The most difficult parable?

I preached today at St. Timothy’s Anglican Church in Edmonton. I was glad to get the invitation, because their Rector is a person whom I hold in high regard, and I was aware that the parish had been going through some troubles in recent times. If I could help, I would!

However, my gladness abated a bit when I realized what the appointed Gospel was. Because of the situation of my most recent parish, I had not preached on this text for about 20 years, and I recalled struggling mightily with it in earlier years.

Following arethe notes for the sermon I preached today on Luke 16:1-13, with a nod to Jeremiah 8:18-9:1.

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There may be no more difficult parable in the Gospels than the story of the dishonest manager (or steward, as some translations give it). Scholars have turned themselves inside out for many centuries trying to give a coherent account of what at first glance appears to be Jesus condoning dishonesty.

There are several issues here, not least how we read parables. We usually just want to know what it means, expecting a straightforward answer. A few parables allow for this kind of reading, but most of them do not. Especially not this one!

Many people try to read parables allegorically, making each aspect stand for something else. Again, some parables can work this way, but trying to make this story an allegory of anything is an exercise in frustration.

The point of a parable is (as a friend has put it) that Jesus is “messing with us.” Parables generally take well-known situations, and then give them a twist, disturbing the sense of familiarity in the rest of the story. The theologian Sally McFague said that parables open cracks in our reality, making new possibilities available. As Leonard Cohen wrote:

There’s a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

What is that light that gets in? When the crack has appeared in an unexpected place, the light comes from an unexpected source, often revealing an unexpected truth. We should not be surprised that the truth is at times hard to perceive. Jesus said on several occasions: Let anyone with ears to hear listen! He knew, of course, that many people would not have ears to hear.

The parable is puzzling, so we need to consider its context, both in the Gospel and in the culture of 1st-century Palestine.

First observation: it is explicitly addressed to the disciples, but the actual audience is more complex. In Ch. 14 we are told that large crowds are traveling with him, and he takes time to sort them out. The audience for the next few chapters consists of an inner circle (the disciples), a crowd, probably “people of the land,” and some scribes and Pharisees.

Although this parable is addressed to the disciples, we can be confident that the others, especially the Pharisees, are leaning in to hear what he’s saying. I believe we can be just as confident that Jesus was aware of them.

Who were these two groups? The people of the land – the ordinary folks – probably made up the bulk of Jesus’ hangers-on. They were people looking for some relief from an oppressive social situation, with rich landlords (many in league with the Romans) using their labour to amass great fortunes. This is nothing new. We heard from Jeremiah how the prophet weeps for his “poor people,” who are not saved even after the harvest has ended. And look at Isaiah 5:8, from more than a century before:

Ah, you who join house to house,
   who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
   and you are left to live alone
   in the midst of the land!

The dominance of the “1%” is nothing new. That’s our second primary observation – the socio-economic condition of the times.

The Pharisees sought to keep the Torah to the letter. In their own way, they were also responding to the times, attempting to purify a land that they saw as defiled by foreign occupation. They were a middle-class movement. They were not associated with the ruling class, many of whom were economic sell-outs to the Romans. They were also not associated with the people of the land, who were too involved with their daily work to observe the finer points of the law or to remain ritually pure.

So… let me offer some thoughts about the parable that make sense to me.

Rich landlords hired managers (“stewards”) to keep their estates producing their profits, profiting from the labour of the people of the land. This manager has been fattening his own wallet by cheating both the people and the landowner. When he is caught, he realizes that his source of income is about to come to an end. No more skimming the profits for himself! He has lost favour with his boss, so he turns to the debtors to curry favour with them. He will no doubt lose money, but he will rise in the esteem of those whose debts he has forgiven. He is still shorting the boss but note what he has done: he has changed his priorities, from amassing wealth to building relationships.

His life before this has been devoted to building up his bank balance, using whatever means were at his disposal. What he seems to be missing is the responsibility that comes with wealth. The question for all of us is, not how much we possess, but what we do with it. Faced with the loss of income, the manager turns to the only alternative – to make friends.

Now here’s the big twist in the story: instead of damning the manager further for reducing his take, the rich man commends him for doing what he can to amend his life. This really is Jesus messing with us: any ordinary rich man would be doubly angered by being cheated once more.

The verse after our reading is this:

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.

Maybe they did – but how did the crowds hear him?

Let’s hear what St. Augustine said:

God gives us people to love and things to use, not things to love and people to use…

Another quote, this one from Julian DeShazier, writing in The Christian Century:

The most important thing about money is what we do with it in our hearts.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with money. But there’s a lot wrong with how some people use it. As it is often said, we are blessed to “be a blessing.” The manager discovered this almost by accident and was commended for his shrewdness. The true wealth of our lives is not found in the bottom line of financial statements, but in relationships we build with other people. Through those relationships, we can build up not just ourselves, our acquaintances, or our friends and family. We can also build up the people of God, and as N.T. Wright has put it “build for the Kingdom of God.”

All that we have, all that we are, all that have been and will become, is given to us for one purpose, and one purpose alone. We are called to build up God’s people with the many and various gifts God has bestowed on us.

Together blessed, may we as God’s people live into God’s now and future kingdom.

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Stewardship and other spiritual disciplines

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Tofield AB, June 3, 2018
Texts: 1 Sam 3:1-20; Mark 2:23-3:6

How many of you remember Sunday January 17, 1982? Not too many? I didn’t remember the exact date, but I worked it out based on one scripture reading, which we heard this morning from I Samuel, the story of Samuel’s call. It turned up in the lectionary at a time when I was wrestling with my own sense of vocation.

Speak, for your servant is listening.”

These words spoke volumes to me then. They led me into the discipline of discernment through prayer: paying attention to God’s call, a practice that led eventually to seminary, ordination, and 26 years in parish ministry. Without hearing that scripture reading, I might well not be standing before you today.

Hearing the call is one thing. Following it is another. All of us are called to ministry through our baptisms, but not all follow that call. For the boy Samuel, his call was the beginning of a lifetime of serving the Lord, playing a pivotal role in the history of Israel. We remember him as the person who anointed first Saul and then David as King of Israel. We don’t know a lot about his life between hearing the call and the rise of the monarchy, except that

As Samuel grew up, the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beer-sheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.

We are told that the demand for a king did not come until Samuel was old and his sons had proved unworthy. Samuel’s response to the people who wanted a king was to do what he had first begun to do so long ago: he prayed, seeking to listen to the Lord. It seems to me that this had to be the result a life-time of following the call, hearing and speaking the Word of the Lord. It was no accident, but the consequence of years of following the discipline of prayer. We can easily picture Samuel through long years of service in the holy place, attending to ritual day after day, and always taking the time to listen.

Speak, for your servant is listening.”

He listened!

Discipline bears fruit. How do great musicians achieve excellence at their art? They practice. [Old joke: A man gets off the subway in NYC carrying an instrument case. He asks a bystander, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, man. Practice!”] How do great athletes become star players? Same answer! It does help if you have natural talent, but if you haven’t heard the call to disciplined exercise of your talent, your inborn gift will never flower fully. The more you practice, the more the exercise of the gift becomes second nature: it becomes truly a part of who we are.

Samuel’s calling led to years of disciplined service, and ultimately to the recognition that he was the one called to lead God’s people into a new way of being.

In our Gospel today, Jesus points to the spiritual discipline of sabbath-keeping, a practice commanded in the law. He is breaking the law, at least in the eyes of his opponents. They focus on the legalities, but Jesus’ interest is more on the underlying spirituality of keeping sabbath:

The sabbath was made for humankind,
 and not humankind for the sabbath.

Writing in The Christian Century, Thomas G. Long recalled how as a youth he heard this saying as permission to go and do all the things he liked doing on Sunday, freed from the restrictions imposed by his parents and his home church. He realized as he grew older that he was mistaken, coming to understand that sabbath-keeping should be undertaken not because you must do it, but because it’s good for you. The sabbath is a gift from God, calling us to take a day of out every seven to do things that draw us closer to God and each other. In her 1989 book “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly,” Marva J. Dawn identifies four key aspects of keeping the sabbath:

(1) ceasing—not only from work but also from productivity, anxiety, worry, possessiveness, and so on; (2) resting— of the body as well as the mind, emotions, and spirit—a wholistic rest; (3) embracing—deliberately taking hold of Christian values, of our calling in life, of the wholeness God offers us; (4) feasting—celebrating God and his goodness in individual and corporate worship as well as feasting with beauty, music, food, affection, and social interaction.
(excerpt of a review on Amazon.com)

What I want to emphasize here is that keeping the sabbath takes intention and discipline. To truly keep the sabbath, to get out of it what God intended for us, we need to keep practicing. That doesn’t mean just not doing stuff, like the old Sunday rules. It means taking the time every week to turn our lives over to God’s purposes: ceasing, resting, embracing, and feasting.

Finally, another spiritual discipline. I came here today because I claim to have some knowledge and experience in the matter of stewardship. Please don’t call me an “expert,” which just means someone with a briefcase more than 100 km from home!

I was glad to give your Rector some suggestions about how to approach the matter of stewardship. Will they bear fruit? I hope so, and the pledges that will be received today will begin to tell that story. But let’s be sure of this: stewardship of our possessions is not a matter of a “once and done” campaign, but rather a question of a life-long spiritual discipline.

Like Samuel’s discipline of listening to God, and Jesus’ call to sabbath-keeping among his disciples, the discipline of stewardship takes practice. Stewardship is born out of the insight that everything we have is gift, and that these gifts are stewardshipgiven for a purpose beyond our own needs. That means that stewardship is very much about money, but before it’s about money, it’s about how we use our treasure to move forward in our participation in God’s mission.

Spiritual disciplines are gifts from God, Spirit-led responses to God’s call.

We are called to discern God’s call. We respond in the Spirit by turning our hearts in prayer, seeking to know God’s desires for our lives.

We are called to turn our lives to God’s purposes. We respond in the Spirit by setting aside one day in seven to focus on those purposes—which then gives a Godly focus to the other six.

We are called to use our material gifts for the furtherance of God’s mission. We respond in the Spirit by dedicating a portion of our possessions, our time, talent, and treasure, to the work of God’s church—which then gives a holy focus on how we use what we retain.

May all our lives be lives of dedication to God’s purposes, lived out in the joy of holy discipline.

Amen.

A theology of money?

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity Strathcona, Sept. 25, 2016

Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-3A, 6-15; 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

At one time I was deeply involved in Stewardship in this Diocese, including 1½ years as Stewardship and Planned Giving Officer. In that capacity, I received many preaching invitations, most often to parishes that perceived themselves as needing help in their finances.

“Stewardship” has become an important word in church life over the last few decades. We did various financial programs before that, but an apparent overemphasis on money per se led us to look for a more “theological” term. It’s not a bad word—it has both biblical and theological import—but it seems to me that it has become a code-word for how we fund the church. I believe most church people, if asked, would now say that stewardship is about getting more money out of church members.

In my last parish, I got a strong negative reaction if I raised the question of Stewardship programs. Previous programs had used some strong-armed tactics. It ended up putting them in a worse financial situation than they might otherwise have been.

A few years ago the church renamed our national office of Stewardship and Financial Development as “Resources for Mission,” emphasizing that the main thing is the Church’s mission, which requires a variety of resources, including, but not limited to, money.

dollar-signThe church sits uneasily with money. I read of a recent meeting of national staff in which they had concluded that we need a new theology of money. I would agree, but I would drop the word “new”—have we have had any really coherent teaching on this subject? Historical church attitudes to money have veered between the extremes of seeking either great wealth or intentional poverty.

In my various parish visits for Stewardship preaching, the clergy often said to me that they were grateful that the Diocese had someone to come and talk about these things, things which made them very uncomfortable. I understand that: a parish priest speaking about money from the pulpit cannot help but be aware that his or her own stipend is a major line item in the parish’s budget—in many cases the largest single expense. It can sound like you’re begging—even if your theology of stewardship is totally sound.

This brings me to today’s lessons, all of which have something to do with money. Maybe they will help us (and maybe also Church House!) get a handle on a theology of money.

First, I Timothy, the source of one of the commonest and most erroneous Bible quotes. People often say that “money is the root of all evil,” but note what is actually written:

…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.

It is not money that matters but what we do with it in our lives and in our hearts. Money per se is ethically neutral, a convenient means of exchange, a means to an end, whether good or evil. It has no real existence beyond that, but how we regard it and use it has immense spiritual significance.

…in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.

And further on,

(The rich) are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.

It’s what we do with it that counts. God’s Mission is the all-important thing. If we have wealth, we are charged to use it for God’s purposes before ours. Regardless of our own personal wealth or poverty, the challenge is to seek the good, to look to know what will help advance the Kingdom of God in this world, and to use our God-given resources towards that goal.

Sometimes it may be very unclear what will actually advance the Kingdom. The prophet Jeremiah lived in just such a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. The Babylonians were threatening the Kingdom of Judah, the kings were weak, and the people had retreated behind a triumphalist theology. (God had made a covenant with them and would not allow his holy city and temple to fall. All they had to do was invoke his name.) The prophet saw otherwise, understanding the reality of the threat, and the people’s confidence to be misplaced. So he does a prophetic action: he buys some land. This looks like madness when the invading hordes are at your gates, but he offers it as a sign of hope. This may not seem the right time to affirm God’s purposes (probably better to be getting all your stuff together in preparation), but Jeremiah asserts that now is the time to work for the Kingdom.

If not me, then who?
If not here, then where?
If not now, then when?

The answer he gives us is “Me, here, and now.” It is always the right time and place to do God’s work.

And do it we must, lest we end like the rich man in the Gospel. There’s much else that could be said about this story, but it seems that at least part of the message is the injunction to do good when the opportunity presents itself. The rich man had years in which he could have helped Lazarus, but he did nothing. As Jesus tells it, the consequences are clear.

Notwithstanding the current recession, we live in one of the most fortunate countries in the world. The vast majority of our people are well-fed, decently housed, educated, and in good health. We have been given great riches, as a people, and as individuals.

Let us then not fail to use what God has given us for the good of God’s people and God’s world.

Let us keep the eyes of our Spirits open, that we may see the need around us.

And let us keep all of our resources at the ready to do God’s work.

May it be so.

Why are the poor in poverty?

A sermon on Mark 12:38-44, with a nod to Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17
Delivered at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Edmonton, November 8, 2015

When I meet someone from another denomination who asks me about what I do in the church, the title “Honorary Assistant” usually confuses them. I explain it by saying that I’m a retired priest who hangs around the church, helping out as needed and as I’m able. Retirement has its benefits, not least the freedom from some of the duties that full-time paid ministry entails.

Over my years in parish ministry I built up an archive of sermons. There have been times when I’ve simply pulled something of the shelf, touched it up a bit, and used it here or elsewhere. I confess to being tempted to do so once more for today.

However…

Another benefit of retirement is the opportunity to reflect on past deeds, and in some cases, to repent of them. Today, I repent of most of the sermons I have preached on the Gospel story from Mark known as “The Widow’s Mite.” For a variety of reasons, I have almost always connected this to the theme of sacrifice and faithful giving, using it as the text for both stewardship and Remembrance sermons. Particular contexts pointed me in that direction and I failed to take account of what I have come to see as the story’s main point.

Let’s try to imagine ourselves in that scene in the temple. Jesus is talking to his disciples, watching a stream of wealthy people deposit their offerings. We see these folks dropping bags of coins noisily into the treasury boxes, making sure that others see them. Then we see a poor woman approaching the treasury, and dropping two tiny coins in, with an almost inaudible tinkle. Who else might be watching? Maybe she came with a friend or two, and maybe they’re saying something like, “What are you doing? That’s your last coin! Now how will you live?”

Notice that Jesus doesn’t actually commend her, but notes the same thing—she has given “everything she had, all she had to live on.” What might have led her to do this? What would it take for one of us to give everything—every last cent!—to a religious institution? And why is she so destitute? Why does she have nothing left but two small coins?

Jesus has already answered the question, in the first part of the story:

Beware of the scribes… They devour widows’ houses …

The people who were able to pour bags of money into the temple treasury were able to do so because they had made a great deal of money, very likely at the expense of the least able in the community. They participated in a system backed by the religious authorities which worked greatly in their favour. The widow was likely giving her two coins to the temple out of a sense of obedience to the dictates of this same system. God requires that you make your gift to the temple, but does God also demand that you leave yourself with no means of support whatsoever? I think not—and I believe this story suggests that Jesus also thought not.

Clearly the temple and its economic underpinnings had become corrupted in Jesus’ time. The story stands not so much as an affirmation of the widow’s sacrificial giving, but rather as an indictment of a social, economic, and religious system that abused those on the margins of society.

Throughout the prophetic writings in the Hebrew Bible, care for widows and orphans is one of the signs of the age to come. Widows and orphans had no standing in the community, having to rely on the generosity of others. The book of Ruth, from which we heard two excerpts, revolves around the plight of two widows, Naomi and Ruth, who use their slim resources (and some “feminine wiles”) to come under the protection of Boaz, who becomes Ruth’s husband. It is a story that moves from desperation to a renewed life, quite the opposite of the widow’s situation in the Gospel.

If Jesus challenges the religious and economic system of his time that has led to the utter poverty of this nameless widow, surely we are bound to challenge the systems of our world that conspire to keep many people in poverty. The fourth of the Five Marks of Mission of the Anglican Communion, now enshrined as part of our Diocese’s constitution, acknowledges this:

To seek to transform unjust structures of society, to challenge violence of every kind, and to pursue peace and reconciliation.

The church is thus committed to challenging the ways of the world, seeking to live into the peace and justice of the Kingdom of God. It’s not always going to be popular. Dom Hélder Câmara, the late Roman Catholic Archbishop of Recife, Brazil, who was widely known for his work among the poor, famously said

When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.

The Diocese’s Social Justice Committee held a “Day on Poverty” just over a week ago. In the morning, we participated in the United Way’s poverty simulation, followed by an afternoon of theological reflection on poverty, including a presentation by Bishop Jane on the work of the Task Force on poverty which she co-chaired with the Mayor.

Another speaker spoke of the types of social ministry: relief, individual development, community development, and structural change. There is a role for the church at every level. It is fair to say that most church work in the area of poverty is on the level of relief. Relief work is necessary, but it will not by itself eliminate poverty, which is deeply rooted in society. Structural, systemic change must happen in order to make any real progress towards the elimination of poverty.

Some will quote Jesus, who said to Judas “The poor will always be with you…”, as if this somehow absolves us of responsibility for the poor and the hungry. However, as a Bible study we did at the Day on Poverty showed us, the out-of-context quote from Jesus refers to a passage from Deuteronomy which first states that there should not be any poor in the land, going on to say that because the will always be with you, you should never miss an opportunity to help them.

The Mayor’s Task Force has challenged us to work for the elimination of poverty. It’s a big goal, but it’s a goal that comes with Jesus’ own blessing. When the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness, there will be no poor in our midst. May God give us the grace to work towards that day.