned, boldness and shrewdness and decisive action that can be seen in certain people of the world, even the occasional dishonest manager.

Go figure.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Philadelphia or Bust

Scripture heard on the 14th Sunday after Pentecost included Proverbs 25:6-7; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; and Luke 14:1, 7-14

“Philadelphia.” This is the Greek word that appears at the opening of our 2nd lesson, “Let mutual love continue.” Philadelphia, love of the brethren (in its old translation). We need something roomier now: love of the brotherhood and sisterhood that we have in Jesus Christ.

“Mutual love” sounds a little calculating: You love me and I’ll love you. Eugene Peterson in “The Message” gives us, “Stay on good terms with each other, held together by love.” There’s still something transactional about “staying on good terms,” but I like the awareness that this staying power isn’t all up to us. Holding us together is a costly and generous love.

How costly and how generous is the point of the Gospel, the Good News. Unconditional, is the Gospel answer: love that cannot be earned or bought, love that must give itself fully. Such love is the subject of both our New Testament portions today.

Writing to a struggling church, the apostle who wrote to the Hebrews encourages what might be called fellow-feeling (another term we wish sounded roomier, to include the more empathic 51% of our population). We get the point: try walking in the other person’s sandals. For instance, pray for prisoners by imagining yourself locked in that same cell. Pray for torture victims by letting yourself visualize and feel their suffering.

In both instances it’s worth noticing that, in those days, this would not have meant praying for strangers. When this letter was written and read, Christians were being sent to prison and tortured just for being Christians. Prejudice worked its destructive way against the followers of Jesus, judging them to be dangerous to the nation, blaming them for putting the homeland at risk, seeing them as conspirators wanting to change the culture, outsiders with their own allegiances. Rather the way some Christians are treating Muslims, two thousand years later, here in America.

The prisoners and the tortured mentioned in the Letter to the Hebrews were fellow members of that struggling church. That bond of mutual love, philadelphia, held together both the imprisoned and the free in one brotherhood, sisterhood, and the apostle who writes this letter urges the free members to refuse to let prison walls shut out that brotherly, sisterly love. Imagine yourselves there, he says (with some irony, because they all could be before long); and now, in your freedom, practice fearless compassion as you sit next to the imprisoned and the tortured, in your mind’s eye and your heart’s imagining, and so pray from there, like that. Be part of philadelphia, mutual love, the unconditional love that holds the community together.

Luke’s Gospel brings us teachings of Jesus that answer the question, “How shall we do that?”, from another perspective, that of table fellowship. By his behavior at a Sabbath meal in a Pharisee’s home, and by his parable about a hypothetical wedding banquet, Jesus teaches the meaning of honor. In the Pharisee’s home, Jesus notices how the guests are colliding at the places of honor, presumably the seats nearest the host. To sit next to the President at a White House state dinner is a big deal indeed.

What’s ironic in this social occasion is that all the Pharisees are watching him closely. They’ve heard that he performs miracles, and they intend to see one. At the same time, he is observing them, how they play bumper cars getting at those choice seats. The miracle he has for them today is not what they expect. He wants to heal and convert their egos.

And to do it, he asks them to imagine a wedding banquet, a grander affair than the Sabbath meal before them. It’s no accident that he picks a wedding banquet. In the language of parables, a wedding banquet represents the coming Kingdom of God.

In that kingdom, all relationships are made right. Justice shapes all in that kingdom, where it will be revealed that God has fearless compassion for the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the abused, and the oppressed. In the world as it is, the first are first and the last are last. In the kingdom as it shall be, things are different.

To that end, Jesus coaches his hearers—and not the Pharisees only, but also his own ragtag army of disciples who frequently fight among themselves over who is greatest—Jesus coaches his hearers to learn the ways of the kingdom of God.

Go and sit down in the lowest place, Jesus teaches. Then it may be that the host will come and invite you to sit nearer the head table, who knows? But if not, it is still good for you to sit in the lowest place by your own choice. So much better, says Jesus, appealing to their egos, than being told by your host, “I’m sorry, but you’re sitting in my mother-in-law’s seat, and you must move.” And by then, the only seat left in the well-packed pecking order would be way out on the back porch.

Does this explain why Episcopalians cluster more at the back of the church than in the front?

If what he teaches about a wedding feast were applied to our Sunday gathering—and why should it not, since the eucharist can be described as the wedding banquet hosted by God to honor his Son whose love for the Church is like the love of a bridegroom for his bride?— what might he want to teach us, as we choose where to go when we enter this banquet hall?

It’s natural that we should choose a seat that honors our own needs and comfort. When we’ve done that once, we may just keep coming back to that same seat (that’s very Episcopal, isn’t it?). But might Jesus teach a different way of entering the banquet hall? Might he invite you to look around to see who you feel drawn to sit with? I don’t know that that’s what he might say… who knows? I do know that this mutual love has a togethering purpose. Where we place ourselves can serve that purpose.

I wonder if he might say, “Wherever you choose to sit, be thoughtful of others. Move to the center of a pew, to welcome others around you without their having to climb over you. In that small way, remember that you are a host to the stranger, the visitor who may come to your pew. Set the tone by whatever gesture of welcome and respect that may honor the others around you.

I don’t know if that’s what he might say. Who knows?

But we do know that he teaches us to choose the lowest place.

Were those Pharisees (and am I? and are you?) ready to imagine where that would take them? They were guests, and they heard his parable refer to guests. But the lowest place at a banquet is at the door, washing the feet of the invited. And in the kitchen, cleaning the pots. And in and out through those swinging doors, busing dishes and waiting on tables.

Later in Luke, we will hear Jesus ask, “Who would you rather be: the one who eats the dinner or the one who serves the dinner? You’d rather eat and be served, right? But I’ve taken my place among you as the one who serves… Now I confer on you the royal authority my Father conferred on me…”

The royal, divine, authority to serve. In that passage late in Luke, Jesus tells his Church that he has conferred on us this Godly power to serve so we can eat and drink at his table in his kingdom and be strengthened to take up responsibilities among the congregations of God’s people. We are fed so that we may feed.

There is set for each of us a place at the head table. This one offers just a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. And the place is set for us here so that we may be strengthened to take the lowest place elsewhere, in the world, where we live.

You’re raising a child? Helping to raise a grandchild? You sometimes sit in lowest places.

You’re the caregiver to a spouse, a parent, a neighbor, multi-tasking to keep on your head all the hats you must wear? You are familiar with lowest places.

Are you working on your marriage, or a friendship, at real cost to yourself? You know what low places are, including those where forgiveness is needed.

You’re volunteering to help, organize, lead other people? You get what it is to serve.

And in recessionary times, you’re in a workplace having to do more with less, having to support colleagues without necessarily getting much support? Daily, you’re rising to the challenge of serving a brotherhood, sisterhood.

Mutual love, love of the brethren, philadelphia, faces deep challenges in our nation and our world. Togethering love must exceed the bitter divisiveness at work in our society. Before we attempt to export democracy, a bold, costly, and generous love must disarm the viruses that afflict us, heal the prejudices and phobias that aim to defeat brotherhood, sisterhood.

As we have it in Jesus Christ, that brotherhood-sisterhood is unconditional.

As we have it in the package of Christianity, that potential togetherness is broken and splintered by narrow thinking and tribal fears—as is sadly true of all the world’s religions.

We must practice our Christianity in full expectation that what we hear in the Letter to the Hebrews is true: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” and in full desire that his unconditional love bring forth in us and in our world philadelphia, togethering love.