Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Some Thoughts on Dishonest Stewardship (Reflections on Pentecost 15, Year C)

Image result for images of the dishonest steward
So what do we do with the words of the prophet Amos we find as the Hebrew scripture lesson for Pentecost 15 Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary this week (Amos 8:4-7)? It’s a pretty damning indictment:

“Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring ruin to the poor of the land, saying, ‘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, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.’ The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”

Amos isn’t a member of the priestly class, nor is he a professional prophet. He’s a farmer and goat herder, but he knows corruption and income inequality when he sees it. This average guy from Judah confronts the leaders of the Northern Kingdom of Israel at a time when their economy seems to be booming and tells them that they’re sinning—they’re getting rich by ripping off the poor. 2,700 years after the time of Amos, the rich are still trying to get richer, and still doing it on the backs of the poor.

And God still doesn’t like it.

The cry of Amos resonates in America today. The rich have found a way to make the ephah small and the shekel great. They invented a load of fecal matter called “supply-side economics,” and for over thirty years they’ve been feeding it to us and telling us it’s chocolate ice cream. It works like this: Tell John Q. Public that our government needs to quit stifling the market. If we just cut the suffocating regulations on business and industry (like requiring that they don’t pollute the environment or pay their workers decent wages and benefits) and give them and their wealthy owners huge tax breaks, businesses will have more capital to spend so they can expand and hire more workers. This will boost the overall economy, increase the tax base, and (in the immortal words of the late Merl Haggard) we’ll all be drinkin’ free Bubble-Up and eating rainbow stew[i].

Sounds good, right? The only problem is it doesn’t work. First, businesses only expand when the bulk of people have money to spend to buy the goods and services they produce. Second, there’s never been a requirement that the businesses use their extra capital to pay workers more. Third, the reduced tax income from the tax cuts means our government must borrow more money or cut more services or both. Those dependent on government services (that would be the poor) end up getting less while the rich get more. A child of five could tell you that a government can’t increase its revenue by cutting its source of income. This whole business is a cynical ploy by the rich and powerful to get richer and more powerful. According to the Bible, it’s a sin.

But I won’t be preaching any of the above on Sunday morning because some folks in my congregation don’t like it when I get political. So I’ll just hold my tongue.


Anyway, there’s a good deal to be said about the Gospel lesson (Luke 16:1-13). You must admit, it’s a tricky little parable Jesus gives us about this dishonest steward. The steward is accused of squandering the boss’s money, so he’s either a crook or a screw-up. Either way, he’s about to get sacked. This is a pretty scary proposition. I remember as a kid when my dad got laid off from his job and had to go on unemployment. It was a tough time. To this day I fear unemployment more than I fear cancer.

What’s this poor slob to do? The commentaries I’ve read make two good suggestions to explain the parable. The first is that the steward cuts his own commission, thereby greatly reducing the debtors’ bills. His act of selflessness—maybe the only one he’s ever done in his life—benefits the poor folks who are indebted to the master and wins their gratitude and friendship. The other suggestion is that he just reduces their debt to a manageable size so they can pay the master something. This is actually an act of liberation for the debtors. The master figures out that a partial (and, perhaps, immediate) payment is better than no payment at all, so he commends the steward.

So what’s the point? Jesus says in verse 8 that the worldly folks seem to be better money managers than the Godly folks. They always seem to be working a scheme of some sort. What’s our scheme? What do we do with that which is entrusted to us? Maybe the first thing we ought to do is evaluate our attitude towards wealth. There’s a great line in the classic film Citizen Kane which sums it all up for me: “It’s not hard to make a lot of money—if all you want to do is make a lot of money.” Maybe we should be asking ourselves what we’re really about?

Our wealth, that which the Lord has blessed us with, needs to be a tool for our lives and not a goal. We pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” meaning “Give us that which we need.” I find that God is actually pretty good at answering this prayer, don’t you? So, when I think about it, I feel that my focus needs to be on using the gifts I have, monetary and otherwise, to the glory of God.

This past week I got a call from this guy named Harry. He’s sixty-five years old, and life just never seems to break his way. About once or twice a year he comes by the church and needs a hand. His stories always check out. This week he needed carfare to get him back to New Jersey where he has a place to stay after losing his home in Philly. I told him I’d give him fifty bucks out of the church’s Discretionary Fund. Unfortunately, when I got to the bank to withdraw the cash, I found that nothing had been transferred to this fund. So—I’m ashamed to admit it was somewhat reluctantly—I gave him all the cash I had on me, about thirty-one dollars.

“God bless you, Pastor” Harry said. “I thank you for being there for me. You know the Bible says, ‘He who is faithful in little will be faithful also in much.’”

Truth be told, I won’t miss those thirty-one bucks, and if I did a good turn for Harry, so much the better. If I use my resources for the Harrys of this world, I guess I’m using them for the Master, too. Like the dishonest steward in the parable, I recognize it’s not about what I have but how and for whom it is used. When I turn my eyes away from my own interests, I’m able to learn both trust and gratitude. And trust and gratitude are treasures truly worth having.

God bless, my friend. Enjoy your week and stop in again!

[i] Never heard this song? It’s Merl at his more cynical. You can listen by clicking RainbowStew.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Mercy Me! (Reflections on Pentecost 13, Year C)

Image result for free images of the golden calf
“Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:10)

Oh boy. That’s quite a story the Revised Common Lectionary has for us from the Hebrew Scriptures on Pentecost 14 this year (Exodus32:7-14). God’s really pissed off with the Chosen People. And when God’s pissed off—look out!

The story takes place on Mt. Sinai. Mosses has gone up the mountain for a little face time with the Lord. While he’s gone, the Children of Israel start freaking out because their leader isn’t around. What do they do? They make an idol for themselves to worship—a Golden Calf. Now, you can pretty much figure out that both gold and livestock are sources of wealth. This means that the folks are worshiping their own financial resources and forgetting about the God who just rescued their sorry butts from slavery in Egypt.

Does this remind you of us in any way? Are we in the Church so in love with our resources—buildings, endowment funds, memorials, and such—that we forget who called us into fellowship in the first place? Are we relying on our bank accounts for our security rather than on the Lord of Hosts? Have we forgotten our commission to preach to those left out of the loop because we think it might be too expensive? Are we content to let the lost stay lost for the sake of a buck?

I’m just asking.

But back to the story: God sees the apostasy of his people, and he tells Moses that the folks are “stiff-necked.” That is, he thinks they’re too stubborn to get their act together and start behaving like people of faith. So he makes Moses a pretty wild offer:

“Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” (v. 10)

Did you catch that? “…of you I will make a great nation.” God’s basically saying here that he’s going to wipe out these fickle, sissy, treacherous Hebrews and give Moses a new nation to lead. If you’re Moses, wouldn’t you be tempted to accept this offer?

Come on. Be honest. Aren’t there people you know who just don’t get it? They can’t see things the way they are. They’re self-involved, arrogant, self-destructive, intolerant—just essentially your basic stiff-necked people. They just can’t—or won’t—get their act together, and you’re sick and frickin’ tired of cleaning up their mess. Would it be okay with you if God just took out these anal sphincters and put someone new into your life who was going to be supportive and respectful and not a constant source of irritation?

For example. There’s this guy who keeps hanging around my church whom I’ll call “Andy.” He’s been pan-handling for years now. He keeps showing up with some cock-eyed story about why he needs a few bucks. It’s like he thinks Faith Lutheran is his personal ATM machine. I have no idea why this guy can’t get his life together, and it’s really starting to irritate me. So much so, that, should I see this dude again I’m going to give him a piece of cardboard box and a Sharpie and point him to the nearest freeway onramp. If he’s going to be a beggar, he might as well go pro and use the tools of the trade.

So what if God were to come to me and say, “Pastor Owen, I’ve seen what an unrepentant pain in the butt Andy is. I will strike him dead and send you a new church member with a decent job who will put boo-coo money in the collection plate instead of constantly asking for handouts.” Would I take God up on the offer?

I don’t think so. I like to think I’d be more like Moses in the story. Moses begs God to reconsider. True, it’s not God’s nature to protect us from the consequences of our own stupidity. Our sin comes at a cost; nevertheless, Moses is willing to be an instrument of grace and try one more time to get the people to shape up. It’s not an easy or a fun job, but it’s what he’s signed on for. And God approves of this. It seems to me that the Lord is less interested in visiting retribution on the unfaithful than he is in teaching the faithful about mercy.

In the Gospel reading (Luke 15:1-10) Jesus isn't preaching to the "sinners." He’s talking to the Pharisees, the ones who think they’re so almighty holy. He’s trying to teach the pious people that their piety is worth nothing without mercy. I’ll be the first to admit that mercy doesn’t always speak to hardened hearts. But that’s not my concern. I, as a Christian, am given the commission from God to teach, demonstrate, and be merciful. It will be up to those upon whom mercy is bestowed how they respond to it.

I’ll admit, mercy won’t always be successful. But when it is, the angels in Heaven will rejoice.

Thanks for reading, my friend. I’ll catch you next time!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Paul and Jessica's Wedding Homily

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:11)

When you’re a kid you think of the story of Jesus turning water into wine (John 2:1-11) as just a magic trick which impressed folks. Now, I think of it as one of the best allegories for what happens in a really good marriage.

First, a little background. In Jesus’ day, weddings were just as big a hairy deal as they are today. In fact, the business involved the whole village and could go on for the better part of a week. There were processions and feasts and gift-giving like we have now, but in a considerably protracted form. That’s why it was important to have a LOT of wine. When the vino ran out, the party was over.

And, of course, just like today, people wanted to impress. Ever been to an Italian wedding? You know, where the measure of a man is how big a shindig he can throw on his little girl’s big day? Most kids in America could put a pretty decent-sized down payment on a house for what they blow on a wedding. Folks in Jesus’ time wanted to show off just as much as any bride-zilla does these days.

That’s why they served the good wine first. Just as the scripture tells us. After two or three days of straight drinking you may not care what you guzzle down, but while the guests still had some kind of a palate, it made a great impression to serve the good stuff.

In the story, however, the wine runs out too soon. You can understand why Jesus’ mom is concerned. This is embarrassing, and she needs her boy to do something to save the situation. So he does. And it’s good to have Jesus at a wedding. Why? Because our faith teaches us that what we have in Jesus is unconditional love, forgiveness, and the kind of supernatural regard which makes sacrifice for another possible. And if we believe in that—if that faith lives in us—we can deal with just about anything else. The past disgrace gets poured out, and it becomes the present and future joy.

Both of you have been through some rough times and relationships in the past. But today you acknowledge that God isn’t done with you, that there’s more to your lives. The good wine hasn’t been consumed yet—only the bath water. Today you let Christ turn that bath water into the wine of celebration. And if you continue to have faith in who God is and what God does and wants for you, there’s even better wine waiting down the road.

A lot of church people say, “It isn’t like it was in the old days.” No, and it won’t be again. But we have to believe that God is always in the process of making things new, that there is still good wine we haven’t tasted yet.

So! I’ll leave you with my standard exhortation for wedding couples, but I think it holds for all relationships. There is an old Church of England liturgy for the exchange of rings that reads, “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.”

I like the phrase, “With my body, I thee worship.” I don’t think about the “body” part so much. It’s not about sex, but about the very idea of worship. How do we worship? We pray, of course. So people should pray together. We sing hymns or songs of praise. So praise is essential to a relationship. Whether your praise your spouse to their face or behind their back—never lose sight of their value and virtues. We gather at the table for a meal; therefore eating together, sharing family time, is crucial. But I think the most important element is what we do at the font. We confess and receive forgiveness.

If we can learn the phrases “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” and say them from our hearts, we—and you two, my dears—will withstand anything. That’s the miracle of transformation.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

It's Going to Cost You (Reflections on Pentecost 13, Year C)

Image result for images of st. paul and onesimus
St. Paul and Onesimus
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

Well ain’t that a kick in the butt! The above quote is from the Gospel lesson assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary for Pentecost 13, Year C (Luke 14: 25-33). I don’t think I’m going to be preaching that lesson at my late mass on September 8, as we’re including in the celebration the wedding of two members of our church’s Praise Team. I can’t quite send them off on their married life together with Jesus telling them they have to hate each other in order to be disciples, now can I?

I will, however, preach this gospel at my early mass. No wedding vows at that one, but we will be having a baptism so this lesson is pretty appropriate. In this section of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is talking about the cost of discipleship. When I use that phrase “cost of discipleship,” I always think of the great Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer[i] who sacrificed his life to help rid the world of Hitler and his myrmidons. Bonhoeffer knew that following Jesus meant paying a price. Being baptized as a Christian won’t cost anything at Faith Lutheran of Philadelphia because salvation is the free gift of God’s grace. Being a disciple, however, means giving up everything you have. I really hope the parents of the little girl getting baptized this Sunday know what they’re getting their daughter in for!

First, however, let me digress (and I do so love to digress) and take a little bit of the nastiness out of the quote at the top of this post. Yes, it is true that Jesus is challenging us to “hate” our family members[ii]. You need to know that the word used in the Greek New Testament which we translate as “hate” is misew  (or “miseo” if you don’t read Greek). It can mean “despise,” but it can also mean to disregard or be indifferent to something or someone. The Greeks just didn’t have a word to express a big, fat “whatever.”

Still, disregarding your family is a pretty serious matter. It’s not something nice people do. But in New Testament times, choosing to be a follower of Jesus could mean that your folks would turn on you or kick you out of the clan. For us—even though it may not mean giving our lives like Dietrich Bonhoeffer—it can mean making a painful choice to confront someone or call them out on their destructive behavior and risk getting shut out of the group. It may mean practicing some tough love, quitting a job, dropping a friendship, or even leaving a club, neighborhood, political party, or a church because you recognize that what’s going on there isn’t something you can square up with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It can mean swallowing some pride, asking or granting some forgiveness, or parting with some cash you’d much rather hold onto because someone else needs it more than you. Following Jesus is going to cost you. If it doesn’t, you may not be doing it right.

The smart guys who cook up the Revised Common Lectionary have chosen to marry this Gospel lesson with Saint Paul’s epistle to Philemon. If you read this little letter, you’ll see that Paul is writing to a slaveholder named Philemon whose slave, Onesimus, has run away and is now hanging out with Paul in some jail somewhere (Paul got himself arrested a lot!). Both Philemon and Onesimus are Christians, but it’s pretty clear that they’re not getting along. You don’t run away from someone who treats you well, and you don’t take kindly to someone who is supposed to work for you taking off without your permission.

(Yes, slavery is a terrible thing. Onesimus may have been a captive or he may have been a bound servant, one who was forced to work to pay off a debt. The letter doesn’t tell us. We can only assume that Paul takes no issue with involuntary servitude because it was something that existed in his day and he never thought there was anything to do about it.[iii])

What we learn from this letter is that Paul has convinced Onesimus to forgive Philemon and return to him. This must’ve been a pretty hard sell to get a slave to go back to his master, but Onesimus is willing to pay the cost of being Christ’s disciple and will forgive the wrong done to him. Paul’s purpose in writing the letter is to get Philemon to forgive Onesimus, and to receive him as an equal (v.16). This is a costly thing for Philemon’s ego, but discipleship demands that there is no distinction among us. Paul himself is willing to pay the price by promising to either pay back anything Onesimus took from his master (if that be the case) or, perhaps, to pay off his debt and buy his freedom (vv.18-19). Each man has to give up something in order to be a brother in Christ to the others.

That’s one cost of baptism right there—the recognition that God has no grandchildren. All of us are his children, all equally loved and precious in his eyes. My baptism has made me no more holy or special than the baptism I’ll preside over for this lovely little girl this coming Sunday. For the thing which must drown in the waters of the font is our selfish sense of pride.

I’m glad you checked in on me this week. May God bless you ‘til we meet again!

[i] Bonhoeffer’s most famous book is called The Cost of Discipleship. He wrote it in 1937 when the Nazis controlled Germany, but it is still in print today. You can get it at Amazon or Barnes and Noble.
[ii] For some people, this may not be much of a challenge.
[iii] Rather like Walmart. I don’t like it, but it looks like it’s here to stay.