Month: September 2013

Managing–in a difficult time


Church of the Holy Nativity, Bronx, NY  September 22, 2013


If you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
Today’s gospel has one of Jesus parables that can be hard to understand. One thing about Jesus parables, we are barking up the wrong tree if we think that they are nice stories with examples of good behavior. Sometimes they look like that, but with parables like the Unjust Steward, or Dishonest Manager which we have today that leads to confusion.

So the story is that this rich guy has a manager in charge of his property. Somebody reports that the manager has been losing the owner’s money and he’s called to account.

The crucial part of the story is the manager’s response. He knows he’s in trouble and he has to do something before the auditors get there. Truth is, it was too late to fix the problem, the owner’s money had already been wasted and the manager was smart enough to know that he wasn’t going to hit the lottery to make up the difference. So what was he to do? The only influence and power he had left, and this wouldn’t last long, was his relationships with the people who owed the master money. So in this crisis, he calls them up and does a favor for each of them—in for a penny, in for a pound, he’s already in trouble for wasting his boss’s money, so why not give away more. Those people would be much more inclined to give him a place to land when he inevitably gets fired.
Jesus is telling this story to his disciples, and he says: “this is a pretty sharp guy—he’s resourceful and he knows how to use his resources in a difficult time.” Jesus is not saying, ‘do the things that this guy did.’ But what He is saying is: ‘look at this world and what happens in it.’ A crisis comes, and the smart ones, the ones who are motivated enough, do something that achieves a solution. Now the solution will be a solution according to that person’s values—and the manager in the story was basically an embezzler. But shouldn’t the followers of Jesus be just as awake as those who are creative in finding ways to get money?

When things become difficult, that is when it makes sense to be the church. Each person is called upon to respond with the energy and resourcefulness of this Dishonest Manager, not with the manager’s values, but with the values of Christ. The manager looked for people to help him out. Jesus found those who were hurting and in need and healed them. The manager showed a kind of mercy on all the debtors: “take your bill for a hundred jugs of olive oil and make it fifty,” for his own good. But Christ gives mercy to sinners for their good, their salvation. Remember that Jesus told this story to his disciples—those who had already chosen to follow him. Thus he’s speaking to us in the church.

How resourceful are we in following him? Is the world so lacking in people who are hurting or are in need that we cannot find any of them? The Church is in crisis, at least the Episcopal Church in our country—what with declining attendance, less power and influence, etc. But the challenge is not to hold on to what little is left, like a miser, the challenge is to be resourceful in following Jesus. When he gave, it was not because he was wealthy. Jesus was a poor man. When he healed, it was not because he was a doctor or that he had special medicine, he touched peoples’ hearts with his own self, his generosity of his very being. It’s now becoming urgent, and, as the church we cannot be complacent—the auditors are coming, when have we given a cup of cold water to the thirsty person? When have we been pre-occupied with our own worries and missed the hurt and need of those around us? When have we not loved one another, or dismissed our neighbor? It takes resourcefulness to be a Christian, it takes attention.

Now, of course, this could be a big project—once you think of all the hurt and need in the world, it becomes too big to handle. But that’s an excuse, a way to weasel out of following Jesus. What he says is: “whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” When this manager was called to account, he realized that he couldn’t undo all the damage that he had caused through dishonesty or laziness, but he saw some relatively small things that he could do to mend a relationship and avert disaster for him: “you owe a hundred? Write down eighty.” We cannot undo all the unfaithfulness and complacency of hundreds of years in the church. Neither can we make up for our own past thoughtlessness or fear, lack of generosity or hospitality. But we can be awake, and serve Jesus, rather than Mammon—which is really just our own fear and lack of confidence that God will provide. The manager dispensed a little mercy, to those debtors who owed wheat or oil to his master, but we are agents of a much greater mercy, God’s love for the world in Jesus Christ. Be as resourceful at least as that manager who was losing his job.

Let us then remember the beginning of today’s Epistle reading:

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings be made for everyone…This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Herding Sheep

Herding Sheep

Church of the Holy Nativity, Bronx, NY  September 15, 2013

Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?Sheepherder


The Gospel today is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Not many of us have herded sheep, though I remember a couple of days of sheep shearing on my grandfather’s farm. Jesus could count on more of the people who listened to him understanding what was involved in being a shepherd. A hundred sheep was a pretty good sized band for one person, and it would account for the bulk of that person’s assets and income.

A shepherd would take the sheep out into open country to graze—generally that land didn’t belong to the shepherd, it was just open country and he made his living by finding grass and water so that the sheep could grow and reproduce so that there would be wool, and meat and new lambs to replenish the flock or sell. The sentimental side, of how sweet or cuddly the lambs might be and how much he loves them, didn’t make that much difference to most shepherds, but tending these living creatures so that they thrived and were kept safe was the whole job—if the flock dwindled or did not grow, the shepherd failed to have enough to maintain himself or his family and there would not even be any food.

The shepherd had to protect the sheep from predators and thieves, so you didn’t just leave the sheep alone. But when one turns out to be missing, the shepherd has to take the risk to leave the bulk of the flock there grazing and go find that sheep. I’m the director of a library. I’ve been in this kind of work for over 25 years. We have about 175,000 volumes in our library, but it comes to my attention that someone wants a book and it’s missing, I become a bit of a terror until it is found. I will set aside other projects and look—where the book should be on the shelf, where it might be in transit, where it would be likely to be mis-shelved, where it could be mis-processed, where it was last seen alive… until I am sadly satisfied that the book can’t be found and apologize to the person who needs the book. I usually find the book. Some might question the management efficiency of having the most highly paid administrator using all of this time to search after a single book. However, we want students and researchers to expect that the books and other resources that we say we have will be there when they need them. It is not acceptable to not care about that. The integrity of the system hangs on caring about the important details. So it is with the shepherd and this one sheep.

I’ve read commentaries, probably written by people who haven’t actually herded sheep, that say that it was irresponsible or not a good risk for the shepherd to leave the flock alone while looking for the one. Yet the integrity of the herd was broken by missing that one, and the shepherd’s job was to restore that. The image is that the shepherd searches: diligently, intelligently and quickly and he sees that sheep. He walks up to it and picks it up and puts it on his shoulders—‘you aren’t wandering off any more today’ and then hurries back to the rest of the flock, hoping that nothing has gone wrong.

The shepherd has to care, that’s his job. That’s what Jesus is getting at in telling this story: God cares, and Jesus cares, and as Christ’s body, we have to care – that’s our job. The religious leaders and the lawyers were criticizing Jesus because he was hanging around with the wrong kind of people—he shouldn’t be caring about THOSE people. But for Jesus, it was precisely the people that nobody cared about that he was there for: the children, the disabled, the homeless, the ones that we would rather just let somebody else welcome.

The church doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to Christ. And it is important to Christ that everyone can expect welcome in his name whenever they enter one of his churches. No person and no congregation is insignificant, the Good Shepherd seeks us out, every one of us. And every one of us is called to care for all of Christ’s flock.

Just like the clay…

Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand…”

Pottery wheel--baby

Most of the time, when we think of the image of God being the potter and we being the clay, we are inclined to think of gentle molding and subtle corrections, making us gradually better but entirely still ourselves.  But if we look carefully at today’s lesson from Jeremiah, it’s not quite that way.  God summons the prophet Jeremiah to go watch a potter working at his wheel.  And what does Jeremiah see?  For some reason, the vessel that the potter is working on is messed up—and the potter takes it, he’s decided it’s beyond tweaking, and he smashes the vessel completely into a new lump. Then using that clay he commences to start a completely different vessel.

Perhaps that’s a bit harsh, but that’s what you get for opening the book of Jeremiah—he was in the business of saying hard truths during hard times.  The judgment of God in those days was not letting the people of Jerusalem and Judah off the hook—and yet in all times we are accountable to God to live lives of justice and to follow where God leads, even when that may change who we are.  Being changed by God is like this pot that was pushed back in to a lump of clay.  All change involves destruction of something.  The vessel the potter was making had to give up its entire form so that the clay could be used again and a different pot would be made.  People usually try to avoid that.  Most people will agree that changing is okay—in theory—as long as they don’t have to give up A, B, or C.

But to be Christians, that is, to be disciples of Jesus, we have to change and that means that, like it or not, we have to give up A. B. and C.  This is what Jesus says at the beginning of today’s Gospel: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  –the notes in the commentary I was reading sum this up well: “the language here is strong…the term “hate” is the opposite of “love”—the terms denote attitudes and modes of action, not emotions.  The point is not how one feels about parents and family, but one’s effective attitude when it comes to a choice for the kingdom.”

In other words, Jesus chose the toughest A, B, and C to challenge people to change and enter the kingdom of God.  In order to have abundant life we have to accept the death of some old shapes, and things that we hold on to.  The parable today about the guy building the tower is an example—how many times do we see someone start on a project and think that they can be successful just because of their brains and good looks, without seeing the obstacles or making sure they have the resources it takes?  The person who fails to build the tower, fails because they are too proud and attached to their idea.  The person who lives abundant life is alive through the ability to accept reality, and be willing to give up things that might be valuable and change according to the love of God.

Today’s epistle is virtually the entire letter to Philemon, the shortest of the letters of St. Paul and the only one addressed to a single individual.  I hesitate to talk about it, because there is so much in it, so much subtlety in the persuasive interchange between the elderly apostle and his old friend Philemon, and because the subject matter raises so many deep questions, particularly on the issues surrounding slavery.  I cannot do justice to this in a brief sermon.  I do want to point out that Paul’s reason for writing the letter is to challenge his friend Philemon to change.  Philemon as a wealthy citizen had all the legal rights in this situation, and we know that wealthy citizens are generally unwilling to hear anything that would imperil their economic rights and prerogatives.  Yet Paul says, “…you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother…So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me.”  This personal letter survives.  Perhaps Philemon did heed Paul and give up his property right.

It is frightening to give up things, to see what we know converted back to a lump of clay without knowing what God will form out of it.  But we do know that the love of God in Jesus forms us into a living body that brings that love into this world.

Friend, move up higher

Sermon for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost,

September 1, 2013

St. Paul’s-on-the-Hill, Ossining, NY

Proper 17C

“Friend, move up higher.”

Our lessons today have a lot about hospitality. The reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews begins: “Let mutual love continue—do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that, some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Welcome and hospitality are at the root of who we are. And of course, what is more of the essence of hospitality but a dinner party?

Eichenberg Lord's Supper

So when Jesus shows up at this dinner party today, what does he see? It seems that he saw a competition. Note that the competition was NOT to see who could give the most hospitality. Rather, it was to see who could get the best share of the hospitality the host was offering the dinner guests.
The story that Jesus tells is a bit truncated in the Gospel of Luke, so it sounds at first like it’s just a bit of advice. But Jesus is not a writer of an etiquette book—this passage makes more sense if you understand it as a parable, that is, a story.
So the one guy goes in, finds the best seat, right on the platform, next to the guest of honor, or the host and sits down, tucks in his napkin. Then the host enters. He’s probably getting ready to seat the special guest, but that seat is already taken. So the host says, “err… um. We have another seat for you…” and so our guy ends up behind a column, next to the swinging doors from the kitchen, where they bump his chair and cut off the view of the rest of the banquet.
Another guest comes in to the party, and he goes right away to sit near the kitchen. Now, the host, coming into the kitchen to check out preparations, sees him there and says, “Oh, my friend, we have a much better seat for you, come this way…” This is the kind of story that we see in the real world—maybe it’s even happened to you.
But Jesus’ point actually comes at the end of the lesson—“when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. You will be blessed because they cannot repay you…”
When Jesus talks about hospitality, he’s not talking about gaming the system so you can come out ahead. And he’s definitely not talking about throwing the best fund raisers. It’s about welcome. And welcome is not a competitive sport. It’s not a question of who brings in the most blind or homeless people. It’s not a matter of trapping angels. Welcome is being there for someone other than yourself: “Friend, come, be comfortable.”
But it’s more complicated than that. The elect in the kingdom of God are not just the ones we select either because we are comfortable with them, or because we put them in categories for whom we can perform a “ministry,” without truly being truly welcoming, that is, putting them in the place of honor reserved for the special guest. It takes a risk of course—but less of a risk if you aren’t expecting some benefit in return. Think—how many people do you know who could use a little boost? A little encouragement? A little attention? Perhaps you, too?
Each Sunday we share in a meal where Jesus gives of himself—not to count heads, or gain prestige, but to heal and welcome you and all the angels you entertain.
Welcome Friend, come up higher.