Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tainted love

Luke 16: 1-13
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 18, 2016 

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Sukkah of the Signs by Mat McDermott

          For quite some time, many church folks and others have wondered why we still read the Bible, a book written by numerous human beings about their supernatural dealings with a seemingly mercurial God and an itinerant rabbi who sometimes tells stories that sound like he’s been sniffing frankincense at best and a lousy editing job at worst. This reading from the lectionary is one of those times.

Sometimes I feel I've got to
Run away, I've got to
Get away from the pain you drive into the heart of me
The love we share
Seems to go nowhere
And I've lost my light
For I toss and turn, I can't sleep at night

            It’s a parable that sounds like a story from the business pages of the newspaper—a rags-to-riches-to-rags story.  Someone from management has been taking from the till and making off with it.  The owner of the company has heard from others about his manager and plans to fire him.  The manager, thinking only of himself and his future, uses the shrewd mind that got him into this mess and ingratiates himself with his boss’s debtors by discounting what they owe the boss.  It all makes sense until we get to the end.  The boss commends the crooked manager because of his shrewdness. 

Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase The Message, explains it this way:  “The master praised the crooked manager!  And why?  Because he knew how to look after himself.  Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens.  They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits.  I want you to be smart in the same way—but for what is right—using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

When we get upset about this crooked manager being praised for his shrewdness our sense of entitlement can kick in.  “I’ve worked hard, been honest, and I don’t get any praise for doing what I’m supposed to do.”  We sound like the older brother in the parable about the prodigal son, just before this one.  God’s grace sounds cheap in this story, as though some are getting off easy for their sin.

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The truth is we have all benefited from God’s generosity.  The truth is we all have benefited from the ill-gotten gains of others.  Most of us have comfortable lives with enough to eat, a roof over our heads, some money in the bank, and all kinds of material goods in abundance wherever we shop.  Never mind where these goods are made, by whom and the little they get paid, and at what price to the environment.  What Jesus is asking us is:  It’s not enough to get by on our good behavior.  What are we going to do with this grace, this tainted love we have with money and faithfulness?  Secure our own survival or use what we’ve gained toward real life, authentic living for everyone, what Jesus called the kingdom of God?

Now I know I've got to
Run away, I've got to
Get away, you don't really want any more from me
To make things right
You need someone to hold you tight
And you think love is to pray
But I'm sorry, I don't pray that way

            The relationship we have with money, or with anything or anyone for that matter, is a reflection of the relationship we have with God and God’s kingdom.  Or to put it another way, a reflection of the relationship we have with wholeness, goodness, restorative justice, compassion, unconditional love.  Money is a tool, a transaction, a symbol of what we value, and it can be used as a weapon, as power, as mercy and kindness, as a means to whatever end we choose.  But it’s important to remember that money is a creation of empire.  True riches come from relationships and the life we live because of them.

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            Jesus said that we should give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God.  But our relationships to money and to God are not so easily divided.  God knows this.  We know this.  Our love is hardly ever pure.  We’re full of mixed motives, trying to secure our own needs while trying to keep in mind the needs of others and the survival of the planet. 

Yet daily we can see how that relationship is fairing.  When it comes to the earth and its resources, we human beings have behaved much like that crooked manager.  Maybe that’s why it’s hard for us to get into this story.  We don’t like to see ourselves this way or be reminded of the damage we’ve done and frankly, we’ve benefited from.  Just when we got industrial feet under us was when the earth began to warm in ways it hasn’t since before recorded human history.  And yet it’s not clear how we’re going to survive this technological adolescence into which we’ve evolved.  It’s not so much a supernatural God who’s going to fire us from our managerial position, but rather an earth that won’t be able to sustain human life, let alone the decreasing number of species that depend on it.

Jesus tells his disciples and us that we need to use our wits, the shrewd behavior that got us into this mess, this adversity, as a means of creative survival, to concentrate our attention on the bare essentials so that we can live, really live, and not just get by on our good behavior.  The crooked manager, when he discounted the debts owed to his master, he was forgoing his cut off the top, but also creating a relationship between himself and those who were in debt.

We are to do the same but for the right reasons; not for our own survival, to secure our own future but also the future of others.  Many are joining our Native American sisters and brothers, as well as indigenous leaders from Hawai’i and the Amazon in Ecuador—more than 200 tribal nations—to stand against the Dakota Access Pipeline in favor of that barest of essentials, water.  Relationships are being made and renewed, giving life and meaning to peoples our nation has severely wronged and neglected. 

Within the last fifteen years we have seen the rise of nonprofit microlenders.  Small businesses here in the U.S. and around the world benefit not only from small loans ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars but also from business and money management mentoring from the lender.  Another rising trend is community credit unions, which seek to serve low-to-moderate income families and communities.  Populations that usually depend on payday lenders, like low-income wage earners and recent immigrants, can now have access to safe financial services as well as financial education and counseling.

How we spend our money and our lives makes a direct impact on the kingdom of God, what Eugene Peterson calls living, really living.  I heard it once said that people aren’t bad, but that we can make bad, sometimes catastrophic decisions.  Jesus is telling us that it’s never too late to change our minds, change our ways:  to decide for the kingdom of God, authentic living rather than for material wealth and our own security.

            Are we going to sell all we have and give it to the poor?  Probably not.  Are we going to give away our possessions and live an aesthetic life?  Maybe, maybe not.  But maybe our rich God understands.  Maybe our God is merciful as well as just, even when we give our tainted love, our not-so-pure attempt at serving.  God knows our relationships are conflicted and yet God is hopeful anyway.

            None of us are going to change overnight.  But we could begin to do things a bit differently.  Rather than buy ourselves new clothes or shoes we could buy new clothes and shoes for the clothing bank.  Why should the poor get only our hand-me-downs?  Instead of trading in the old car we could give it away to a charitable organization.  Like Dining for Women, instead of going out to dinner, we could write a check for the same amount to the food bank.  This is a generous church.  What would happen if we all raised our pledge or giving by just a dollar week?  We have about 40 or so pledging givers in this church.  You do the math. 

Is God disappointed with our tangled attempts at discipleship?  Maybe.  But maybe God looks at our serving the way a teacher looks at a student’s work:  some mistakes but that’s 70% of learning.  God looks for progress and for learning from our past ways.

            God is smart and shrewd with us.  God is no fool.  God is willing to accept even our small efforts as a sign of our faithfulness rather than nothing at all.  God is looking for a goodwill effort; are we for holistic and authentic living or not?  Are we willing to be a workshop for God’s kingdom or are we working against it? 

            In Jesus, God ran to us.  But God will never run from us.  Even though the love we give is often tainted, mixed, and conflicted, even though God has given us all any god can give, God’s not going to pack her things and go.  But we can’t love, we can’t serve God and money at the same time.  What God wants to know is, who comes first in this relationship.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

One life

Philemon 1-21
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
September 4, 2016

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Holy One,
You are
one love, one blood, one life.
You give us
one life with each other: sisters and brothers.
One life, but we're not the same.
We get to carry each other;
Help us carry each other.

—adapted from “One” by U2

            The gospel can cause all sorts of problems.  That was one of the headings in the reflection on Philemon from the United Church of Christ’s worship resources page.  The gospel can cause all sorts of problems.  Like its brother, its sister, its sibling, the Law of Moses, the gospel was intended to transform human lives—from solely human living to God living—being who we really are and fully alive and helping others do the same.  Which can cause problems when human systems don’t jive with God’s kingdom.

            Philemon was one of those texts that were used to justify slavery.  There’s debate as to whether Onesimus (pronounced oh-NEH-sih-muhs) was a runaway slave or he was on loan to Paul; whether Paul was arguing for this slave, whose name means “useful”, to be freed or to be welcomed home without penalty.  Either way, it’s clear that this slave has been not only useful to Paul but that each of them has had a life-changing impact on the other. 

            In this episode of his life we witness Paul living out his own teaching, even as he is under house arrest.  In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that we have not received a spirit of slavery that we may fall back into fear, but a spirit of adoption, that we may become children of God.  Paul now takes his own words to heart by adopting Onesimus.  Paul refers to himself as Onesimus’ father and to this slave as “my own heart”.  In the time that Onesimus has been with Paul, he has become a Christian, a sibling in Christ.  Paul is his father, his mentor in the Christian faith and he has become like a beloved child to Paul.  Paul realizes his responsibility toward Onesimus, now that he is a brother in the faith, and argues for his life with Philemon.

            In this letter there are all kinds of subtle and not-so subtle references to changes in relationships and status.  Paul plays on Philemon’s conscience when Paul refers to himself as an old man and as a prisoner for Jesus.  Paul could take on the role of master and teacher by commanding Philemon to receive Onesimus as a sibling; instead Paul says he’d rather persuade him on the basis of love.  Paul acknowledges Philemon as a partner, but also is willing to put himself in debt with Philemon by taking on whatever Onesimus owes his master.  Yet Paul also puts Philemon in his place by sending this letter not only to him but to the church that meets in his house, of which Philemon is most certainly the master.

            Once Jesus is part of the picture, is a part of our lives, everything changes, especially relationships.  No longer does one have power over another.  As Paul so eloquently wrote to the church in Galatia, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus”.  And yet Paul doesn’t address slavery in a systemic way in his letter.  Instead he argues with Philemon and this house church for one life.

            We like to try to solve problems systemically; we believe that changing the system will change individual lives, and sometimes it works.  The odd twist is that we’re part of the system and so part of us wants to preserve it as much as we want the system to change.  Jesus wanted to change the system but he did it one life at a time.  He invited each person he encountered into relationship, one that would change the course of their lives.  When he healed and offered forgiveness, he restored individuals to community.  When he called disciples, he named them friends.  When he told a parable, he introduced his listeners to a deeper relationship with God and with each other.  Even from the cross he entrusted a disciple with the lifelong care of his mother and insisted a criminal join him in paradise.

            It is relationships, connection, belonging that have the power of salvation; that can transform our lives and our life together; that can make a heaven of this life rather than the hell it is for so many.  Here’s a big what if for the Church:  What if church became about changing one life at a time for the better?  What if we were to bring all we are to bear on helping one person or one family get their feet under them and be independent?  What if we took to heart that we really are sister and brother and sibling and we became in essence a foster family for another; fostered another into a whole life?

            Yes, it would mean a great deal of risk.  Yes, it would mean we could get taken for a ride.  Yes, it would mean we’d have to put into action that whole thing about forgiving seventy times seven and not giving up on someone.  Yes, it would mean we could fail.  But then love has never been known for its efficiency, safety, rationality, or success rate.  Yet in the good book it says that God is love and that love has the power to cast out fear and can go so far as to change the course of a human life.  Even if it’s ours.

            The sharing of our faith becomes real when we realize all the good we can do for Christ.  And who is Christ but our sister, our brother, our sibling, someone enslaved who needs to be set free and who can’t do it without help.

            Sounds crazy? How much more crazy than following someone who laid down his life for friends, who summons us to take up our cross daily, who said, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you”, and we’re still here?



One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should.
One life with each other: sisters, brothers, siblings.
One life, but we're not the same.
We get to carry each other, carry each other.
One life, one life.