The prudent act

Thursday

Luke 16

Beginning of 11th century

Beginning of 11th century.  The text is from the beginning of the Gospel of Luke (1:3-6)  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8 His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

I understand why someone would choose the translation ‘shrewdly,’ but nearly everywhere else in scripture the Greek word simply means wise, prudent or sensible.  The wise man builds his house on a rock.  The five wise virgins brought extra oil.  Joseph and Solomon are commended for their wisdom.  It’s a practical wisdom, an ability to understand the world in which one lives.

This word shrewd carries a vaguely negative connotation, which confuses the meaning of the parable.  We are not called to be shrewd in the presence of Jesus, but to be wise: to understand, to judge properly the moment that is upon us and choose well.

In our midst stands the one commissioned to speak on God’s behalf.   Before us is the embodiment of God’s word to the world.  Here the reign of God is dawning.  Here the truth of existence is made known and the destiny of the world revealed.  What is the wise and prudent action?

Crassly put, if judgment day is upon us, we better be feeding the poor, loving our neighbors, welcoming the outcast and forgiving those who sin against us.  When Mom and Dad show up suddenly after going out for the evening, we better be washing the dishes, doing our homework and putting ourselves to bed as commanded.  It’s only prudent.

The rich man’s estate manager was caught with his hand in the cookie jar.  He sized up his situation clearly, chose intelligently, and acted decisively.  The so called “children of light,” the religious people of Jesus’ day, lack sense.  They claim allegiance to the font of generosity, the wellspring of grace, yet live miserly, judgmental lives.  Instead of rejoicing at God’s gracious gathering of all people, they complain about someone sitting in their pew or children that make too much noise.  It’s dangerous ground.

The prudent build their homes on the rock.  The prudent recognize the one who is knocking at the door.  The prudent understand that money/possessions are a tool not a goal: a tool by which God’s grace can be manifest in the world.

And the prudent act.

Unrighteous Mammon

Wednesday

Luke 16

A young boy living on an East Cipinang garbage...

A young boy living on an East Cipinang garbage dump, Jakarta Indonesia. Picture taken by Jonathan McIntosh, 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

The translation “dishonest wealth” is a poor choice.  The New International Version translates this somewhat better as “worldly wealth.”  The Revised Standard Version from the 50’s called it “unrighteous mammon” following the King James precedent of simply bringing the Greek word ‘mammon’ into English.  The point isn’t that these possessions are gained immorally, it’s that possessions belong to this age, not the age to come.  We will not need money in heaven, just as our first parents did not require coinage for their life in Eden.  The wealthy will have no bigger apartments in the New Jerusalem.  They will not dine in luxury, not will the poor subsist on gruel. A new fruit will ripen on the tree of life each month of the year.

Such statements are images, of course.  They reflect on the simple notion that when humanity is restored to God, when the human heart is brought under the reign of God’s spirit, bread will be shared.  As with manna in the wilderness, no one will have too much and no one will have too little.

Unlike our own day.

We have all seen the photographs of children with distended bellies because their bodies have begun to digest their own internal organs.  The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that one in every eight people suffered from chronic undernourishment in 2010-2012.  Yet 40% of the food in the United States and up to 50% worldwide is wasted or lost.

Families don’t work this way.  If anything it is the strong (parents) who go without for the sake of the weak (children).  And we know in our bones that were the world “set right,” no child would perish for want of food or clean water.  If God governs each human heart, if God reigns over a single human family, no one will go hungry.

So what shall we do with “unrighteous mammon”?  What shall we do with the wealth that is part of this world rather than the world to come?

The principle is simple, however difficult the execution might be: “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.  Use your possessions in keeping with the reign of God that you may find a home there when money is gone.

PS  Check out the counter showing pounds of wasted food at http://endhunger.org/food_waste.htm

The right use of possessions

Watching for the morning of September 22

Year C

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Prophet Amos, old Russian Orthodox icon

Prophet Amos, old Russian Orthodox icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Luke’s description of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem follows a careful pattern echoing, in the second half of this section, themes from the first half.  So on Sunday we once again hear about possessions.

Amos speaks about the greed that pushes aside both the commands of God and the well-being of the poor.  The psalm rejoices in this God who reigns over all, but cares for the poor and needy.  Though the passage from 1 Timothy starts with social order – praying for the emperor – it wraps that prayer in the hymn about the radical and revolutionary generosity and selflessness of Jesus.  Finally we hear Jesus praise the corrupt manager (dishonest steward) because he understood what he should do with wealth in order to secure his salvation.

The Prayer for September 22, 2013

Almighty God,
you have shown yourself the defender of the poor
and protector of the weak.
Come to the aid of those in need,
and reveal to all the folly
of putting our hope and trust in wealth.
Grant us wisdom in dealing with our possessions
that we may receive from your hand life’s true riches

The Texts for September 22, 2013

First Reading: Amos 8:4-7
“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land.”
– The prophet Amos is sent to the northern kingdom of Israel to speak God’s word of judgment upon a people who have turned from God’s way and chosen wealth and privilege over the wellbeing of the poor.

Psalmody: Psalm 113
“He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.” – God is praised for his sovereign rule over all creation and his care for the poor and vulnerable.

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7
“There is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”
– The letters to Timothy are penned by Paul or in his name as parting words of advice to his protégé, Timothy. Here Paul speaks about prayer for the governing authorities and God’s will to gather all people into the new reality that is Christ.

Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
“‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’” – A corrupt manager acts decisively in the face of his dismissal to save himself: a lesson for Jesus’ hearers on how they should handle their wealth/possessions.

 

A golden mouth

September 13

St. John Chrysostom

English: John Chrysostom, icon by Dionisius Ру...

English: John Chrysostom, icon by Dionisius Русский: Иоанн Златоуст, икона Дионисия и его мастерской (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Christ passed over all the marvelous works which were to be performed by the apostles and said, ‘By this shall men know that ye are my disciples, if ye love on another.’” 

(St. John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, Graham Neville, trans., St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996, p. 63)

Today is the feast day for St. John Chrysostom, a gifted preacher who acquired the nickname Chrysostom, meaning “golden mouth.”  Born around 347 in Antioch, he served first as a deacon caring for the poor, and in 386 was ordained a priest and appointed to preach in the cathedral, where he achieved great renown.  In 397 he was brought to Constantinople against his will and made bishop, where his sermons challenging excess and calling for the care of the poor and his attempt to reform the morals of the court and clergy alienated the Empress and resulted eventually in his being deposed – a sentence that lasted only one day it was so unpopular with the crowds.  Nevertheless he was eventually sent into exile and forced to march beyond exhaustion in fierce weather so that he died on the way on 14 September 407.

St. John Chrysostom’s feast day is celebrated on the 13th because the 14th is the feast of the Holy Cross.

Rejoice with me

Friday

Luke 15

Cotswold-style morris dancing in the grounds o...

Cotswold-style morris dancing in the grounds of Wells Cathedral, Wells, England — Exeter Morris Men (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6 ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’

This is all God wants from us: to share his joy.  “Rejoice with me.”  Rejoice with me when the lost are found.  Rejoice with me when outcasts are gathered in.  Rejoice with me when sinners find reconciliation.  Rejoice with me when the isolated are restored to the community.  Rejoice with me.

Rejoice with me when the homeless find a home.  Rejoice with me when the hungry are welcomed to the table.  Rejoice with me when the strange and different and odd are received with gracious hospitality.  Rejoice with me when burdens are lifted.  Rejoice with me when prisoners are freed.  Rejoice with me when a cup of cold water is shared.  Rejoice with me strangers are treated with kindness.  Rejoice with me when the grieving are allowed to grieve.  Rejoice with me when the wounded are tended.  Rejoice with me.

Rejoice with me wherever truth is spoken, wherever kindness is done, wherever courage shines forth.  Rejoice with me.

We keep wanting to make these parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin.  But they are parables of the shepherd and the woman.  Coins do not repent; they are found.  They have no moral qualms about their past actions.  They have no guilt and regret.  They are just lost in the dust of houses with few windows that must be carefully swept for a small coin to be found.

Nor do sheep repent.  They experience no moral regeneration.  They wander off again following the first sweet clump of grass they find.  These are stories about the joy of finding.  These are stories about the joy of God.  In the face of God’s joy, dour-faced “religious” want to be sure that people feel sorry enough for their sins, that they’ve properly repented, that they have resolved to sin no more.  God just wants us to join the dance.  “Rejoice with me; I have found my sheep, my coin, my children, my world.”

A God who “repents”

Thursday

Exodus 32

Rainbow at the 9/11 memorial

Rainbow at the 9/11 memorial

14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

This idea of a god who changes his mind collides with our inherited notions of a god who is all knowing, all powerful and everywhere present.  Such a god is not changeable.  He doesn’t make mistakes.  He shouldn’t have to change his mind.

To hear the text say that God did so is discomfiting.  It grates on the ears a little.  Like God hardening pharaoh’s heart or the decision to destroy humanity at the time of Noah, such ideas don’t seem god-like.  And when a translation uses the word “repent”, it suggests notions of guilt and regret.

We can argue that God never intended to destroy the Israelites as they danced around the golden calf, that it was all a test of Moses.  But then the narrative possesses no danger.  Then there is no real risk in the people’s idolatry, no threat to them in consequence of their sin.  Then God is just playing mind games with Moses.  A fictitious wrath is more troubling than real wrath.

Cannot wrath and mercy compete in the heart of God?  And doesn’t the fate of humanity hang on which side wins?  Isn’t the Gospel, in its purest form, the simple yet profound declaration that mercy has triumphed?

Here is the newly saved community doing what God has just forbidden.  Rescued from slavery, they now declare that this golden calf is the source of their salvation.  For this they deserve to be destroyed.  It’s like catching your bride in the coatroom with your best man on your wedding day.  It should be all over.

But Moses asserts to God that he is a god of mercy, and his mercy should trump his wrath.  Such a mercy costs God something – even as a groom’s forgiveness would not come easily.

God’s grace is not easily dished out.  It is a labor of love.  It is a sacrifice.  It is a willingness to shoulder betrayal.  It is a willingness to receive spittle and be mocked with a purple robe.  It is a willingness to hear those you love cheer as soldiers drive the spikes through your hands.

This simple statement about God’s change of heart is not troubling; it is wonderful.  God claims his betrayers as his own people.  God chooses mercy.  God chooses to forgive.  A species capable of dropping sarin gas on children deserves to be stomped out.  But God breathes it in.  His rainbow hangs in the sky; he will not make war against humanity, however much we deserve it.

God’s “repentance” contains no hint of guiltiness and regret; it is laden with compassion.  God is justified in his wrath, but he chooses a different direction – which is all the Hebrew word means: to turn and go in a new direction. God has turned towards us.  He has chosen grace over wrath.

“Your people”

Wednesday

Exodus 32

The Worship of the Golden Calf by Filippino Li...

The Worship of the Golden Calf by Filippino Lippi (1457–1504) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7 The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely;

The pronouns in the first reading are intriguing.  Speaking to Moses, God calls the Israelites “your people.”  But Moses answers God saying, “Why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?”

We can laugh as God and Moses argue over to whom this “stiff-necked” people belong, but a very important conversation is taking place.  Who stands behind the exodus?  Who stands behind the humbling of pharaoh?  Who stands behind the parting of the waters?  Has Moses come out of Egypt with a ragged band fleeing oppression, or has God brought them out to meet him at Sinai?  Did Moses deliver them or God?  The leaders of faith communities often get this wrong – as do the people themselves.

At this point in the narrative, of course, this is a question for Moses.  He is on the mountain alone with God.  The people have remained behind.  They didn’t want to hear the voice of God directly.  It frightened them.  It confronted them with all the might and majesty and holiness of God.  Waiting behind, however, they have grown fearful.  They press Aaron to make for them a visible manifestation of the divine – a golden calf.  Rather than stand before the mystery of the infinite, they want the concrete.  Rather than worshiping God by the observance of his teachings, they want to worship in the way of the nations – a carnival of feasting, drunkenness and “dancing” (a euphemism for sexual behaviors). Drink and dancing are a shortcut to altered states of consciousness; much easier than prayer, obedience and submission to the holy.

But the argument between Moses and God is not that neither wants to claim this people. Moses is being tested.  His heart is being revealed.  Does he imagine that he is the hero of this narrative or God?  Has he brought the people out or has the eternal and ineffable one called them?  Something very important happens when we realize that we are not the hero of our own story.

The greatest temptation is that Moses should become the new Abraham – God will dispose of these “stiff-necked”, rebellious people and create a new people of God born from Moses’ descendants.  But Moses doesn’t fall.  He calls God to remember his promise to Abraham.  He calls God to remember that God himself has brought out this people.  He calls God to be the God he has shown himself to be – a God of mercy.  In calling God to faithfulness, he shows his own faithfulness.

In the end, the narrative says that God repents.  The people have not changed, but God has changed.  Instead of his suggestion that he destroy this people, he will forgive.  He acts in keeping with his nature: he saves.

And then pronoun changes:

14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

God is again God.  And we are once again God’s people.

Heaven’s Joy

Watching for the morning of September 15

Year C

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 19 / Lectionary 24

English: Children dancing, International Peace...

English: Children dancing, International Peace Day 2009, Geneva. Français : Enfants dansant, Journée internationale de la Paix 2009, Genève. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sunday, with the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin, we will hear Jesus speak the first two of three parables about the joy of heaven at the gathering of the “sinners and outcasts” and the restoration of the community of Israel (and ultimately of the human community).  In our other readings, Moses intercedes for a rebellious Israel that is dancing around the golden calf – and God relents on his expressed intention to destroy them.  Paul speaks of his former life as one who persecuted the nascent Christian community and of God’s amazing grace.  David offers his prayer of confession after Nathan has confronted him with his crime with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah.

Repentance rattles around in these texts, but our penitence is not the issue.  What lies at the center is the mercy and reconciling work of God – and whether we wish to turn and be a part of God’s reconciled community.

The Prayer for September 15, 2013

God of all joy,
the heavens resound with song
where the wounds of the broken are tended
and the lost and alone are gathered in.
Help us to rejoice in what pleases you,
and to know the joy of your reconciling love.

The Texts for September 15, 2013

First Reading: Exodus 32:7-14
“The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely.”
– Moses is on Mt. Sinai receiving God’s commands when the Israelites begin to worship the golden calf.  God threatens to destroy them and create a new people from Moses’ descendants, but Moses intercedes on their behalf.

Psalmody: Psalm 51
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love.” – This exquisite prayer of confession is attributed to David after the prophet Nathan exposed David’s sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband.

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17
15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the foremost.”
– The letters to Timothy are penned by Paul or in his name as parting words of advice to his protégé, Timothy.  Here Paul speaks of the mercy he received though he initially persecuted the church.

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” – The first two of three parables speaking of God’s joy in gathering the outcast and restoring the community of Israel – indeed the whole human community.

Sowing grace

Sunday Evening

Deuteronomy 30

English: Spring sowing

English: Spring sowing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

16If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God that I am commanding you today, by loving the Lord your God, walking in his ways, and observing his commandments, decrees, and ordinances, then you shall live and become numerous, and the Lord your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to possess. 17But if your heart turns away and you do not hear, but are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them, 18I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess.

A young person served as the reader this morning.  It gave a wonderful power to the text from Deuteronomy to hear his pre-adolescent voice speak about the future consequences of the choices we make.

So many of our choices affect those who come after us, whether the national debt, the environment, or the moral climate of our world.  What I choose now governs the options available to me later.  What we sow today we reap tomorrow.

Churches can sow to life, though we don’t always.  There are too many horror stories of congregations that are narrow, unwelcoming, self-satisfied.  But this is our calling: to sow grace into the world, to sow kindness, to sow compassion, to sow a message about our true humanity, to sow a word about life in the face of death, truth in the face of falsehood, peace in the face of the warfare that tears nations, homes and individual hearts.

I came out of seminary thinking what really mattered on Sunday morning was the sermon.  I have come to see that the message preached by people welcoming strangers, bringing food for those in need, sharing the peace, and praying for one another is the true genius of the church.

At its best, worship is not entertainment, but a community gathered around the story of Jesus and a table of shared bread and wine.  We come from all our different backgrounds, with all our different worries, hopes and dreams, will all our various joys and sorrows, and from all our different cultures, and we eat as one community.  We renew within one another the vision that this is God’s purpose for the world.

As the world witnesses yet more violence and contemplates yet one more act of warfare, there are some who gather to confess that our rightful humanity is compassion, love, and a common table – and that faithfulness to such a vision is the source of a long life in a good land.

“Hating” family

Saturday

Luke 14

Family portrait: Key West, Florida

Family portrait: Key West, Florida (Photo credit: State Library and Archives of Florida)

26 “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.”

If you eat with the poor and outcast, if you welcome the lame to your table, if you start “slumming it” – or, God forbid, eating with gentiles – you shame your family.  If you love your neighbor as yourself, if you forgive rather than avenge family debts and insults, if you take the lowest seat at banquets, you bring irreparable harm to your family’s honor.  You will, by every customary thought and measure, be “hating” your family.

“How could you treat us this way?!”  You can hear the family argument.  And such shaming of a family could easily be answered with violence.  At least exclusion.

There is a great crowd following Jesus.  And he warns them to count the cost.  Those who turn back will face both the shame of what they have done to their families, and the shame for starting something they had not the courage to complete.

Of course, if you come from the poor and outcast, you will be finding a family, not losing one.  And from whatever social station you come, you will be finding the family of God, the household of heaven, the habitation of peace, the reign of God.