The Moral Hazard of Mercy

The Moral Hazard of Mercy

Sermon for Sept. 22, 2019, Pentecost 15C. An audio version will be here for several weeks.

Luke 16:1-13

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Sermon  The Moral Hazard of Mercy

General Motors is on strike.  The company made $35 billion in North America over the last three years, and now the labor unions think it is time to bring pay equity back.  GM probably owes its existence to the government bailout it got after filing for bankruptcy in the last recession.  

The bailout of the auto industry saved 1.5 million jobs in the United States, according to the Center for Automotive Research.  Nevertheless, some economists opposed it at the time.  They argued that when you bailout a company you create a “moral hazard.”   

I had never heard that term before the recession.  It means that when someone, or some business, does something bad, like taking unwise risks or making products that people don’t want to buy, they should suffer the consequences for it, even if it means going out of business.  Because, if they are let off the hook, the argument goes, they will do it again.  That’s the “moral hazard.”

But isn’t that what every case of mercy is?  Isn’t that what every “second chance” is?  We are going to look at a story Jesus told that is all about mercy.  It is a story about someone doing something bad, and being let off the hook; even being commended.  

This is going to provoke us to think about mercy and the moral hazard God is willing to create, according to Jesus’ understanding of God.  So, to the story.

The Weirdest Parable

Jesus told his parables in Israel; the Middle East in the first century.  It was common for a large estate owner to rent out his land to tenant farmers and to be paid in produce like olive oil and wheat.  That is what is most likely going on here in this parable.  Landowners were generally respectable people who cared deeply about their honor.  This story (all of Jesus’ stories) take place in an honor-shame society.  We will see how that becomes important.

The landowners kept careful records of the contracts for renting land specifying the amounts to be collected at harvest time.  Often they employed people to manage the business under their watchful eye. The managers had the authority to act in the landowner’s name, writing contracts and collecting the income.  In this parable, the estate owner comes to believe that his manager, was being dishonest.   

He has options: he can fire him on the spot, or he can have him arrested and imprisoned.  The owner decides simply to fire him.  He is being merciful.  But he demands to see the account books.  He says, 

“Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”

The manager has to go retrieve the books.  This gives him a brief moment of time.  Where are the books?  How far does he have to go to get them?  How much time will it take to retrieve them?  Does he have enough time to call in the renters as he does in this story?  We don’t know.  We have to suspend our disbelief and imagine that he does.  Parables often mess with realism.

So he calls them in, one by one, and asks what they will owe at harvest time, and drastically reduces the amount, without telling them why.  When they arrive, he rushes them to quickly adjust their contracts and go.  They don’t know he has been fired.  They think he still has the authority to make or adjust contracts.  They probably assume that the owner and he have talked about it.  

They are probably thinking, adjusting the rental price downwards would not occur to an owner to do, but the manager must have somehow persuaded him.  Both the owner and the manager are now loved by all the renters in the village.  Their honor status has just improved.  They will both be esteemed with gratitude.

How could the dishonest manager think he could get away with this?  When the owner finds out — and he will find out — won’t he have him imprisoned and punished?  Maybe so, but maybe not.  The dishonest manager is making a calculated gamble.  The owner has already shown himself merciful once by firing him without calling in the authorities; perhaps he can bet everything on him being merciful yet again.  

Why should he be?  Because now that their rents have been reduced, all the village loves him.  If he demands the original price now, he will be deeply resented.  He will lose honor.  And if he tells them that the manager had been fired and had no authority to change contracts, then it will be clear to them that he did not ever agree to the discount; he is not such a wonderful man. 

The landowner recognizes that this dishonest manager has been very clever.  Everyone will love them both, and this will work out well for the manager after he is let go.  So the owner commends the manager.  One New Testament scholar said that this is a David and Goliath kind of story; a peasant manager has outwitted the wealthy landowner.  Everyone would have loved it. 

How Much More?

So this is an example of what we call a “how much more” parable.  Like the widow getting justice from an unjust judge and a man getting bread at midnight from a reluctant neighbor, how much more so would God help his children in need?  “If this dishonest [manager] solved his problem by relying on the mercy of his master to solve his crisis, how much more will God help you in your crisis when you trust his mercy.”  (— Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant, p. 105)

So this is a parable about the God of mercy in whom we trust.  And we will look into what it means that God is merciful in a minute, but first a word about the stark warnings that come next.  Scholars believe that Luke was perhaps worried that his audience, mostly Gentiles who were city people, who did not grow up in the land-renting farming Jewish communities of Israel might misunderstand this parable and mistakenly think that it commended dishonesty with money.  

So Luke inserted here a teaching of Jesus about money, linking it with the parable by the word for money, “mammon” which they share in common.  Jesus spoke a lot about money, about riches and poverty.  Some say that one in seven verses in Luke is about money.  In this context we hear the stark warning that it is impossible to serve both God and mammon.  

Clearly, Luke wants us to understand that the dishonest manager who seemed to be serving mammon is not being commended for that.  Rather, he is commended for betting everything on the mercy of the landowner.

Mercy and Moral Hazards

So that brings us back to the question of mercy and moral hazards.  Didn’t the landowner create a moral hazard?  Didn’t he make it more likely that the next manager he hires will also be dishonest?  And if this is a parable about God, and how God acts, when God is merciful, doesn’t that create a moral hazard?  If God doesn’t punish us, doesn’t that make us less likely to do right?

Well, I suppose that would be true if we assumed that most people operate at the lowest level of moral development, which is the level of fear and punishment.  That’s the way children reason, but most people grow out of that.  There are different ways of describing how most people grow up morally.  Lawrence Kohlberg said we move on from fear and punishment next to “if it feels good, do it” self-interested morality.  

From there we grow to become aware of social norms; it’s the good boy/girl attitude.  After that, we think in terms of authority; obeying the laws.  Many people get stuck there.  They think if it’s legal, it’s okay, and if it’s illegal it’s not okay, period.  No more questions.  

But many people realize that all laws are made by humans, the good is defined better by what the consensus of thoughtful people understand about it.   The pinnacle of moral reasoning, according to this structure, is coming to understand that there are universal moral principles that we are obligated to follow, regardless of what society, or the law says, or whether we will benefit or not.  

I believe this is how Jesus thought about it.  So, for example, “love your neighbor as yourself” is a universal moral principle for guiding behavior that goes way beyond the Ten Commandments, and beyond all the 613 laws in the Hebrew Bible.  

Mercy Triumphs Over Judgment

Let’s get back to mercy.  The New Testament teaches us that  “mercy triumphs over judgment.”  Jesus told this parable story about a man who risked his whole future on the hope that his master would show mercy, and he did.  

The point is that we can too.  We can risk everything on the God of mercy.  God is not out to punish us.  God is not keeping a record of our good and bad deeds to weigh against each other at the end.  

Rather, God walks through our lives with us, day by day, luring us towards the good because it is good, coaxing us on towards what is beautiful and what is true because it is beautiful and true.  In a non-controlling way, God is there, helping us love our neighbors, encouraging us to be open to others who are different from ourselves, seeking the common good for everyone and for all living beings and for our precious, fragile planet.  

Maybe that does create a moral hazard, but that is the risk that the God of mercy is willing to take, for our sakes. 

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The Company We Keep

The Company We Keep

Sermon on Luke 15:1-10 for Sept. 15, 2019, Pentecost 14C. An audio version can be found here for several weeks.

 Luke 15:1-10

Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “Which one 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? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

The version of Christianity that I grew up with was pretty negative. There were a lot of things on the list of things we weren’t supposed to do. There was a silly rhyme I heard from back then: “I don’t smoke, and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls that do.” You had to be careful about the company you kept. There was a doctrine called “Christian separation.” It said that Christians were to be separate from all that was “worldly”. You would have thought we believed you could catch cooties from “worldly” people, or something.  

Well, Jesus would not have fit in well with my group, would he? Not at all. Jesus specifically hung out with “worldly” people. Back then, they didn’t call them “worldly” yet, they just called them “sinners.” But it was the “sinners” that wanted to come to hear Jesus’ teaching.  Why did they come to listen?  I imagine some were just curious. But I’m sure some were quite moved by Jesus’ teaching. It was novel. He seemed to be innovating on what they had been taught. They were attracted to his message.  

Is that how it usually goes today? Do the people who seem to have lots of personal problems, the people who have made some significantly bad choices, the rough crowd: are they the ones you find breaking down the church doors to get in? Not so much, right? Why not? What is the message that the church usually sends to them? Is it like Jesus’ message, or is it a departure?

Objecting to Jesus

Anyway, getting back to the story, I don’t think the scribes — that means the ones who knew the Hebrew Bible very well, and knew how to make copies of it accurately, and the Pharisees would have objected to the sinners showing up to listen to Jesus. You can’t stop someone from joining the crowd. No, it seems that their objection was that Jesus ate with them. They grumbled,

This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Welcoming and eating meant you were okay with them. Back in those days, in the culture Jesus lived in, the people you ate with were carefully controlled. They had notions of purity and impurity that really did operate like cooties. You could catch impurity from impure people. And you wouldn’t be caught dead inviting them to your table.  

But Jesus did. He both welcomed them, and ate with them. And it scandalized the separationists. He could see that, so he believed it might be a “teachable moment.”

It is fascinating to watch what Jesus did. His teaching method was storytelling. We call his stories parables. They were clever. They often had surprises or even absurdities that made people pay attention and wonder what they meant. That happens here.  

His first story was the famous “lost sheep” parable. It starts, 

“Which one 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?”

That sounds so compassionate to us; of course, we would leave the group safely penned up and go out after the poor little lost lamb. But that’s because we are imagining the safety and the pen. But imagine the story taking place where Jesus described it; not back at the house where the pen is, but “in the wilderness.” That means open country. No pens. No safety. Shepherds had two basic jobs: lead the sheep to pasture and water, and keep them safe. Safe from predators, like wolves, and safe from thieves.  Everyone hearing that question, 

“Which one 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?”

would be saying, “No way!” That would be a fool-hearty risk of 99 perfectly good sheep that you are responsible for. It would not be worth it to go after one. The value of the one lost sheep was nothing compared to the 99.  

But in Jesus story, the shepherd did just that, and when he found the lost lamb, he rejoiced, and called his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him, saying, 

“Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

Then, Jesus told a second story about the woman with the ten silver coins who lost one and searched until she found it. Poor people’s homes had no windows, so she lights a lamp and sweeps the floor until she is successful. When she finds the coins she invites her female friends (the original makes that clear) and has a party. Jesus said that is just exactly like what God does when a “sinner” “repents.”

“Repent” literally meant, “change your thinking” about something. See it in a new light. Look at it differently. Addicts who are in recovery call this the moment of clarity. We might say, “coming back to your senses.” There is no sense of groveling in guilt or shame — that kind of repentance was what the church wanted from people. It’s not what Jesus wanted.  

God as both-gendered

Jesus has just done two things, very subtly, but significantly in these two stories. He could have just told one story, about the shepherd and left it at that. The message is that God is like the shepherd who finds the sheep then rejoices.  But if God is like a man who is happy at finding what he had lost, God is also every bit as much like a woman. If heaven may be imagined as a man-party, it can also be imagined as a woman party. Jesus was able to imagine God as a woman! No wonder some of the women “sinners” were attracted to his teaching.  Why has the church taken so long to notice this? Jesus was way ahead of his times. For Jesus, just like in the first Creation story in Genesis, the image of God is “male and female.”  

Lostness as the new category

Jesus made a second subtle but significant innovation. He has come up with an entirely new category to put people in. The scribes and Pharisees called the rough crowd “sinners.” But Jesus told stories of lostness. For him, these people were not just “sinners,” people to be despised, people to keep separate from, they were merely lost. They had gotten off track. Therefore, they still had value. In fact great value. So much value that you would imagine yourself willing to leave 99 just to go out and search for one.  

Now, if you went out and found a “sinner” you might feel good about judging them, condemning them, maybe threatening them with punishment, maybe you would even tell them they were headed for hell. But, if instead of a “sinner” you found a “lost” person, you would feel compassion. You would want them to find their way back home. You would value them. You would believe that they were not defined by their worst day or their worst decisions. You would imagine them as so precious that God would throw her best party ever upon getting them back safely.  

Friends, this is the God Jesus taught us to know and love: the God that knows all of us get off track from time to time. All of us get ourselves lost. Some, severely so. But no matter how lost we feel, God is not up there condemning us, judging us, and waiting to punish us. Not at all! Rather, the God Jesus taught us to know and love longs for all of her lost ones to come home.  

Yes, God longs for our repentance — meaning that we see the light so we stop hurting ourselves and others. God does not want us to suffer at our own hands or cause the suffering of others. So, yes, God wants us to change our thinking about the strategies we have used to mask our pain, if those strategies are harmful.  

God is the great seeker. God is present in every moment, in every place, luring us back home; coaxing us, with non-controlling love, back to the path that leads to the house where the party is ready, the balloons are filled, and the ribbons are flying.  

This was Jesus’ message. To everyone, he could say, in effect, “you are a beloved child of God. You may have a hard time believing that but that’s what I’m telling you. You feel lost? Well, God is out to find you and when She does, she is going to get you home; you are that valuable.  

Do you need a sign that it’s true? The best sign I can give you is a big wide welcome to our table. Come! Sit with us! Eat with us. We want to be known by the company we keep.  We want to keep the same company Jesus kept. Everyone is welcome at our table!

“If you love somebody, set them free” — Sting

“If you love somebody, set them free” — Sting

Sermon on the book of Philemon for Sept. 8, 2019. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

 Philemon 1:1-21

note: This text is a letter from the apostle Paul, to Philemon, on the subject of what to do about Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus who has visited Paul in prison, and has converted to Christianity. 

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and co-worker, to Apphia our sister, to Archippus our fellow soldier, and to the church in your house:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. When I remember you in my prayers, I always thank my God because I hear of your love for all the saints and your faith toward the Lord Jesus. I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective when you perceive all the good that we may do for Christ. I have indeed received much joy and encouragement from your love, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you, my brother.

For this reason, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do your duty, yet I would rather appeal to you on the basis of love—and I, Paul, do this as an old man, and now also as a prisoner of Christ Jesus. I am appealing to you for my child, Onesimus, whose father I have become during my imprisonment. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he is indeed useful both to you and to me. I am sending him, that is, my own heart, back to you. I wanted to keep him with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced. Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.

So if you consider me your partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. If he has wronged you in any way, or owes you anything, charge that to my account. I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand: I will repay it. I say nothing about your owing me even your own self. Yes, brother, let me have this benefit from you in the Lord! Refresh my heart in Christ. Confident of your obedience, I am writing to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say.

Back in the 1980s, I loved the band “The Police” whose frontman called himself Sting. I had all their records. For a long time, their most popular song was probably “Every Breath You Take.” It was about an obsessively possessive love relationship. Sting sang: “Every breath you take, every step you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you…. can’t you see? You belong to me.”  

Well, that sounds creepy to me now! Which may have been what Sting was trying to correct when, several years later, he wrote a song that repeated the line, “If you love somebody, set them free.” 

That sounds to me like a much healthier attitude. Love does not dominate or control. Love wants the best for the beloved, including their own personal growth and development, their freedom to be themselves and to have their own lives. Love doesn’t hold people back; love sets them free.  

“God is Love”

Let us put this in a wider context. We believe that one of the simplest and yet most profoundly accurate things we can say about God is what the New Testament says, “God is love.” 

If we start there, many implications flow from that statement, and one of them is that God, as Love, wants our freedom. God does not control us. 

Process theologians tell us that God’s love is not coercive, but persuasive. God lures us, coaxes us, encourages us, in an un-controlling way, towards goodness, towards truth, and towards beauty.  

This is the God that Jesus believed in and called, affectionately “Abba”, “Father”, or even, “Daddy.” But since the bible tells us that God is not gendered, but created both male and female in God’s image, we are free to also say, “Mother” or even, “mommy”. Mothering images are present in the scriptures in both the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament.

Anyway, the point is that the God whom Jesus taught us to love is, essentially, Love.  And love is not controlling. God wills our freedom. 

The Apostle Paul was convinced of this too. He even said, “For freedom, Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). If there is any law we are obligated to obey, it is “the law of love.” In another place, Paul said, “the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” (Rom. 13:8)

Love and Slavery

So that brings us to today’s text and to a problem. How can you believe that God is love, and that love necessarily longs for freedom, in a world of slavery? 

We have been mentioning recently that there is a huge cultural gap between our modern world and the world of the bible, and it comes up again here [spoiler alert: it always comes up when we read ancient literature]. 

Today, we live in a world in which we can imagine no slavery. The ancient world of biblical times, from Genesis to Revelation, was a world in which slavery was simply a fact of life, just like poverty, disease, and death. Nobody in the bible argued for the abolition of slavery. Not even Jesus. It was nearly inconceivable. 

Plato wrote that it was right for the “better” to rule over the “inferior”.  Aristotle called slavery “natural” — some people are born to be slaves. 

But, of course, those views are not the last word for Christians. The God of ancient Greek philosophy was not the God Jesus believed in.  

Philemon

Which brings us to the way this gets worked out in Philemon. Paul has planted a new Christian community in the city of Colossae. He has moved on, but got arrested and is now in prison somewhere. A man named Onesimus has arrived. 

Onesimus is a slave, owned by Philemon, a new convert to Christianity, back in Colossae. We have read Paul’s letter to Philemon about Onesimus. The issue is not that he is a runaway slave. It is that Onesimus too has become a Christian.  

Now it’s complicated. Paul has been teaching his new little house churches that as Christians, they are all equally members of “the body of Christ.” He has told them that they are part of the “family of God.” That makes them all sisters and brothers. He has told them that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28). 

But a slave is a slave — perhaps even by nature, as the Philosophers said? Is there any other way to think about it? Clearly, this event, Onesimus’ conversion, has forced Paul to think long and hard about it, and, in prison, he has had plenty of time to do just that.  

But let us ask: how did Onesimus, the slave, owned by Philemon in Colossae, wind up there, at Paul’s prison door, as a runaway? The answer, according to New Testament scholars, is that there were different ways you could be a runaway slave. 

If you just wanted your freedom and hit the road, and you were caught, you would be subject to terrible punishment: flogging or branding or being sent to the mines, the galleys, the arena or even the cross. It would have been, as Crossan says, “suicidally dangerous to have gone anywhere near official Roman authority, let alone a Roman prisoner like Paul.” (J. D. Crossan, In Search of Paul, p. 179)  

But, on the other hand, if you had been treated cruelly by your owner and needed a temporary respite, for example, to give a hot-headed slave-owner a cooling-off period, you had two options: you could flee to a god’s temple, or flee to your owner’s friend, particularly a friend of the owner who was in a superior position to the owner, who could possibly plead on your behalf. 

Onesimus fled from Philemon to Paul, Philemon’s spiritual “father.” And this is Paul’s letter, pleading on behalf of the runaway slave, who is now, a fellow Christian.  

Set Him Free

What is Paul asking Philemon to do with Onesimus? Set him free. This is totally radical, so Paul uses all the rhetorical skill he has. He reminds Philemon that he is in chains, a prisoner for the sake of the gospel, that he is an old man — which in that culture meant a highly respected elder. Paul tells him that he could command Philemon to do his duty, but rather, he is appealing “on the basis of love.” 

To cap it all off, Paul says that when he gives Onesimus his freedom, he will have him both “in the flesh and in the Lord” as a “beloved brother.” 

Paul is quite clear that he wants the decision to be Philemon’s, voluntarily. He can say no. But he also asked that the letter be read in the house-church so that everyone will witness his decision. Everyone will be thinking, “if you love somebody, set them free.” 

And if you believe in a God of love who has made you a community, a family in faith, then what other choice could you possibly make?”

Let us just take a moment to let it soak in, how beautiful and radical this is. In a world where you could not imagine the end of slavery, Paul has had a torchlight lit in his head. He now sees that slavery is incompatible with love. A Christian simply could not own another Christian. 

The God of Jesus, the God of love, could never will anything other than freedom. It could actually be true in fact, as well as in theory, that in Christ “there is no longer slave or free.…” but rather, “you are all one.”  

Backsliding on the Vision

So, this insight was widely disseminated and accepted in all the churches, massive numbers of slaves were set free, and the whole institution of slavery was seen for what it was, a dehumanizing and oppressive practice which was incompatible with Christianity, and therefore abolished soon thereafter, right? 

Well, as you know, sadly not. Not at all. This is just too radical; too counter-cultural; even scandalous. Talking like this would not help Christianity seem attractive to your average Roman citizen, right?. 

So, quickly after Paul’s life, other advice was given to the early groups of Christians that was far tamer, that fit the hierarchical, patriarchal Roman family structure much more comfortably. Letters were written to Christian churches advising 

Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything, …Masters, treat your slaves justly and fairly” (Col. 3-4; Eph. 6). 

The same thing happened with respect to women in ministry, by the way. Paul had women functioning as apostles, but after Paul, their ministries were severely restricted. Some ideas were just too radical for the time, I guess.  

The End of the Story: Our Story

Back to the book of Philemon: we do not know how the story ended. We do not know Philemon’s decision. We don’t know how much he had paid for Onesimus and therefore what it might have cost him to comply. 

But we do know that this letter was copied, and shared, and recopied and shared until eventually, it became part of the collection we call the New Testament. 

That meant that although the radical message of love and freedom was watered down, and eventually nearly forgotten by the Church, there must have been many in the minority who embraced it. 

There must have been people willing to swim upstream, against the current, willing to be criticized as radicals, even subversives, because they had caught the vision of a world which ran by the law of love. 

That is our calling. We are the people who have been seized by this beautiful vision that Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” A world in which God’s will is done “on earth as it is in heaven.” 

We have been awakened to the fact that God is love, just like Jesus taught us. So we are the ones to take this liberating gospel into our much different world.  

That is why we pay so much attention to how we can help people become free of all the enslaving conditions that exist. 

For example, we make no distinction between men and women at every level of leadership in our church, both locally regionally, and nationally. 

We work to help people enslaved by addictions, homelessness, or simply by poverty, to at least have the freedom to eat decent, healthy food. 

We are radically inclusive here: we welcome everyone who has been enslaved by discrimination and judgment, and we speak up for all of them when their voices are not heard.  

We think it is also important to be free internally, personally. We consciously work to free our hearts and minds from slavery to consumerism and greed. We actively take up collections to support ministries of compassion and mercy, as we are currently doing for a poor family in Nicaragua and for relief for victims of hurricane Dorian. We believe that our very act of giving away our money helps free us, internally, from the power of Mammon.

We practice spiritual disciplines like meditation, which help to free us internally from slavery to ego. We seek to be free of that insistent critic in our heads, the constant need to compete or compare, the narrator of our personal preferences, the small self, that gets offended. 

We work on our ego issues so that we can be free to love, to have compassion, to be kind, to be experts in forgiving and understanding. To be free to be agents of a loving God.  

Poor Seats and IOU’s

Poor Seats and IOU’s

Sermon for Sept. 1, 2019, Pentecost 12C. An audio version will be available here for several weeks.

Luke 14:1, 7-14

On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honor, he told them a parable. “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, ‘Give this person your place’, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

While I was serving in another congregation, we wanted to have a series of classes on different topics of interest, so we asked people to give us suggestions and to volunteer to teach if they had something to offer. So we had classes on nutrition, on art appreciation, and chair yoga. During the preparation phase, a person came to me wanting to teach a class on good manners. She had written a book about manners. She thought attention to manners was eroding in our culture. Perhaps she was right; we let her try, but almost no one showed up for the class.  

Is that what Jesus is doing here; teaching good manners? I don’t believe so. I think that Jesus saw himself as a person on a mission. His mission was not trivial. In fact, it was a mission he was willing to risk his life for; and it cost him his life. So when Jesus talks about where to sit at a wedding banquet so that you don’t end up embarrassed by being demoted, what is he doing?

And when he talks about whom to include on your own luncheon or dinner invitation list, and tells us to include 

the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” 

I have some questions, like, what is behind it? Why those people? What kind of persons do they represent? How is this part of a mission worthy of your life?

If you were here last Sunday you recall that we spoke of the wide cultural gap between ourselves and the characters in the bible. That gap is obvious in this text again. We do not live in an honor-shame culture. 

We do not measure our social status by the seats we are given at a wedding banquet. Yes, indeed, the closer you are as kin, or in friendship, to the bride and groom, the closer your table will be to theirs, but probably the only consequence for you is how fast your table gets called up to the buffet line. But it was a big deal back then, so let’s just try to imagine how it was.  

To Stop Playing the Honor Game

So, what would it mean for a person back then to stop playing the honor-seat game?  What would it mean for someone in that culture to extend luncheon invitations specifically to people who could not possibly reciprocate by inviting them in turn, since 

“the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” 

don’t host luncheons? In other words, what would it mean to give to the kind of people from whom there would be no possibility of collecting an IOU later?

It would mean they had embraced an entirely different value-system. And that was part of Jesus’ mission. The kingdom of God had come, according to Jesus. That means, if we had “eyes to see it and ears open to hearing about it,” that we all would start seeing people in a new way, and treating them in a new way. 

We would treat them, as Martin Buber said, as “ends, rather than means.” As “thou” rather than as “it.” It would mean that their social status would not matter to us. Their educational level would not matter to us. Their race, their gender, their religion, and whether or not they were capable of being self-sufficient would not matter. 

Or rather, that all those conditions would matter, because those are the very ones whom people with kingdom of God values would make sure have an invitation to the banquet and a good seat when they got there.

A Needed Caveat

Let us pause, to ask an important question: Who is the intended audience for this teaching? In one sense, it is everyone; we are all called to humility and inclusion. There is no place for ego-issues in the kingdom of God. 

But in an important sense, a clarification is needed here. There are many people who have been marginalized; whose voices have been silenced, who have not been taken seriously, who have not been given a seat at the table. 

They include, for example, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” They also include all women, minorities, people of color, gay people — the list is long. This text is not advising to them, to keep down, to keep in place, to be content with being dishonored by — to put it in our context — the rich straight white men in charge. 

In fact, Jesus highlights marginalized people specifically, “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” to show how far this kingdom of God value-system goes. The ones who have been shut out are specifically the ones that now get included, invited, and honored with an invitation and a good seat at the table.  

Where Do We Stand Now?

This new kingdom value-system is what we are trying to practice here. It has taken the church a long time, but we can be so thankful that we have come to this point. There was a time when people came to church and heard sermons that justified slavery in America. It seems almost inconceivable to us now, but it happened.  

And the end of slavery did not mean the end of the horror. Bringing it close to home, this Labor Day weekend marks the 100th anniversary of the Elaine, Arkansas massacre. A black farm labor movement seeking fair prices for cotton was accused of being an “insurrection,” thus justifying the killing, of between 100 and 200 blacks, over three days, with some estimates of more than 800.  

One hundred years seems like a long time ago. We might be tempted to think that the problem is over, but it is not. I have been recently listening to a podcast by investigative journalists called Bundyville. It’s about Cliven Bundy and his sons. 

If you remember, he was the cattle rancher from Bunkerville, Nevada, who led a standoff, in 2014, with officials of the Federal Bureau of Land Management. He had accumulated over a million dollars in unpaid grazing fees, so the BLM came to collect. 

He resisted. His cause attracted people from many different organizations, all of whom were built around this or that conspiracy theory. Those groups all share one thing in common: blatant racism wrapped up in versions of Christianity that neither Jesus nor the apostles would recognize.

I have even heard tape of preachers from those groups expounding a gospel of white supremacy. That is happening today. And people are willing to die and to kill for these racist ideas. This is not about manners!

Marginalization is not limited to people of color, even within churches. It is still the case that many churches shut out women from leadership. Some still believe that same-sex attraction is a choice, and so, do not affirm LGBTQ+ people.  

The rhetoric that I have heard people use about immigrants, equating them with animals, in spite of the huge economic benefit they are to our country is a toxic cocktail of arrogance and ignorance. It is the opposite of the value-system of the kingdom of God in which all of us are beloved, bearers of the image of God.

Where is this going? I have no idea. I never thought it could get this bad in America; perhaps it will get even worse. On the other hand, in the Presbyterian Church USA, and in a few other denominations, we have never been more inclusive and welcoming. Perhaps we are swimming upstream now. Perhaps we are out of sync with our culture, at least in this region of our country.  

Our Core Identity in Practice

Well, if so, we accept that. We will continue to seek to live fully into our core identity as followers of Jesus. We will put out the invitation to “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” and all whom they represent. 

Everyone is welcome at our table. And when they come, there will be no competition for the seats of honor. All of us are here, as Jesus was, “not to be served, but to serve,” and even to give our lives, as some have done, upholding the inclusive values of the kingdom of God. For Jesus said, in Matthew 25, 

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, … just as you did it to one of the least of these …you did it to me.’”  

Matthew 25

If you have ever been marginalized or dishonored for who you are, know this: you are welcome here! And if you, like me, have never faced that kind of discrimination, then you, like me are privileged. Let us dedicate ourselves to using that privilege for the good; to be allies of “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind,” and all of the others that they represent. 

Set Free, Setting Free

Set Free, Setting Free

Sermon for August 25, 2019, Pentecost 11C.

Audio can be found here for several weeks

Luke 13:10-17

Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

As I was watching a movie in a theater, there was a scene near the end in which a person was being inducted into the FBI. The camera cut away from her happy face to a full-screen shot of the navy blue American seal with the eagle in the center. Then we watched as a kitchen knife came down and cut the seal — it turned out to be the decoration on the top of the cake. Everyone in the theater, except me, erupted in laughter.  I didn’t get what was funny. 

Context matters (always): I was in a movie theater in Romania. I asked a Romanian friend about it. He said that they all thought it was intentionally funny that you would cut up your country’s symbol — apparently, they would never do that. You had to have been brought up in Romania to find it funny.  

I feel like that same thing happens often when we read the bible. We often miss things that everybody who was there at the time understood. Even things that were obvious to them go right by us. We live in a profoundly different context.

So let us have eyes and ears as open to that different cultural context as we can, as we look at this text from Luke’s gospel, because, I believe, when we “get it” it has some powerful, even liberating things to teach us.

This is a healing story. It is a story about a woman. Luke says she has been 

Eighteen years is long enough to go from being a newborn to a voter in America. Why mention the number of years? Because it helps intensify the conflict coming. 

“crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”

This is also a conflict story. Remember last week we said that Jesus did things that were unexpected, unusual and sometimes even purposefully provocative? This is one of those intentionally provocative moments.  

Let’s stop for a moment to notice this: why would Jesus want to be provocative? Because he was a change agent. He believed that the status quo was literally and metaphorically sick, and was sickening people. But it did not have to be that way.  

Eighteen Years

So, back to the story, the eighteen years of suffering means that this is not an emergency situation. It’s not like the story of the Good Samaritan, with the man lying half dead beside the road. Nothing about her condition demands prompt action.  

In some healing stories, a worried father or mother begs Jesus for healing immediately. Sometimes a blind or lame person themselves calls out for healing. Not in this case. The woman showed up, but, in this story, asks nothing of Jesus. Why not? Probably because, after all these years, she has accepted that nothing can be done. In other words, she is both crippled, and hopeless.  

So it is all the more remarkable that Jesus initiates the action. He notices a woman — which all by itself is counter-cultural in that world — and then takes action on her behalf that she does not even have hope for.  

So what is controversial about that? Who wants people who are suffering to keep suffering? Presumably, no one wants that outcome, right? Not so fast.  

God’s Sabbath

Here is where we are going to have to try to hear this story from a first-century Jewish perspective. This was happening on the one day on which it should not have happened: the Sabbath. This was not trivial.

For Jewish people, there were three marks of their identity that made them who they were, and distinguished them from others: male circumcision, kosher food restrictions, and Sabbath observance.  So keeping the Sabbath is part of their essential identity. 

The Sabbath law was not just one of the many laws in the Torah that observant Jews were obliged to keep, it was in the Ten Commandments.  Remember, in the story in the Hebrew Bible, the “finger of God” wrote those Ten Commandments.  They were a big deal. 

The Sabbath law said that you could not work — even your animals were forbidden from working for you on the Sabbath. It was a divinely given day of rest. Healing was work ,if you are a healer, and Jesus was famous for being a healer.  

Jesus understood that Sabbath law, as well as the leader of the synagogue did. Jesus intentionally provoked this controversy. He initiated a non-emergency action that he knew would stir up trouble, on behalf of a person, a woman, who did not even ask for it. He was being provocative.

Jesus’ Use of Scripture

Let us pause in the story to notice something important: for Jesus, the fact that “the bible said it,” did not settle it. 

The answer to the question, “what is right and good?” is not settled simply by asking, “what does the bible say about it?” Not for Jesus. 

His Hebrew Bible clearly said that what he did was wrong, but that was not the end of the issue for Jesus. He took his wisdom tradition, his scriptures, very seriously, but they were not, for him, and infallible paper (or parchment) pope.  

Rather, for Jesus, the ethical issue was deeper than merely observing a work prohibition. One could argue that the very reason the Sabbath law existed was a humanitarian reason: it gave people a day free from toil. 

So Jesus reasoned to the very motivation for the law, and acted in a humanitarian way. The fact that he did it in a non-emergency situation and without even being asked shows that he was intentionally trying to provoke people to change their thinking. (he was a change agent).  

What does God care about? People!; shalom; wellbeing; healing, being set free from crippling conditions; restoring hope; helping them stand up straight again.  

To prove his point he observed that the humanitarian treatment of animals required owners to do work on the sabbath, which all of them did. He asked, 

“Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?

And then, reasoning from the smaller to the greater, from the humanitarian treatment of animals to the humanitarian treatment of humans, he asked, 

“And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

According to Jesus, being set free from bondage, from conditions that make it impossible for you to stand up straight, with hope, is what God wants. God wants that for each person, and for every person, equally.  

The Personal and the Public

So what does this story have to say to us today? This is what we also want for every person; for ourselves, and for everyone else. It is both personal and public.  

First, the personal. Everyone I know is carrying heavy burdens that sometimes, or most of the time, make it hard for them to stand up straight and to have hope. Everybody has their own issues: for some, it’s their health or the health of people they care about. For others, it’s their finances, or debts. For others its relationships, or regret, or anxiety, or depression. For some, it’s grief and loss. 

Whatever it is, everyone has something; often people have multiple burdens. Life is not fair about how many each of us gets. Sometimes we have made our problems worse, sometimes we did not do anything at all; trouble just happens. 

Jesus demonstrated, in that synagogue that day, that God wills our liberation. I believe that is why he has given us each other. I believe that one of the important reasons we exist, as a church, is to be agents of healing for each other.  

We are agents of healing by our mutual acceptance of each other. But we go way beyond tolerating each other, we are agents of healing by loving each other. 

We practice forgiveness, because humans will always be stepping in it with each other and will always need to be forgiven for it. 

We practice hospitality with each other. We show caring and compassion when things are particularly rough; when we know someone is hurting. 

We treat one another as persons who deserve to stand up straight and have hope, even when we pass through the “valley of the shadow of death.” In other words, we carry each other’s burdens.  

The Public

We want the same thing for everyone that we want for ourselves and each other, so this affects our public lives. We care about every status quo condition that makes it hard for people to stand up straight and have hope. 

That applies across the board. It applies to immigrants, and all the more so to families. It applies to people who have been incarcerated, and it applies to the whole criminal justice system that decides who is incarcerated and for how long. 

So, we oppose every system, every law, every policy, every habit and custom that causes preventable suffering. That is why we are so scandalized by the way immigrants are being treated. 

That is why we care so deeply about the human-caused climate crisis. We care about poverty and homelessness. We care about discrimination and oppression. We care about children. 

We care about humans first, because we believe, Jesus taught us to.  

Touch

Jesus healed, according to the story, by reaching out and touching that poor lady. Now, we are “the body of Christ” so we are the hands that reach out to touch the suffering ones around us, with healing love and compassion. We are the ones to be set free by love, and to be setting others free to stand up straight and to hope again.  

Did He Really Say That?

Did He Really Say That?

Sermon for Aug. 18, 2019, Pentecost 10C on Luke 12:49-56. Audio can be found here for several weeks.

Luke 12:49-56

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

I used to follow the musical work of Christian guitarist and singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. One of his most famous songs is probably also his most misunderstood. It’s called “If I had a Rocket Launcher.”   Each verse ends with that phrase “If I had a rocket launcher” repeated three times, followed by something ominous, which varies from verse to verse, starting with “If I had a rocket launcher, I would not hesitate.”  The first time I heard it, I asked myself, “Did he really say that?” 

Context matters: the humanitarian relief Organization Oxfam had sponsored Cockburn to go down to Mexico to visit refugee camps housing Guatemalans, that had been set up during the counterinsurgency campaign of the Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt.   Cockburn was horrified  by the stories he heard from those refugees.  The descriptions of the killings, disappearances of their children, the helicopter gunships that were even known to fire on those very refugee camps, just across the border in Mexico, he said made slasher horror films look tame by comparison.  The feeling he had in those camps came out in that song: “If I had a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay.”

In concerts I attended, the audience would sing along, and when they sang those phrases, I observed a lot of fist-pumps of affirmation.  But that’s where he was misunderstood.  Bruce Cockburn says he is against violence; his song was a pain-cry, not a call to arms. 

Yes, He Said It

I thought of that song when I was reflecting on the gospel text this week.  Jesus says, 

“I came to bring fire to the earth,” and  “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No…”

And I want to ask, “Did he really say that?”

Yes, he did.  And just like in Bruce Cockburn’s case, context matters.  Jesus was living in tense days.  They were the days of the Roman occupation, no less horrific than the days of Guatemala’s death squads.  Crucifixions were common, and so were the clandestine groups planing for  new violent resistance.  

In that context, Jesus was proclaiming the kingdom of God and the completely upside down perspective of justice, inclusion, and equality.  Some have described Jesus’ strategy as a third way.  He did not agree with the advocates of violent resistance.  In fact he believed that violent resistance would fail — which, eventually it did, with catastrophic results.  

But neither did he simply head out to the desert communities, as some did, passively uninvolved in the day-to-day life of struggling peasants.  He did not advocate quietism.  He did not believe in just keeping your head down and keeping quiet.

Rather, Jesus’ third way was a very public, intentional, non-violent confrontation with the powers-that-be.  He was disruptive.  He did the unexpected, the unconventional, and sometimes, the unheard of.  

Jewish Spirituality

How did he get there?  Just like all great movement leaders, Jesus’ famous public actions and teachings came from a whole life of preparation.  

Jewish spirituality, as reflected in the Psalms that Jesus knew and quoted, connected the God of the universe and the people on earth.  It was a combination of mysticism and ethics.  That was the tradition that formed Jesus.

As he taught and as he worked, Jesus was modeling a deep personal spirituality that produced a life of passionate attention to suffering.  He practiced meditation and prayer, which kept him connected with God whom he related to as a loving parent.  But that loving parent was not just a softie.  God, according to Jesus, also had desires.  His desires were for people to dismantle the conditions of oppression and discrimination and seek the common good.  

But, not everyone was convinced. Jesus was getting resistance from the people who benefited from the unjust and oppressive status quo.  So he could see — anyone could see — that a conflict was coming, and what he said seems to have come from a moment of frustration; it seems he wanted to get it over with. 

Take Aways

What do we learn here?  I think there are several things crucial to learn.  First that genuine personal spirituality, like the kind Jesus practiced, is the foundation of a life of trust in God.  Trust is the sense that it is going to be okay, that God is with you, even in the context of upsetting and uncertain times.  

Second, that genuine personal spirituality produces a passion for public action on behalf of suffering people.  There is no dichotomy between spiritual work and social work.  Loving your neighbor means addressing their life-conditions.  And it may included disrupting the status quo conditions that are life-diminishing.  

Disruptions

So, what kinds of disruptions would Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom make?  Luke gives us an example here: it is the challenge to the power dynamics that put some people in a position to control other people’s lives.  The illustration is the family.  People who want to maintain their positions of absolute power — fathers over sons, mothers over daughters, and mothers-in-law over daughters-in-law, will not like having their power limited.  

Families are societies in miniature, and Jesus’ call for a new perspective on power relationships was thoroughgoing.  He knew this would be disruptive and even divisive; as his parable predicted, some of the seed that the sower sowed would fall on rocky ground.  He was prepared to accept it.  So the “peace on earth” that the shepherds heard the angel choirs singing about at Jesus’ birth, in Luke’s gospel story, would come to people of “good will,” but maybe not to everybody.  It’s still true: When the power shifts away from the rich white males in the room, some of them suddenly get fragile and defensive.  

Jesus’ goal was not to teach manners.  Politeness was not his goal.  It was not his mission to make sure no one got upset.  His mission was not to offend people intentionally, but to work for the values of the kingdom on behalf of suffering and oppressed people.  That was offensive to some people; especially the people in power.

Part of Jesus’ frustration that produced his harsh rhetoric was that people were just not getting it.  There were signs all around that things were coming undone, politically, religiously, socially, and economically — and yet people were resisting.  He was sounding an alarm, but only getting push-back.  He says, with obvious frustration:

“You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

The Call to Interpret the Present

This is a clear call to all of us.  We have the responsibility to be able interpreters of “the present time.”  In other words, to identify the status quo conditions that are life-diminishing, and to be willing to disrupt the causes behind them. 

We have been tasked with knowing what the looming crisis is and responding to it with the perspective and values of the kingdom of God.  The crisis of our  “present time” may not look like the crisis of Jesus’ “present time,” but the call to interpret our times could not be more clear. 

It is interesting that Jesus pointed to the weather as an illustration.   It was just an illustration for him, but for us, it is, in fact, the current life-diminishing status quo that needs disruption. 

The crisis that is looming over us is the climate crisis.  How should we interpret “the present time?”  As a time which is short.  We do not have long to fix this.  As the ocean temperatures rise and the air temperatures rise, there is more moisture in the atmosphere — the rains and flooding we had this spring are probably going to be repeated.  

As the ocean temperatures rise, so do sea levels which put millions of people at risk.  Threats to agriculture are huge and will affect both the price and availability of food, which of course will disproportionately cause the poor to suffer.   Are there power dynamics involved in this crisis?  Yes, massive ones.  

Matthew 25 and Climate Crisis

This is where we see the connection between spiritual and social work.  Our Presbyterian Church is encouraging our congregations to become “Matthew 25 churches.”  At the end of the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25, Jesus famously says, “As you did it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”  

Recently, Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, has spoken on the connection between the climate crisis and the call of Matthew 25 to serve “the least of these”.  She said, “Whole communities in some places are being displaced, torn apart because of global warming.”  

She called on congregations to answer the call to care for the earth.  She said, “We’ve got to make sure that we take care of God’s Earth so that our human siblings may be able to be refreshed and renewed through the waters of the Earth.” And quoting Jesus in Matthew 25, she said,  “As you did it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”

Taking Responsibility

I wonder how much of the challenge we can accept?  Would we be willing to make lifestyle changes to respond to the call?  Probably we all have made many changes already, from our cloth grocery bags to our recycling practices.  

I wonder if we would even consider our diets?  I have just read an article about the carbon costs of producing and consuming meat.  It is substantial.  When you consider all the land used for farming the grains that animals are fed, the carbon involved in driving tractors, spreading fertilizers, plus the way the land could be used if it were growing food for humans, the impact is huge.   According to British research, “One kilogram of beef protein has a carbon opportunity cost of 1250kg. That’s roughly equal to one passenger flying from London to New York and back.”  

The report concluded “If we want to prevent both climate and ecological catastrophes, the key task is to minimise the amount of land we use to feed ourselves, while changing the way the remaining land is farmed.”

But that would mean changing our diets.  I would like to ask us all to consider reducing the amount of meat and dairy we consume.  All of us can take steps, even if they being small.  Consider a meatless Monday.  Start to educate yourself about plant-based proteins.  Many Americans believe all kinds of myths about how much protein they need every day.  Many of us have no idea how much protein plants contain.  But we all can learn, and we all can adjust, and together, we can make a difference.  

Do not stop with diet.  Find ways to engage the issue of the climate crisis.  Join groups that are working to make a difference.  Make sure the people running for office know the issue is important and that you are a voter.  Address the power dynamics with the power of your voice.

Heeding the Call

Jesus was frustrated by the resistance he was getting to his his calls for change.  He was frustrated that his warning about the coming calamity of his “present day” was being ignored.  He called for people to wake up and interpret the present time accurately and change accordingly.  And finally, as in Matthew 25, he said, “As you did it to the least of these, you have done it unto me.”  

Let us be different.  Our core values and our core identity call us to action.  Our regular spiritual disciplines sustain us.  So, let us be those who head the call.  Let us be those who make the changes necessary to make a difference.  

The Core Values of the Little Flock

The Core Values of the Little Flock

Sermon for August 11, 2019, Pentecost 9C. Audio will be here for several weeks.

    Luke 12:32-40

[Jesus said:] “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

“But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

At our last meeting of the Presbytery’s Future of the Church Committee, we heard a brief report on the book, Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory, by Tod Bolsinger.  I just finished reading it. 

The author uses the famous journey of discovery we know as the Lewis and Clark expedition to talk about the church in these uncharted times. 

Thomas Jefferson commissioned Lewis and Clark with the goal of finding the water route that would connect the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, which everyone knew had to exist. 

So when Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery team reached the source of the Missouri, and hauled their canoes up the Lemhi Pass, they fully expected to see a river on which they could float down to the Pacific. Instead, they saw the Rocky Mountains.  

There is no water route connecting the Mississippi to the Pacific coast. So what to do? They decided that their core value was not to find the water route, but discovery itself. So they traded their canoes for horses and pressed on into completely uncharted territory.  

As an interesting side note: they probably would not have survived if it were not for a teenage nursing mother who, along with her infant son, joined them. She was a young Native American woman who had been captured and taken as a slave. 

She was from a Western tribe, so she had been across those mountains and knew how to guide them. She was also probably the reason they were not killed by other Native Americans they encountered along the way.  

We should pause to note the irony here, that these highly-skilled, deeply committed and courageous white men owed their success, and even their lives to a teenage Native American woman; in fact, to a nursing mother.  

The Church in Uncharted Territory

That story is perfect to describe the church today. Things are changing. Things have already changed. We are in uncharted waters. 

Of course, the changes are not only in the church; the world is changing. Our country is changing. Distinguished Fellow of the Institute for the Future, Bob Johansen has written that in less than a generation, our world has become “VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.” Who would disagree? (He was quoted in Bolsinger’s book, p. 27) 

So what do you do when there is no map? How do you know where to go? Well, the first question you have to ask is, “Who are we?” “What is our identity?” What is our core mission?” 

The Corps of Discovery concluded that their core identity and mission was not water, but discovery itself.  

So that brings us to our text today, which fits remarkably with that setting and addresses those questions. There is a lot of wisdom here. So let us look at the text together. 

The VUCA Setting(s)

First to the setting. As you know, when you read the gospels — or any book for that matter — there are always at least two settings to keep in mind. One is the setting of the story in which the characters are living, acting and speaking. 

So, one setting is the time of Jesus. It is just a few decades before the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66 CE. It is just a few decades after the failed revolts against Rome that broke out all over the country when Herod the Great died in 4 BCE. 

So Jesus lived in between those violent, bloody events. But already people were pressing for the revolution that was coming. They were VUCA times: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. So, in that respect, they were like our times. That is one of the reasons there is wisdom for us here. 

The other setting to think about is the time the author, Luke, put quill to parchment and wrote the stories. He wrote some years after the failed revolt of 66. Jerusalem’s temple had been destroyed by the Roman army in retaliation, and according to Jewish historian Josephus, hundreds of thousands had died.  

By Luke’s time, many small but growing communities of followers of Jesus were springing up all around the Mediterranean and into Asia minor. Luke tells us (in Acts) that they were first known as the people of “the Way” — and only later were they called “little Christs” — or Christians — a name that probably was originally intended as an insult (Acts 9:2).  

Jesus’ followers had initially been identified with Judaism, but that had ended, and now the need to distance themselves from the failed Jewish revolt left them out on their own. 

As people who would not swear allegiance by sacrifice to the Divine Roman Emperor, they were vulnerable to the charge of treason. So, times for them were also VUCA: volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

So, when Luke records Jesus’ words about how his followers should think of themselves, and Jesus’ warnings about the need to be prepared, he is recording words from one VUCA setting, in Jesus’ times, and making them relevant for another VUCA setting; in his own times. So, I believe they are also relevant for our VUCA setting in our uncharted territory.

The Little Flock

The words of Jesus to his fledgling community begin with fond affection. I picture Jesus with a soft smile on his face, the kind you get when you look at a baby, as he says, 

“Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”

If the first question you ask in uncharted territory is “Who are we?” The answer Jesus gives his community is that they should consider themselves God’s “little flock.” 

How does God feel about this “little flock”? God, pictured as a loving parent, takes “good pleasure” in giving them what they need most: the gift of the kingdom. 

Who are we? At our core, we are beloved by God, whom we are invited to imagine with the human metaphor of a loving, giving parent. 

In other words, God is for us, not against us. God looks at us with “good pleasure,” not anger and wrath. God is giving and generous. We get to live in each moment knowing the kingdom of God has come; that God is with us. We can live, therefore, with trust, even in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times. 

We need not be fear-based people. Nor will we be seduced by the politics of scarcity. Even though we are a little flock — and in the setting of the time of Jesus, a very poor little flock of mostly peasants — we live according to the politics of abundance: there is enough for all of us. Five thousand can have a feast in the wilderness when we believe that. There will even be leftovers.

Because of our core identity as a beloved community, we can be a community of radical generosity. So, in Jesus’ setting, about the only way you could express that was by giving alms to the poor, the sick, the disabled, to widows and orphans.  

So Jesus says,

“Sell your possessions, and give alms.” 

In your acts of generosity, you will become rich spiritually. He calls it having “treasure in heaven.” And then he cites a proverb that may have been common in his day; something like it shows up in ethical literature of the day: 

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

We might say, “follow the money.”  

So our core identity as God’s beloved “little flock” is that we are engaged in meeting the needs around us with a generosity born out of our theology of abundance: there is enough — maybe not enough, as they say, for everyone’s greed, but certainly enough for everyone’s need.

Warnings for VUCA Times

Because the times are so volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous for us, just as they were for Jesus’ original followers, some warnings are needed.

“Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit… Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes;…You also must be ready”

Jesus also uses the metaphor of a thief, coming to break into the house. There is no time in which it is right to let down your guard.  

What could these warnings mean? How do you prepare for action when you don’t know whether you will be needing a canoe or a horse? How do you stay alert and keep ready? 

Certainly not by collecting swords for the coming battle: Jesus specifically ruled that option out, saying 

those who live by the sword will die by the sword.” 

So what kind of alertness and preparedness could possibly be helpful?  

Who Are We?  What are our Core Values?

I believe the only kind that can help when you are off the map in uncharted territory is to do what Jesus just did for his followers: keep re-visiting your core identity and core values. That is what we are called to do in these times.  Keep asking, “Who are we?”  

I keep asking that question when I hear and watch the news. I look at what is happening to families and how we are treating children at the border, and I ask, “Is that who we are, as a country?” How did we get this way? Are we really this fear-based? Or is it some darker motivation?  

I have actually served a congregation of immigrants. I know for a fact that it takes exactly one generation to go from being an accented foreigner to a completely indistinguishable Chicagoan, who will argue with you over who makes the best deep-dish pizza, and who can recite more Cubs statistics than you ever wanted to hear. 

That story of immigrants is, by now, old and totally boring, since the end is so well known. So why all the talk of invasions? Who are we? What are our core values?

I ask who we are when I hear about what is happening in other areas too.  At a time in which we are already experiencing the massive deadly effects of the climate crisis, and with the prospect of an unimaginably worse future, our government is rolling back over 80 regulations intended to protect our planet, according to research from Harvard and Columbia Law Schools. 

Is that who we are: people who value short term financial gain over the future of the planet our grandchildren will have to live on? Is money the God in whom we trust after all?  

I ask who are we when we keep tolerating mass shootings.  When semi-automatic weapons can fire off 100 rounds as fast as you can pull the trigger, and the conversation turns immediately to the constitution, instead of the bodies on the ground, I wonder who we are?  What are our core values? 

 Maybe some common sense legislation will finally become law, but I have heard reports that a semiautomatic weapons ban will not be included.  

Maybe we are indeed headed into a future of being a small, minority “little flock” of people who are trying to take Jesus seriously. Maybe people with the identity and core values we embrace, which we have learned from Jesus, will be facing mountains ahead.  

If so, okay. We can accept that. Our core identity and core values will remain, even if they are dwarfed by mountains of money, fear, and hatred. Like Lewis and Clark’s Discovery Corps, we will press on. 

We are awake to the deeper reality that the kingdom of God has arrived, even amid the empires of the day. We know who we are, and we know what our mission is. We are the “beloved community”, the  “little flock,” with a big calling, moving forward with trust, off the map, into uncharted territory, but not unaccompanied.  

Our lamps will stay lit. We will stay alert. We know in whom we trust; we know it to the core.