The one who is wise understands

File:Seeking human kindness.JPG

Watching for the Morning of September 18, 2016

Year C

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 20 / Lectionary 25

Wealth and poverty and the ethics of the kingdom are again in the forefront of the readings this coming Sunday. The prophet Amos excoriates the northern kingdom of Israel whose economic injustices betray a complete denial of the covenant at Sinai. The call to justice and mercy, the command to leave the gleanings for the poor and to maintain just weights, the injunction to observe Sabbath as a day for even the work animals to rest has all been overthrown in the quest for wealth and power that makes Israel indistinguishable from the other kingdoms of the world.

The psalmist provides a startling contrast to the prophet’s word as it sings of God who lifts up the poor and makes them equal to “princes” – the elites of Israelite and Judean society.

And then Jesus tells his story about the corrupt steward that leads to the familiar and fateful declaration: “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In a society that clearly serves wealth, such words makes us restless. We want to tame them – or dismiss them. But they will not be tamed.

They cannot be tamed, not honestly. They speak something at the heart of the faith. The human community is one; what lifts my brother lifts me; what diminished my sister diminishes me. Such ideas underlie the words of 1 Timothy that God wants all people to be saved. God wants all people to be gathered into the redeemed community. God wants all to share in the goodness of God’s creation. God wants all people to know the wholeness of life. Salvation doesn’t mean that even the wretched of the earth should gain access to a heaven after death. It means that the human community should be healed. The outcast gathered in. The sinners reconciled. The hungry welcomed to the wedding feast. It means the forces of chaos should be stilled like the sea, and the human spirit made whole like the man at Gerasa/Gadara. It means, ultimately, that every tear is wiped away and every tomb undone.

Serving wealth sets us against one another. It makes the ephah small and the shekel great, manipulating the market with deceptive weights and measures. It sells even the sweepings of the wheat. But the one who is wise understands that the time is at hand to use wealth to embody the kingdom, to unite rather than divide, to heal rather than steal, to bring the redeemed community to life.

The Prayer for September 18, 2016

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;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for September 18, 2016

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.

image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ASeeking_human_kindness.JPG By Enver Rahmanov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Looking for more

Sunday Evening

“God is a generous giver, and for us to live otherwise is to deny the one whose name we bear.”

“The steward in our parable this morning isn’t shrewd; he is wise.  He understands that his master is a good man, and banks his whole life on that goodness.”

(From today’s sermon, “The Gamble” – posted in Recent Sermons)

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I don’t know whether it does any good to talk about money.  No one thanks you for a sermon that sets before us the witness of scripture about wealth and possessions and our need to give.  People say the church should have a stewardship program, but what they usually mean is they want the pastor to tell other people to support the church; we don’t want the pastor dipping into our pockets with the word of God.

Raising money for the club is a lot easier than raising disciples.   A dinner, perhaps.  A slide show about our great ministry.  A pep talk about our hopes and aspirations.  A form to fill out and put in the offering plate.  I understand the purpose of such things.  But God is looking for more.  God is looking for disciples.  God is looking for a community imbued with God’s own compassion and courage and generosity and determination to touch the world with grace.  God is looking for believers governed by God’s Spirit.

God has his eyes set on the horizon.  God has his eyes set on a world bubbling with random acts of kindness.  God has his eyes set on a world where hands and arms and hearts are open to one another.  God calls us to walk with him toward that world where swords are beaten into plowshares, and all humanity gathers at the table of peace.

God has his heart set on a world made whole.  God has his heart set on a world shaped by God’s own spirit.  And he looks for people to follow him now, to plant the seeds now, to work the works of kindness now, to feed the hungry and visit the sick and the imprisoned, and share a cup of cold water.  God yearns for witnesses to his transforming and rescuing work.

I wish everyone saw the church as a valuable place to invest their tithes and offerings.  I wish they regarded public worship and the proclamation of the words and deeds of Jesus as a ministry worth supporting.  But what I really want is lives made generous by the grace of God.  Lives generous with money will also be generous with time and compassion and prayer.  Such lives do not start with the thought, “What’s this going to cost me?”  They start with the thought, “What will this do for another?”  They don’t ask, “What do they deserve?”  They ask, “What can I do?”

All that Jesus has to say about wealth and possessions comes back to this: are we centered in ourselves or centered in others?  That’s why money is a spiritual issue.  It’s why Jesus talks about it so much.  It’s why it courses through the prophets.  It’s why it grounds the covenant law.  It marks the difference between heaven and hell.  It marks the difference between salvation and despair.  It marks the distinction between the wilderness and the Promised Land.

There is a reason a table stands in the center of the worshiping community.

“He raises the poor from the dust”

Saturday

Psalm 113

English: Woman and child in Raisen district (B...

English: Woman and child in Raisen district (Bhil tribe), M.P., India. Français : Femme et enfant dans le district de Raisen (tribu Bhil), M.P., Inde. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

9 He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.

We react negatively to anything that seems to define a woman through childbearing, but we should not let this hinder us from hearing this sweet word of grace.  Those who have yearned for and been unable to have children know the sorrow that is addressed here.  But more than this grief is carried by these words.

The inability to conceive was regarded like a barren field.  This was not a couple’s problem; it was the woman’s problem.  It left the lingering suspicion that she was under a curse, that she was guilty of some grave sin.  It left her vulnerable, since the relationship of a mother and son was the strongest familial relationship – stronger than the marriage.  The eldest son would inherit a double share of the property, enabling him to care for his widowed mother.  He was her future security that no divorce could break.  And barrenness was cause for divorce.  She could and likely would be dismissed by her husband.  Presumably the woman at the well who had had five husbands had been dismissed by each for such a cause – and was unwelcome at the well in town because she was “cursed.”

The gift of a son is a redemption.  It is the gift of a future.  For a barren woman to be given a home – to become beloved when cast off – and to be blessed with children is no less than the gift of life restored.

God is a god who“raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.”  God is a god who rescues, saves, restores.  God is a god who gives joy and life and laughter.  He is a home for the homeless, shelter for the exposed, a defender of the weak, a provider for the poor.  He turns five loaves and two fish into a banquet for 5,000.  He turns water into an abundance of wine at a wedding.  He is the bridegroom for whom the earth waits.  He is the dawning of grace.  He is the opening of the grave.

9 He gives the barren woman a home,
making her the joyous mother of children.

Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord;
      praise the name of the Lord.
2 Blessed be the name of the Lord
      from this time on and forevermore.
3 From the rising of the sun to its setting
      the name of the Lord is to be praised.

 

The slide towards greed

Friday

Amos 8

Balanza de la Justicia

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
     and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
5saying, “When will the new moon be over
     so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,

     so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
     and practice deceit with false balances,
6buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,
     and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
7The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
     Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

The problem of poetry is that you can rarely retain the rhythm and sound of the text or the power created by a play on words in the original language.  Still, there is no escaping the force of this prophet’s words, no escaping God’s rage at a nation that sees God’s commands as nothing more than an archaic barrier to their profitmaking.  They chomp at the bit to be free of God’s command for a monthly festival at the new moon and a weekly day of rest for all workers.  They have learned the fine art of the finger on the scale to inflate the price of the produce they sell in the market.  God forbids the use of shaved weights – a heavy one so that when you purchase a pound of wheat from the farmer you get a little more than a pound, and a light one so that when you sell a pound you are giving a little less.  Such practices are universal.  The quart of ice cream looks the same and costs the same but now has less than a quart.  “Same Low Price!” advertises a product that weighs 10% less.  And I always wonder whether the gas station with that great low price has tweaked their pumps so that each gallon is slightly less – within the margin of error allowed by the state, perhaps, but who checks?  And why does the bank pay the biggest check, so that all the little ones bounce, each with their own $35 fee, rather than pay the little checks and bounce the one big one?  And what shall we say of Wall Streets cleverness with mortgages and derivatives and micro-trading?

God’s law was a gift to Israel to halt that inevitable slide towards greed and to be sure the poor were not left behind.  You were commanded not to harvest to the edge of your field, but to leave the perimeter for the poor to come harvest for themselves.  The land belonged to God, after all, and was only entrusted into their hands.  It had not belonged to them in the beginning.  It had been divided equally among them all.  They were not allowed to sell it outright, but only to purchase the number of harvests before the next jubilee, when debts were lifted and lands restored so that everyone had a chance to provide for their families.  Israel was not to become a nation like those around it – not to become a nation like ours where the top 1 percent own 42% of the financial wealth and the top 5% own 72%.  In the last 30 years 96% of the income gains have gone to the top 10% (all income growth in the past 10 years, while the income of the 90% has declined).

The task God gave to Israel was to protect the weak and vulnerable.  The command was to love your neighbor as yourself.  Instructions were given for the care of the poor, for the well-being of each was linked to the well-being of all.

At the end of the 8th century in the northern kingdom of Israel, as the nation is on its death spiral of arrogance, greed and the worship of false gods, the economy is booming and the wealthy leadership of the nation is casting off those ancient restraints given at Sinai.  So God speaks: “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”  Within a few years the northern kingdom of Israel, ten of the original twelve tribes, was gone and its people scattered among the nations.

So, back to the poetry, in case the prophet’s words still need more weight to speak to us – the word translated “bring to ruin” is a form of the word Sabbath.  They cause the poor “to cease” (meaning they destroyed the poor) because they no longer honor the command that all should cease from work one day. The accumulation of wealth reigns triumphant until Israel itself is measured in God’s balances – and those who destroy others end with their own destruction.

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.