Archive for September, 2010

Just Managing

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem, and death on a cross.  In the limited amount of time he has left, he wants to teach his friends and the crowds that follow them, all he can about discipleship.

The teaching we explore today is about money, stewardship, and ethical work.  It’s interesting that there is more discussion of rich and poor in Luke’s gospel than in any of the others.  The community for which he wrote must have had some people of substance, as well of those of humble means.  Luke believes that the right management of money is at the heart of Christian discipleship, and I agree.  How we take care of our own and others’ money and debts is central to our faith.

In my time traveling from church to church, I’ve run across some folk who argue that faith and money should be kept separate.  People who believe that way don’t like the pastor to preach about money.  There is a subtle current of belief that money is somehow dirty, not fit for a Sunday morning.  Such churches refuse to put the collection plate on the altar, reserving that space for “holy things.”  But I believe the collection basket sits appropriately next to the candles and communion elements, because we bring all that we have and all that we are to the place where God meets us.

Jesus in fact has lots to tell us about money, how we get it and how we use it.

So what, then, are we to make of this confusing story?  Would a wealthy man be OK with his steward altering the bills of debtors?  Is Jesus really commending dishonesty with other people’s money, even if it helps us make friends?  At the Wednesday prayer group, we were stunned by this scripture and wished we could cut a few sentences out of it, like Thomas Jefferson used to do.

Let’s look closely at the story, and see what we can find.  This particular parable only appears in the gospel of Luke, so we can’t turn to Matthew or Mark for help.

First of all, we have a rich man who is so rich, he doesn’t even have to manage his own properties.  He employs a manager to see to it that his accounts are collected, in an age when the middle class pretty much was non-existent.  The story focuses on this manager, whom you might think of as middle management.   I imagine at least some of you are acquainted with the joys of middle management—there is little happiness in being squeezed between the boss who expects the profits, and the workers who provide the means.

The manager gets into trouble—and we don’t really know why.  There are no explicit facts of dishonesty, just that a rumor that the manager is squandering the rich man’s property.  Maybe it’s a false rumor!  Or, perhaps he is skimming too much off the top!   On the other hand, “squander” may mean the manager is not wringing enough profit out of the business.  Perhaps he is not trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip, and further bankrupt the people he works with.

Remember that in Jesus’ day, to be rich was to be predatory.  In times of famine, rich landowners scooped up the land of poorer neighbors in order to satisfy their debts.  Former land owners became tenant farmers on their ancestral land, or even indentured servants.  If harvests weren’t good, or new taxes were levied, debts piled upon debts, and people starved.

The manager is starting to look a little better, isn’t he? Maybe!

When it becomes apparent that he will lose his job, the manager quickly cuts deals with the debtors, reducing their debts and collecting part of what’s owed to the rich man.  He makes friends for himself so that, when he’s out of a job, he can at least get some dinner invitations!

Once the rich man discovers the manager’s trick, it’s too late to do anything about it.  If he tries to get out of the deals, and extract the full amount of the debt, we might imagine he could have a bunch of angry people on his hands.  Surprisingly, he isn’t angry!  He admires the manager’s shrewdness, perhaps recognizing him as one of his own.

Or perhaps he’s happy because a partial payment in the hand is worth much more than an uncollectable debt still on the vine.

The text becomes a bit problematic as we try to think of God as the landowner.  Does God really admire shrewdness and clever accounting?  It doesn’t seem quite right, does it!

Professor Sharon Ringe, a New Testament scholar, gives us some clarity.  She says that the Greek expression shown as “dishonest manager” should really be translated “a manager of injustice.”  The wealth by which we are to make friends for ourselves is not “dishonest” either, but is translated “the wealth of injustice.”  The wealth of injustice.  Hmm. Remember that ancient people lived by an economy of scarcity.  When there is not enough to go around, and one party has more wealth, it follows that his wealth has to have come from robbing others.  Any excessive accumulation of one person must be balanced by a redistribution of wealth called “giving alms.”

By reducing the amounts owed by the debtors to the rich man, the manager is actually doing justice for the debtors, in an appropriate redistribution of wealth.

And then the peculiar sentence towards the end of the reading suddenly makes sense: the manager has done what the children of light, those who are focused only on spiritual things, too pure to soil their hands with money, would not dare to do.  He has secured a place for himself, using the very fruits of injustice, by doing justice for others in need.

This, then, is God’s new economy: the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.  The economy of scarcity is not only unjust, but unnecessary.  There is more than enough for all, in this abundant world, if we can only learn to share the wealth appropriately.  By participating in God’s new economy, the manager will be welcomed into the reign of God, as symbolized by those eternal homes, actually “tents” or dwelling places.

Jesus says, forgive the debts of others.   “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  We are called to forgive 70 times 7, or, indefinitely!  We worship a God of grace and forgiveness.  The one who forgives participates in God’s reign.  I am so happy whenever the World Bank and IMF agree to forgive loans of poor countries, because they often find themselves spending nothing on education or health care, in order to pay their debts.

The management of money and debt is important in God’s eyes.  Money isn’t good or evil in and of itself—only its uses make it so.   Some are called to total poverty like St. Francis, but not so many.   But I do believe we are all called to be just stewards of our money.

There’s nothing wrong with taking care of ourselves, as the manager did, so long as we also seek to do justice with our money, both individually, as a church and as a society.  We just can’t worship God and money at the same time!

Love God, love self, love neighbors as ourselves.  If we can keep that focus, everything else will fall into place.  Amen.

The Signs of the Times

Friday, September 3rd, 2010

Luke 12:49-56
Jesus said, “I come to cast fire upon the earth. And what do I wish? Would that it were already kindled!
There is an experience through which I must pass; and now I am under great tension until it is accomplished! Do you think that I came to give peace to the earth? Not that, I tell you, but division!  From now on in one house there will be five people divided—Three against two, and two against three. They will be divided, father against son, son against father,mother against daughter, and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”  Jesus said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, immediately you say “Rain is coming.” And so it happens. When you feel the south wind blowing, you say, “There will be scorching heat.” And so it happens. Hypocrites!
You can read the signs of the face of the earth and the sky.
How can you not read the signs of this time?
(William Barklay)

In these few verses Luke has Jesus speak of:
(1) Some sort of fire
(2) An overwhelming experience
(baptism)
(3) Peace shattered by divisions
(4) Signs of the times
 Taking them slightly out of order: What is this baptism ?
(Barclay = “experience” which Jesus anticipates perhaps with dread?)
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus anticipates his Passion. He knows what he is facing – a terrible, overwhelming “experience”. Luke believes that Jesus’ mission was accomplished on the Cross; that that is the crucial moment of Grace ushering in the Kingdom of God. “Would that it were already here!” Luke emphasizes Jesus’ desire, and we do too. That may help us understand the statement: “I come to cast fire on the earth.” One exegete has shared an interesting insight. He says that in Johns’ gospel, (12:32) when Jesus says , “When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all men to myself,”  he is saying much the same thing, only in very different terms. An ardent fire will be kindled in our hearts for, as St. Paul says in II Corinthians 5:16-18: “For
anyone who is in Christ, there is a new creation, the old creation is gone, and now the new one is here. It is all God’s work. It was God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the work of handing on this reconciliation”.  Hear Paul’s burning ardor!
However, Luke is writing several decades after that fatal Baptism. He is writing to people who are experiencing some of the costs of allegiance to Christ and this new kingdom. Instead of universal peace and harmony, they not only experience opposition and derision from outside, but sad divisions within their own families. If these words about fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, and so on, are Jesus’ own words, how prophetic they were!
Prophetic in more ways than one: It is said that “the Romans” opposed Christianity because it was so divisive. Families were torn apart when some members willfully chose this new way while others refused it. Further, the Romans probably sensed the possible extended implications when familial lines of authority were questioned. If sons and daughters defied their parents, or spouses disagreed, what might happen to civic order? What of ruling authority? What of respect for the emperor and the power of the empire? Where might this lead?!
II.
We know divisions. All these centuries after Jesus’ horrible baptism we experience the tragic divisions of so-called Christianity. There are folks who seem to assume that it has one unitary doctrinal code that could be used to shape national policies, to combat the claims of an unholy Islam, to suppress homosexuals, to support judicial killings in order to stop killings, to control the influx of immigrants, to combat “socialism”, to keep big government from meddling with health care . . . . .
I suspect some of you are aware of the recent “stir” caused by Anne Rice, the author of a series of novels tracing the life of Jesus, and another series of popular “vampire novels.” Her personal, spiritual journey may not be so very strange to some of us here: from Catholicism to atheism, back to faith, and then to disillusionment. Ms. Rice recently wrote in her Facebook: “ For those who care, and I understand if you don’t: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being “Christian” or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to “belong” to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten years, I’ve tried. I’ve failed. I’m an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else.  In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control.   Irefuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life.  In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen”.

I hope you will excuse me if I say, along with some others, “Gee, Anne! We are sorry you don’t know our United Church of Christ!”. (Refer to the good article by Bennett Guess, in the online August 2 issue of UCC.org/news/anne-rice asks us, ‘What does it mean to be Christian anyway?’ Here I quote :
“By lumping all Christians together with the more specific faith tradition she was repudiating, Rice triggered a response from many. Some Christians agreed with Rice that she couldn’t authentically remain Christian and hold views that were so divergent from Roman Catholic social teachings. Other
Christians – especially members of the United Church of Christ and other mainline Protestant denominations – felt, once again, that all of Christianity was being cast publicly as monolithic in its outlook when, in reality, many of Rice’s more-liberal views are shared by many Christians in the United States and around the world. (The rub is that too few know this).”
This week a church in Gainesville, Florida, ironically named The Dove World Outreach Center, is planning to have an International Quran-Burning Day on September 11th. Their pastor, Terry Jones, is the author of a book Islam Is Of The Devil. He claims that the mission of his church is to warn people of their present peril, and to give Muslims time to convert. I wonder if he and his parishioners know that 59 Muslims died in the Twin Towers destruction in 2001. For the past several weeks I have been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Repeatedly Goodwin shows us President Lincoln striving to hold the Union together while respecting his opponents and hoping to encourage reconciliation.   At Christmas time in 1863, Lincoln’s irenic spirit was sorely tested. Mrs. Lincoln’s sister, Emilie Todd Helm was now a widow, her husband, Ben, fighting for the Confederacy, had been fatally wounded that September at the battle of Chickamauga in Georgia. Lincoln himself was grief-stricken. Emilie, in her grief, wished to see her mother in Kentucky. That meant that she needed safe passage through Union lines. One attempt after another eventually got her to Fort Monroe (Kentucky?). There the officials demanded that she swear allegiance to the United States. She just could not do that so soon after her husband’s death. A telegraph was sent to President Lincoln explaining their dilemma. Lincoln responded: “Send her to me.” Her visit started out well. She and Mary Todd Lincoln consoled each other. Both had losses: Mary’s young son, Willie; Emellie’s husband, Ben. But, Emillie’s presence was revealed to friends of the Lincolns. When they encountered Emilie in the White House they angrily, verbally attacked her. She staunchly replied and shortly thereafter left. Mary and Emilie were sorely distressed, wondering when the nightmare of war would be over.
III.
In our world today, with all its irrational and seemingly insoluble divisions, it would not be surprising if we would turn desperate if not cynical. Whether it be patriotism, political party loyalty, or spiritual affiliation, we hear our selves saying along with people like Anne Rice, “Not in my name!” It seems as though the name of the game is to assign blame rather than to work for the common weal. The focus is so often on short-term advantages rather than on long-term consequences, and on greed and consumerism rather than empathy and sharing. Are there no signs of that promised Kingdom of God, for which Jesus died and in which St. Paul exalted? At the risk of sounding Pollyannish or naïve, let me suggest that there are some positive signs to counter the negative signs. But first, let me quote again from Rev. J.
Bennett Guess:
“One thing for sure, Christianity is not a religion rooted in individualism. We don’t have the luxury of believing in isolation from others, even those with whom we disagree. As Christians, we share one another’s hopes and struggles. Our faith – and even those frustrating social policy statements – are shaped in discernment with the larger body. We are baptized not unto ourselves, but into the community of Jesus Christ. To go it alone has never been a faithful option, as tempting as it may sometimes feel”.

If it is true that community is part of the deal, I would like to ask you to read some signs of hope as you think about some of the people you know and some of your own experiences.

(a) Who runs the Food Bank?
(b) Who is working to help the homeless?
(c) Who is involved in prison ministry or working to restore voting rights to felons?
(d) Who is comforting the sick, the dying, the bereaved?
(e) Who is bringing shelter, safe water, medicine and food to victims of natural disasters or man-made calamities?
(f) Who is teaching your children in school?
(g) Who is sitting beside you here in this place, sharing in this community today?
These, too, are signs of the time.
Blessed are those who read them.
Rev. David C. Gallup, August 8, 2010