Sunday, September 22, 2013

Gospel Whiplash

My sermon for Sunday, September 22, 2013

In a week when as your priest I was working with our Budget Committee on thinking about the 2013 and 2014 budgets and our building committee working on the budget for our construction projects, and facing a Vestry meeting tomorrow night, I don’t think I could have asked for a worse parable to preach on than today’s Gospel. Be assured that your Vestry, Budget Committee, Investment Committee, and everyone else in parish leadership try to be shrewd and honest stewards of our financial life.

There’s a temptation to try to make today’s Gospel reading make sense, and come up with one single point that the whole thing is guiding us towards. I don’t believe that’s possible. Or at least if it is, I am not a good enough scholar or preacher to do it. But it is a good opportunity to just remember, briefly, how the Gospels stories were put together.

The person we know as Luke who “wrote” this gospel was really more of an editor. He took the Gospel of Mark and a group of Jesus’ sayings known today to scholars as “Q” and some other material about 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection and put it together and shaped it into a story that told the Good News of Jesus as he understood it. So if things seem disjointed or contradictory, it’s because they are. Jesus can tell a story about a manager who acts dishonestly but shrewdly with his master’s wealth and then Luke can combine that with some other sayings of Jesus on the topic of wealth that completely contradict what looks to be the point of the first story. So if you felt like you had theological whiplash by the end of listening to the Gospel today, it’s with good reason. There really is a story saying one thing followed immediately by some verses that say the exact opposite.

I did, however, read a great sermon on this Gospel passage online this week by Sarah Dylan Breuer, a lay Episcopalian in Massachusetts ( . She did an interpretation of this story based in its historical context that went something like this:

A very rich man lives in a big city with an income from the estate he owns in the country. His manager runs the estate, and all the work of the estate is done by the peasants whose grandparents might have owned the land but lost it in payment to a debt. So they work as tenant farmers, buying everything they need from a sort of “company store” owned by the landowner at prices far above what they’re worth. Since the harvest is never enough to pay their rent and their debts at the store, they slip further and further into debt. The manager collects the rents, enforces the debts, and is generally unpopular with the peasants—from whose ranks he probably came.

The landowner fires the manager because of rumors that he was squandering the landowner’s resources. The manager has made his fortune—such as it is—by unjustly supporting the landowner over the peasants, so he has no good place to turn—until he gathers all the farmers who owe the landowner money and declares that their debts have been reduced from an amount that would be impossible for them to pay to something that maybe they could actually do at some point. He doesn’t say he’s about to be fired and that this is his idea rather than the landowner’s idea.

So the farmers think the landowner is generous—and so is his manager. When the landowner returns to the estate he gets a surprise: the peasants are cheering for him. They love him and shower him with gratitude. He can’t really go back and fire his manager and tell them it’s all a mistake—that he’s not really generous, that he really does want to keep them in servitude. So he claps the manager on the back and says in effect, “well done.”

Well that makes it sound like a different story, doesn’t it? It’s still complicated—the manager is acting on the side of justice not out of a sense of compassion or out of some high moral claim but out of self-interest. But he’s also a little bit of a Robin Hood character, righting the wrongs of an oppressive system. Sort of. At the end of the parable, the peasants are still tenant farmers and are still in debt. But if the shrewdness of the manager is done—however unintentionally—in service of good, as a way of taking “dishonest wealth” and doing something honest with it then maybe we see that the manager is not serving wealth but serving God. It might make us ask ourselves, when is it more faithful to God to be dishonest than honest? Think Oscar Schindler, abolitionists who ran the Underground Railroad, and any number of other examples of people who used deception for good ends. Stories about people who break the rules for the greater good make great movies.

And then we get to the next verse, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” and then the whiplash happens. Didn’t we just hear a character commended for their dishonesty? Stop being so confusing, Jesus!

Well, one thing we might understand it are different strands of moral theology, or ethics. I’m no hard academic theologian, but because every one of us makes moral decisions every day—from what form of transportation we use to how we invest our money to how we relate to our co-workers and neighbors to how we raise our children—it’s good to have a grasp of some of what millennia of philosophers and theologians have written and where we fit on that spectrum.

One way of looking at our moral universe as Christians (or really, as anything—this isn’t just for Christians) is as an absolutist. Absolutists believe there are certain acts that are absolutely right or wrong in all circumstances. If it is a moral absolute not to kill anyone, then it doesn’t matter what the circumstances are—it’s never right to kill, even if it would save more lives, or be a just punishment, or be in self defense. The closing verses of this Gospel today sound more absolutist—you must always be faithful with wealth, no matter where it comes from and if it is honest wealth or dishonest wealth. Absolutism can be derived from two different sources: from rules or laws which must not be broken, or from consistent virtues within yourself. The gospel verses today seem to sound more like they derive from virtue—a person who has the virtue of honesty will always be honest; someone who can act dishonestly will never reliably embody the virtue of honesty. The advantage of an absolutist world view is its consistency and clarity; the disadvantage is the injustice it can create in the results when absolute principles come in conflict with one another. If it’s an absolute to tell the truth, and an absolute to love your neighbor, those conflict when you’re trying to hide runaway slaves, or rescue Jews from the Nazis.

Another strain of moral theology is called consequentialism. Consequentialists believe that it is the results of our actions that matter—so sometimes it might be best to do something wrong, if it has a good outcome. The reading of the parable of the dishonest manager that Dylan Breuer worked on is a good example of consequentialism: does the manager cheat his master? Yes…. But because the consequences are good it is justified. It appears that the landowner in this parable is a consequentialist as well, since he commends the steward’s dishonesty. Consequentialism has the capacity to be pragmatic and compassionate. But consequentialism can also slide into moral relativism, where there are no absolutes and people just make up their own rules to suit their circumstances.

Where do you fall, in your own moral life? Are you more of an absolutist or a consequentialist? If you have absolutes—what are they? And what challenges them? If you’re more of a consequentialist, what are the guides that inform which consequences you think are worth breaking the usual moral codes for?

I would say that the way today’s Gospel puts these two approaches to the moral life next to one another should provoke us into realizing that Jesus’ will always leave us always struggling in discerning which actions are right or wrong. Understanding the Gospel is not simple—or we would not have such contrasting words coming out of Jesus’ mouth. His hearers in the first century struggled to understand how to follow him, too—particularly around how to handle wealth, because it’s a topic Jesus spoke so frequently about. If there are too many absolutes, we are not being shrewd enough. If we leave aside all our absolutes then we may not be able to be trusted. We may serve wealth—or power, or ourselves, or fame, or evil, or any other idol—and try to point to a positive consequence to justify it.

The moral absolute for Christians is to serve—and love—God with heart, mind and soul. But how we see the world has such an influence on what we see—do we see our stories as more like the parable as we first heard it this morning, or as more like something with the interpretation of Dylan Breuer, with shades of history and motivation? That is the shrewdness I believe we are called to bring as Christians—most of us are not called to be shrewd in business dealings. But we are all called to be shrewd in how we see the world—in not taking things at face value but at looking for the real story at the heart. Because a story about how a manager stole from a rich man can turn into a story about how a rich man stole from a lot of poor people when you really listen to it. That kind of shrewdness is serving God faithfully, and hopefully leads to grace and to being what this gospel refers to as the “children of light.”

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Growing Disciples of Jesus

My sermon from September 8, 2013

“Mom, I hate you.” I know the day is coming when Nathan will say that. And I have a sneaking suspicious that at some point Nathan, a child of two clergy parents, will be saavy—and audacious—enough to point to today’s gospel reading as justification. “Mom, Jesus said I had to hate you if I wanted to be his disciple. Sorry. I mean, you want me to be Jesus’ disciple, right?” I will no doubt groan and bang my head against the wall. 

I struggled with the circumstances that assigned this Gospel—seeming to be pretty anti-familial relationship—for a day in which we are blessing the backpacks of children who are returning to school this week. Would it have been too much to ask for “suffer the little children to come to me?” 

But so let’s tackle it: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” Challenging words—seeming to contradict every attitude we would expect to hear about family life from a Christian pulpit. “Whoever comes to me and does not love father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sister, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” That sounds better, right? The gospel is all about love!  

The gospel IS all about love…. But let’s think about what we know Jesus lives and says about families in the Gospels:  

His mother was a poor, teenage pregnant girl who got someone who wasn’t the father of her baby to marry her. 

Jesus left his birth family and then publicly denied them in favor of his disciples—a new familial unit, formed on the basis of friendship rather than blood relationships. 

Jesus doesn’t appear to have been married (though there’s no way to be certain) which would have been his familial obligation. And he doesn’t seem to have had children—again, there’s no way to be certain—but having children would certainly also have been a familial expectation and obligation. 

Family life in general in the first century was something very different from what we would consider family—if you want to know more there’s a wonderful book called Jesus’ Family Values by Professor Deirdre Good from the General Theological Seminary. Among other points she makes is that there is no word in Greek for “family”; the closest is oikia, which is closer to household. A household would include blood relationships, but also slaves, adopted children, and clients.  

Paul elevates singleness above married life, and that is interesting because in some way, what Jesus is saying here is that you must be as if you were single—and did not have children, or were attached to living parents—in order to follow him. He’s not saying that only single people can be his disciples, but rather that whatever our familial and household ties are, in order to follow Jesus we may need to give up our primary attachment to them, because our primary attachment will now be to him. 

Jesus talks a lot about being “born anew” and part of that new birth is—in a way—getting a new family. It’s getting the family of the church—our brothers and sisters in Christ, as we are adopted as children of God. And in order to be adopted by the new Christian family, some family relationships had to be altered—the disciples occasionally say longingly to Jesus that they have left “everything” to follow him; and certainly they are depicted as leaving their parents and livelihoods and hometowns. Perhaps only temporarily, or for a season. But just as we expect our children to love us parents most when we are young but hope that when they become adults they might find a special adult to love more intimately; we can expect that we—and our children—should grow to love Jesus more than us. 

Which brings us to the backpacks. 

Because this gospel isn’t just about families, it’s about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We aren’t blessing backpacks today because it is cute and the kids are adorable—though both of those are true. We’re doing it because we want our children to be disciples of Jesus and have a relationship with God like that depicted in Psalm 139. We want these children—who belong to all of us because they are part of the Christian family—to know that Jesus doesn’t just live at church, and you come visit him every Sunday (or occasionally on a Sunday). Jesus is with you at school. Jesus is with you at home. Jesus is with you when you’re scared. Jesus is with you when you’re excited and happy. When your parents love you—part of that love is Jesus. When you love someone—part of that love is Jesus. That deepest darkest secret you have inside of you that you don’t want anyone to know because if they knew they’d hate you? Jesus already knows—and he still loves you. That part of your body that you don’t like and that embarrasses you and you try to cover it up so one notices? Jesus made that part of your body, and he thinks it’s beautiful. You are marvelously made by God, and you are his disciple. Being a disciple is costly—but it is so worth it. 

What would happen if our children actually became disciples of Jesus lived the life depicted in the Gospel today? A lot of parenthood currently seems to be focused on “What if I fail?” What if we changed the question around and asked, “What if we succeed?” What if our children were Jesus’ disciples—more than we are—and they did take up their crosses and follow him… what if they DID give away ALL their possessions to follow Jesus? What if they did love Jesus more than they love us?  

A friend and I saw the movie The Butler on Friday night, and it was a striking example of this interpretation of the passage. Both the title character and his son believe in the full equality of blacks and whites; but because they approach it in radically different ways, their relationship is sundered. The father is gentle and patient, asking respectfully and repeatedly for a raise for the serving staff of color at the White House (which he doesn’t get until the 1980s), and determined to avoid the dangerous racism of the deep South; the son full of urgency and risk-taking, a freedom rider who risks his life in protests and deliberately dedicates himself to challenging the status quo of the deep South. They are so angry at one another for so many decades that it would be fair to say that they hate each other.

It isn’t until the end of the movie—a Hollywood ending, but if you can’t have them in Hollywood films, where else can you count on them—that the father really comes to realize that he has been incredibly successful in raising his son, and that the real values he sought to instill in his son really did take—it’s just that those very values led him down a different path than he ever would have chosen for his child.  

May that be true for us, too. I hope that Nathan does love Jesus more than he loves me; I pray that he will take up his cross courageously, even if it leads him into greater risk than I, in my love, would want for him. And I pray that I will be enough of a disciple to trust him and God. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Take a seat

A sermon from September 1, 2013 at the Church of the Epiphany

My experience in the church has been one of consistently being asked to take a “higher” seat—at least as is often perceived, if “higher” means closer to the altar. I began as a child in a pew, and then sang in my church’s children’s choir starting when I was six, and moved up to the choir pews. When I was 11, I became the first female person to read a lesson at my church (we were pretty conservative) and got to stand at the lectern. After college I was invited to preach, and learned what it was to stand in the pulpit; and then I was ordained and got to move up to the altar; and then you all invited me to move from being an associate rector here to being your priest in charge. “Friend, move up higher” indeed.  

This theme of “invitation” keeps leaping out at me in today’s gospel. Jesus is teaching about how to receive an invitation to come to his Table; and also how to extend our invitation to those who are not yet seated. It’s also good to point out that Jesus offers this parable from the position of guest himself. He’s at the Pharisee’s table as a guest who has been invited… it makes me wonder where Jesus is sitting as he tells this parable. Has he taken a high place because he is the great rabbi who everyone is watching closely? Or did he sit in the lowest place, and is this parable inspired by his own experience of being asked to take a higher place?  

This parable is about God’s table—but Jesus isn’t the host, even at God’s table. Jesus is a guest, and Jesus is the meal. The place of host, the ones who must actively invite people to God’s banquet, whether it be the Eucharistic feast or the community of Christ’s body, is placed upon us. And while we’re out inviting the poor and the lame, we also must remember to invite Jesus. As it says on many popular wall hangings, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present,” but we must be conscious of Christ’s desire to be actively invited to our table—not because Jesus won’t be there if we forget, but because we must remember to leave a place for Jesus in the midst of our busy-ness of being church, and must remember that the food we are serving and consuming is God’s Word, which is the reason for gathering in the first place. Sometimes it’s good to step back from the business of church—the meetings, the fundraisers, even the worship, and consciously ask ourselves, “Have we actively made room for Jesus here, or are we so focused on our goals of getting stuff done that we haven’t had time to pray, or to read, or to listen, or to notice his presence?”

So we start by first consciously inviting Jesus. And we need to think about what it means to be a guest—because we are guests as well. But since we are also often hosts, how do we invite others into our table fellowship—both in the church and elsewhere in the world?

I wish that my experience of receiving steady invitations were true for all in the church and the world. But I suspect that most of us have some experience of being on the other side; the side of feeling excluded, like we aren’t welcome, and like an invitation that should be offered has not been, and the host, whether an individual, an institution, or a church, has fallen short. And then what? Jesus doesn’t really offer an answer in today’s Gospel for what the poor and the lame and the marginalized should do if the host fails to invite them… nor for that matter what the brothers and friends and rich people should do if they’ve been ignored by the host in preference to the marginzalized masses.  

Getting Christ’s church around a table takes more than just a good guest list—for some of us it requires asking for a place at that table, too. The only reason I was invited to “come up higher” to read a lesson on that Sunday morning 25 years ago is that women throughout the church were asking, nay, demanding their place at the table in the leadership of the church. How can you get a seat at the table if the lowly are not invited, and nor do they ask to be seated out of fear that their plea for a place at the table will be greeted by the shut down verse of “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” which is a verse I’ve personally had thrown at me as a barrier to my serving in a role I had earned fair and square. Now, I certainly wrestle with embracing humility, but I assure you that this was not one of my many times of being full of myself. I know I’m not alone in that experience of running up against this verse. By asking to be at the table, those who are marginalized are often told that they are exalting themselves—they’re asking for too much, they’re being uppity, they’re obnoxious and demanding. They should be patient and quiet until they’re invited, even if no invitation seems to be forthcoming.   

It was poignant to be reflecting on this Gospel while watching the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Talk about all the challenges of taking your place at the table; being told to wait; insisting again and again on the justice of having a seat. Or think of the labor struggles that resulted in this weekend’s observance; to let workers have a voice in their pay, their benefits, their hours, their working conditions.  

Asking to be a full person at God’s table is not exalting yourself. It exposes the sins of our churches and institutions, showing the limitations of our own hospitality, but we must ask for our place at the table. African Americans didn’t always even have a place at the communion rail next to their white brothers and sisters in the Episcopal Church; women didn’t have a place at that table right there within living memory. Laborers still in many parts of the world do not have the ability to advocate for being treated with dignity and as human beings—there is no place for them at the table of 

You often don’t get anywhere in this world without asking, because we do fall short in offering invitations, which makes this gospel far more challenging than it might at first appear. Perhaps we’re afraid that once the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind show up and sit down, we won’t recognize what the gathering looks like—because it will look different, and sound different, and smell different, and speak a different language. 

And what of the friends, the brothers, the relatives and the rich neighbors, who have seemingly been replaced at the table by the poor, the crippled, and lame and the blind? Is Jesus asking us to replace one group of people with another group of people, swapping those marginalized by society for those somehow marginalized by God?

I have confidence that God marginalizes no one; but God does balance out the powerful and the lowly, bring the one down and the other up so that both are sitting, perhaps, at a perfectly round table, where there is no high or low, there are only neighbors encountering one another as equals. There might be less elbow room once everyone is there—but at a feast, why not be close to your neighbor? That’s what God’s table looks like—and that’s the invitation that we are called to extend as much as possible to this part of God’s table. Come take your place at the table. Come sit and eat, as both guest and host, partaking of the meal which is Christ’s body and blood, binding us in communion with one another and with Him. And as the author of the letter to the Hebrews writes, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.” There are angels in our midst, at this very table.