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

Blessings

File:Harvest (13429504924).jpg

Saturday

Psalm 67

1May God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
2that your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.

We all want God to bless us. We want God to bless our homes and our children. We want God to bless our tables and our jobs. We want God to grant us prosperity and peace. We want God to protect us from all evil.

And when we are generous, we want God to bless every table – though the truth is we are more concerned with our own than those neighbors far away.

We think blessing is an end in itself, that it is good to be blessed, that it is good to have safety and security and abundance. We have a much harder time thinking of blessing as a means to an end. God intends to accomplish something through it. God is not just giving us an overflowing pantry. God is giving such a pantry that others might know God’s grace and power.

And it’s not this strange American perversion: “Look at me. I’m rich because of God. You can be rich, too.”   It’s rather, “Look at the abundance of God that there is plenty to share.”

There are two types of wealth in scripture. There is the wealth that comes from rich fields and timely rains. And there is the wealth that comes from profiting at the expense of others. The first is regarded as God’s blessing; the second as “unrighteous mammon”. But the wealth that comes from the fortune of good weather and land – wealth that is gift from God – is meant to be shared. If my fields prosper, I have the obligation to aid those whose fields did not. This is the failure of man in the parable of the rich fool. When his barns overflowed, he thought only of himself and not his obligation to his neighbors. He was at ease, but no one else. This is also the problem of the rich man with Lazarus at his gate.

So the psalm is a harvest song, calling upon all creation to recognize God’s goodness, God’s abundant generosity. The harvest is meant to bring joy to all – and give rise to praise from all. God’s blessing has a purpose: “that your way [God’s generosity and goodness and care for all] may be known upon earth, your saving power among all nations.”

 

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHarvest_(13429504924).jpg By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters (Harvest) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

That stubborn claim

Friday

Acts 4:1-13

File:Villamblard église vitrail choeur détail.JPG1While Peter and John were speaking to the people, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came to them, 2much annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming that in Jesus there is the resurrection of the dead. 3So they arrested them…

I don’t know whether ‘annoyed’ is quite the right term for the anger of the Jerusalem leaders towards the apostles, but it is helpful to recognize in this simple sentence what ancients and the poor understand about authority: it serves the powerful.   They didn’t like what the apostles were saying so they arrested them. This is not a world in which people have rights.

But why should the preaching of these two from Galilee come to the attention of the Jerusalem leadership, and why should it offend them? It is common for people to suggest, because the Sadducees are named and the Sadducees didn’t find resurrection in the Torah, that the problem is the Sadducees didn’t like that the disciples were teaching the doctrine of the resurrection. But the resurrection was a common idea in Judea and Galilee and there were members of the high council that themselves held this opinion. The problem isn’t a doctrinal dispute. The problem is that Peter and John are preaching that Jesus was raised from the dead – the Jesus that these leaders executed for blaspheming God. To suggest that God resurrected this Jesus is to say that God was on the side of Jesus and not the leadership of the nation. Indeed, it says the leadership of the people has betrayed and forfeited their office for they rejected God’s anointed one.

To proclaim that the high priest no longer represents God is good reason for the high priest to have you arrested.

This is the same thing that gets believers in trouble when they declare that Jesus is Lord. When Caesar claims to be lord of all, he will not tolerate anyone declaring that someone else is Lord.

This is the joy and dilemma of Christian faith in every age. When Rome passes a law requiring every woman to be married and bear children, a woman’s choice of virginity becomes a declaration that her body does not belong to the state but to God. So St. Lucy is put to death. When the amorous advances of a suitor are spurned, he betrays her to the state. In the same way, the martyrs of Uganda perish when they reject the sexual predations of their king. Hitler made it the duty of every German woman to bear children for the Reich. Our culture now mocks virginity and considers our sexual self-expression essential to our humanity. A lot of money is being made selling sex, beauty, and little blue pills, but on that altar many of our young people are being sacrificed.

When St. Francis walks away from his father’s wealth to embrace a life of poverty, he is rejecting the implicit claim of wealth and privilege to supremacy. When Christians do such a simple thing as tithe, giving away the first portion of their income, they testify that wealth and possessions are not our master. Our cultural masters need us to buy more stuff – even at peril of the creation itself – for it serves the bottom line. But we do not belong to the economy; we belong to God.

The dark side of the argument in support of Charlie Hebdo is the idolatry of personal freedom – the belief that I am my own master, that no one can tell me what to do. To this Christianity must say “No, not quite.” There is another to whom your life belongs. He alone gives true freedom.

This is why Christians ought not equate “God and Country”. The two don’t quite match up. I may choose to serve my neighbor by serving my country, but my country is not my Lord.

Nor does God and prosperity quite match up – despite the numbers that Joel Osteen and ilk attract. Jesus kept saying things like “You cannot serve God and Mammon,” and “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God, the things that are God’s.” Jesus is standing in line with Joshua (“Choose this day whom you will serve,”) and Elijah (“How long will you go limping with two different opinions,”) Deuteronomy (“There is no God besides me,”) and Isaiah (“Besides me there is no god”). God and Asherah, God and Baal, God and wealth, God and sex, God and country, don’t match up.

There is a stubborn claim in the heart of Christian faith that life belongs to God alone. He alone is Lord. It is a claim that “annoys” civil, cultural and corporate leaders. It lands Peter and John in prison – and many after them – and many still today.

But God has raised the Jesus this world crucified – and to him all creation belongs.

 

Photo: By Père Igor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

 

Storing up

Friday

Luke 12

Storage Garage5

Storage Garage5 (Photo credit: bryanpearson)

15One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”

It is easy to hide behind the word abundance.  None of us think we have an abundance because we can look up in the hills or across town and see someone with more.  Though our closets and garages might be overflowing, and we may lament we have too much stuff, we seldom imagine Jesus’ warning applies to us.  We are pretty confident that what we have only – or mostly – what we need.

If, however, we translate Jesus’ comment more neutrally – “a person’s life does not consist in what he or she has stored up” – then the force of these words becomes more apparent and inescapable.

We spend a great portion of our lives storing up goods – or at least trying to.  We want to have enough to live comfortably in retirement.   We save.  We invest.  We insure.  We build up our pensions or IRA’s. We buy a house – and then bigger houses if we can.  If we are able, we build a family, looking forward to children and grandchildren and great grandchildren.  We gather stuff to make a comfortable home and the tools to tend it.  If we prosper we upgrade, trading grandmas’ old dishes for ones we like, and our cheap kitchen pots and pans for nicer, newer ones.  If we can, we move a wall and make a master bath or bigger kitchen – all with an eye to the day when we can enjoy retirement with enough to be comfortable, when we can “relax, eat, drink, and be happy.”  These are, of course, the words of the fool in the parable.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with relaxing, eating, drinking and being happy.  The question is whether these constitute life.  And whether life comes from what we have stored up.

The rich man in the parable has received a great blessing from God, but he fails to understand the purpose of God’s blessing.  He counts it all for himself and foresees a life of contentment.  In this he tragically misses the way of God: abundance is for sharing.  God’s gift of abundance grants me the privilege of many acts of kindness.  It allows me to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit those in prison.  It allows me great opportunity to live the generosity of heaven, to share in the joy of God’s healing and redeeming work.  God’s abundance grants me the opportunity to “store up heavenly riches” – not meaning to get brownie points in heaven for my charities on earth, but to immerse myself ever deeper in that which is eternal: kindness, mercy, justice, love.  This is a true spiritual wealth.  The fool misspent his abundance on the falsehood that life is found in his storage bins.

Life, the life that participates in the eternal, the life that is enlivened by the divine Spirit, the life that is infused with the heavenly mysteries we call love and joy, the life that cannot perish, comes from what you give not what you gather.

What we accumulate gives us only an illusion of security.  Too many things can steal it away: illness, accident, fraud, or a simple mistake.  On the other hand, nothing can steal away a life of compassion, a generous heart and fellowship with the one who is eternal.

Uh oh, Jesus is talking about money

Watching for the morning of August 4

Year C

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 13 / Lectionary 18

Incipit to the Gospel of Luke from the Book of...

Incipit to the Gospel of Luke from the Book of Kells, c. 800 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The assigned readings for Sunday have us skipping over the rest of chapter 11 and the beginning of chapter 12 in the gospel of Luke to take up what is commonly known as the Parable of the Rich Fool – so the common element in the readings is possessions.

What we bypass is the accusation that Jesus is driving out demons by satanic power; the message that no sign will be given to this wicked generation but the sign of Jonah; the reference to the eye as the lamp of the body and, if that eye is dark, how great the darkness within; the woes that Jesus pronounces on the Pharisees and the warning to beware of their teaching; and the encouragement not to be afraid when you are persecuted.  All of this reminds us that Jesus is on his way to that final showdown in Jerusalem.

When we arrive at this parable about the rich fool who built bigger barns to store his abundant harvest only to perish that night, it is set in a context of conflict between the defenders of the world as it is, with all its injustices, and Jesus message of what should be – and what will be.

Jesus’ teaching about wealth and possessions is not an abstract discussion – it looks out upon a community where some are very wealthy and others deep in poverty and debt and reminds us all of God’s declaration that he is the defender/redeemer of the poor.

“Father of orphans and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation.” (Psalm 68:5)

The Prayer for August 4, 2013

O God, from whom all good things come,
you have called us to live with open hands,
sharing what you provide with those who are in need.
Grant us humility to receive your gifts with thanksgiving,
and the wisdom and compassion to share them freely with others.

The Texts for August 4, 2013

First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
“Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” – The poet reflects on the meaningless of life in the face of death that renders all human striving meaningless.

Psalmody: Psalm 49:1-12
“When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.” – The poet is not troubled by the threats of the wealthy and powerful, for their wealth cannot deliver them from the grave.

Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-11
“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” –
Paul writes for us to put to death the deeds of our fallen nature and clothe ourselves in Christ.

Gospel: Luke 12:13-21
“Life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” – asked to arbitrate and inheritance dispute, Jesus warns about the corrupting power of possessions.