September 1, 2019,
“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.”
Last Saturday, I officiated at a wedding up at Chestnut Mountain; and at the reception which followed, both Terri and I were seated at Table #1 with the parents of the bride and groom. However, when I first read the portion of today’s Gospel about Jesus warning us never to sit in the place of honor, unless we know it’s for us, it reminded me of one of the most embarrassing moments of my life.
It took place in my last few years as a trial lawyer, before God broke into my life, calling me to the priesthood. I had just been selected by the California Bar Association to serve on the newly created Executive Committee of their Litigation Section. The installation was at the famous Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco. I arrived at the banquet a bit late, just as it was about to begin, due to a late afternoon court appearance in San Diego. With the exception of a few undesirable tables at the very back of the hall, the place was packed full of lawyers—two or three hundred. It was then that I noticed an empty place at one of the front tables; and, assuming it was for the soon-to-be-installed members of the Litigation Section’s new Executive Committee, I moved confidently to the table, ordered a glass of wine, and prepared to enjoy the salad, which was just being served. That was when someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned around and found myself face-to-face with the Honorable Cruz Reynoso, newly appointed justice of the California Supreme Court, the first Latino ever to hold that position, and the keynote speaker for the banquet. He had been on a bathroom break when I arrived to snatch his seat. I quickly jumped to my feet, mumbled an apology, and began the long “walk of shame” to those undesirable tables at the back of the hall, hoping desperately that a place might still be available.
Was I mortified by this incident? Totally! Did it leave a lasting impression, leading me to be a more humble person in the future! Not really. But remember, I was a trial lawyer in those days! And, like a closer on a major league baseball team, if you don’t have a short memory and the ability to shrug off a bad experience—you won’t be around for long. Of course, unknown to me at the time was the fact that my days as a lawyer were numbered, and I’m quite sure God had a good laugh watching my lawyer self stumble through a modern-day version of today’s parable. I can almost imagine God thinking something like, “ You may be embarrassed now, Wes; but there’ll come a day when your last-minute self—God knows us so well—when your last-minute Priest self will be stressing over a sermon on this parable and be suddenly overjoyed to remember the embarrassing episode you just went through.” And, of course, God was “spot on.”
If you think about it, isn’t that just the way things are supposed to work when it comes to the Bible and the lives of us who profess ourselves to be Christians? I mean, what is there to distinguish us from non-believers if all we do is to hear or read these parables and other Bible stories once a week and never learn from them and see them recurring in our lives today? I have to say that even as a non-practicing Christian back in my lawyer days, I would never again have taken a seat in a place of honor unless I was darned sure it was meant for me!
As practicing Christians, we owe it both to ourselves and to God to be constantly on the lookout for parallels between the teachings of the Bible—especially these parables from Jesus--and our own everyday lives. Because while we may be separated from our distant Bible relatives by thousands of years, the very same issues, problems, decisions, and so on appear in our lives every day, just wearing different clothing.
If we don’t come to church, listen to the teachings, and then take that knowledge and apply it in our own lives, then just what is there to distinguish us from non-believers? We’ve all heard the term “practicing,” typically followed by some profession or trade—although for me, personally, I do tend to get a bit nervous when it’s followed by “medicine.” Is that just me, or do we all hope, when that surgeon’s scalpel is descending, that he or she is well beyond the “practicing” stage? Anyway, I digress. When it comes to our faith, I believe it is something we must constantly be practicing in our daily lives.
While God knows we will never reach perfection, at least not in this life, it is something God expects us to be working toward, in order to be ready to become a citizen in the Kingdom of Heaven. Being a practicing Christian involves not just the basics of attending worship, daily prayers, and volunteering in some ministry of the church, while supporting it financially; it also involves our pro-active efforts not only to remember the lessons taught by Jesus, especially those nitty-gritty life lessons we find in the parables, but also to apply them in our daily lives. In doing that we find that every day will become for us a kind of interactive Bible study as we witness these timeless teachings coming alive and impacting our lives today.
In this way, our lives on earth become not only an interactive Bible study, but also the Ultimate Reality show where, unlike “Survivor,” and its many TV progeny, the goal is not to remain on earth, our island home, but to be lifted up when our time comes to the Father’s house, where, Jesus tells us, there are many rooms.
It all begins, however, with becoming familiar enough with these parables and other teachings that we are able to apply their wisdom when parallel situations pop up in our lives—and they do. Being here regularly is, of course, important, and a regular Bible study such as we have every Sunday at 9:30, is even better. I suggest starting today with this parable on humility and searching your memory for a time in your past when a similar situation may have occurred. How did you react, and might you have acted differently if today’s parable had been fresh in your mind?
Of course, if all else fails and no parables spring to mind as you encounter life out there in the world, I find a great fall-back for me, whenever I’m in doubt, is to apply the two Great Commandments left for us by Jesus: “You shall love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Everything else, Jesus tells us, hangs on these two commandments.
Since today is about humility, let me offer you an indelible image I came across that might just help you, as it has me, whenever behaving with humility is the issue: Every visitor to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built on the site where it is believed that Jesus was born, must stoop in order to enter. This is because the main entrance to the church is so low that only a small child may walk through it standing up. Its original purpose was to prevent medieval raiders from riding their horses into church to persecute Christians and disrupt worship. While the threat of raiders on horseback has long since ceased to exist . . . the low door has never been raised and has come to be known as the “Humility Gate.” Regardless of one’s station in life, all who visit this holiest of Christian shrines must stoop in order to enter.
Hearing of this, it struck me what effect it might have on our daily lives if each of us, as we entered and exited doors throughout the day, would try envisioning them as being as low as the Humility Gate in Bethlehem at the site of the manger? So, on Friday, I counted the number of times I passed through doorways—other than in the Rectory; and it came to 22! Of course I didn’t actually stoop down. By now, there are many people in Dixon who know who I am and what I do, and there’s already enough misinformation about Episcopal religious practices floating around out there without my adding to it. But I can tell you that did actually get me thinking about humility, about being humble, and grateful if, for nothing else, the fact that I was able to walk through on my own; able to purchase food for my table after entering County Market, and able to return to a home with a useable kitchen, running water, plumbing, and all those other things we can and do so easily take for granted.
So, when you leave here this morning and return to the world outside of this sanctuary, having been fed with the spiritual food of Christ’s Body and Blood, try imagining yourself in one of the parables; try for example, seeing the world as if it were either built for small children, or as it must appear to small children, as it has struck me that perhaps this is what Jesus is getting at when He tells us that “Those who would enter the Kingdom of God must do so as a small child.”
Of course, if we’re looking for a current prophet echoing the same message, we might turn to Bono, whose Irish rock band tells us in their song, “Mysterious Ways,” that, “If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel.” Amen
September 8, 2019,
A small-town preacher was delivering a fire and brimstone sermon on the evils of liquor; and as he was building to his dramatic finish he bellowed, “And who has the most money to spend? The saloon keeper! And whose wife has the finest furs and the most jewelry? The saloon keepers! And who pays for all these extravagances with money that could be returned to God? You do, my friends; you do!”
A few days later, a couple from the church ran into their “battler of booze” on the street and made a point of telling him how his wonderful message had inspired them to make a big change in their lives. Flattered, the preacher told them how thankful he was that they had stopped drinking the devil’s brew. “Well, not exactly,” said the husband. “We bought a saloon!”
So focused had the preacher been on his own agenda of temperance, he overlooked the fact that he had presented his congregation with a choice. I speak from experience when I tell you it’s both a temptation and an occupational hazard for a preacher to overstate his or her case. On the other hand, in our reading from Deuteronomy, Moses was delivering to the children of Israel a very different kind of message concerning choices; a message which had come to him directly from God. Unlike our teetotaling preacher, there was no danger that Moses would or could overstate his case, because the stakes were as high as they could get—the very survival of his people. Witness these words from the end of this hard message: “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God and obeying Him.”
No longer would the people of Israel be allowed to hedge their bets, sitting on the fence. God had placed a clear choice before them. “I have given you free will,” says God, “and now you must exercise it and make a choice: life and prosperity in choosing me and obeying my commandments—or death and adversity in choosing to bow down and serve other gods.”
Of course on the surface this may seem to us like a classic no brainer. “Life and prosperity”: or “death and adversity.” Until, that is, we fast-forward to what Jesus has to say about some of the fine print involved in choosing to follow God and to obey His commandments. Just what Jesus spells out for us sounds pretty shocking, no matter how we slice it. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself—cannot be my disciple.”
Whoa, Jesus! Time out! So, let me get this straight. To be a good Jew in those days, one had only to love God and obey His Commandments. But then God sent His Son Jesus to earth; and now, to be a good Christian, I must not only love God and observe all of the Commandments, but I must also hate all my relatives and life itself? Sorry, God, but is it too late to join “Team Moses?” While the answer is, “No, it’s never too late to change teams”—after all, it’s the same God; let’s dig a little deeper into that word “hate,” before we jump ship too hastily. As we’ve learned in the past, New Testament Greek, unlike English, had several words for hate; and the one before us today, mis-eh-o, actually translates as “to love less.” So what Jesus is really saying is that anyone whose life decisions and behavior consistently demonstrate that they love Jesus less than a family member, or life itself, cannot be a disciple. Yet, while loving life and our relatives less than Jesus is much easier to swallow than being called to “hate” them, there is still a very clear message in this passage about our priorities in life, when it comes to Jesus—and it’s a message we ignore at our peril. Here’s why: It’s been said that of all of the illusions of the so-called post-modern age, none is more dangerous than the illusion of neutrality; the notion that human beings can detach themselves from crucial choices and decisions in life, especially on those controversial issues where the decision one makes may have adverse consequences in their lives—even when it’s the right decision.
Social neutrality straddles the fence of public opinion on important issues such as racial relations, the still archaic treatment of women in far too many areas of our lives, the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor, and, of course, the LGBTQ community and its issues arising from gender identity. Moral neutrality, on the other hand, shows itself in broadminded tolerance, which sees all matters of good and evil not in terms of black and white, but in differing shades of grey. Finally, spiritual neutrality chooses neither belief nor atheism, but leaves the matter of God and if there is a God, His claim on our lives, up in the air.
From the very first chapter in Genesis to the final words of the Revelation to John, the Bible’s last book, the message is crystal clear: When it comes to the important social, moral, and spiritual choices in life, God has little patience with neutrality, insisting that if we choose God, we must also choose to take a stand on such issues.
In the scene before us this morning, Moses stands before a people whose ancestors spent 400 years as slaves in Egypt until they were freed by acts of God, through Moses. Referring to these acts of God, Moses tells the people they must now decide whether to choose life or death, blessing or curse, and that from God’s point of view—there is no middle ground, no fence to straddle. And lest we be tempted just to shrug this off as yet another example of that scary Old Testament God, with yet another thundering edict from a mountaintop—now replaced by His kind, loving and gentle son, Jesus--that notion is dispelled by the Revelation to John, the final book of the New Testament and of the entire Bible.
John describes a large and successful Christian church in Laodicea. But from the way John describes it, it sounds less like a church and more like a religious club with its members consisting of only the “best” people. Apparently on the great issues of the day, this congregation is neither hot nor cold; but is described as disgustingly tepid in the eyes of God, actually making Him sick. “Because,” says God, “ you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth.” Echoing this sentiment of God, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., expressed a similar sentiment some 2,000 years later when he wrote, “I would be the last to condemn the thousands of sincere and dedicated people outside the church who have labored unselfishly through various humanitarian movements to cure the world of social evils; for I would much rather a person be a committed humanist, than an uncommitted Christian.”
Finally, on the subject of neutrality, comes a humorous story from the life of one of Britain’s great preachers, Anglican priest W. E. Sangster, who took his young son to a cricket match between Surrey and Sussex. Before the start of the game, Dr. Sangster turned to the small boy, “Now, my boy,” he said, “ . . . let’s have none of this nonsense about ‘May the best team win.’ I don’t want the best team to win; I want Surrey to win!”
Later, writing about his father, the son described him as vehemently partisan, not only in sports, but especially towards the great issues of life. Sangster saw all of life as a crucial conflict between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan. He never nursed any illusions about being neutral. He wanted Jesus Christ to win. I want Jesus Christ to win, and I would hope that all of us, baptized into His death, resurrection, and ascension, are of the same mind. I pray we all go into the world every day making and then acting upon our choices, large and small, both secular and sacred after filtering them through a very simple litmus test: What would Jesus have me do? Jesus, the most un-neutral person who ever lived, demonstrated for us a life of perfect obedience to God—no matter the consequences when that life conflicted, as it often did, with those who steered their lives by a neutral moral compass. The life, patterned for us by Jesus, is the life God intends for us to live. If we’re not prepared to live that life, not prepared to get off the fence, and maybe suffer for our commitment, we crucify Him anew, and we identify with those who pounded the nails; for not to choose is itself a choice.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa once observed that, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have actually chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” At the end of our lives, if the choices we have made as Christians on important social, moral, and spiritual issues testify to a life lived sitting on the fence, God will not appreciate the neutrality.
“I have set before you this day life and death, blessing and curse.”
May each of us go forth from here this day and choose . . . wisely.
September 15, 2019,
Sermon by The Rt. Rev. Jeffrey Lee, Bishop of Chicago
Lost and Found God
A hospital chaplain in the diocese shared a story with me about a visit she made to a patient at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago. This man had been battling cancer for a long time, and the course of his illness was entering its final stages. He and his wife and his doctors had finally come to the place of admitting that there was no more medicine could offer him, except to keep him comfortable. Our chaplain told me about their unusual way of communicating with each other . . . the man had lost the ability to use his voice, and so he talked with her by writing down what he wanted to say. He identified himself as a born-again Christian, a good man he believed, and he was entering now a dark struggle with that question, “Why me?” Not self-pity, but an acute awareness of the absence of the God who had seemed so close and so good before now.
It’s a question I suspect everyone in this room knows something about. Why me? Why this? Why pain and confusion and doubt and suffering? Why random violence and planned global hatred? And I believe the real question behind all the others is this: Where is God?
At our weekly staff Bible study last week we were reflecting on today’s gospel, on these parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. Sinners are like these valuable things, says Jesus, shocking once again the sensibilities of his conventionally pious listeners. It’s not the righteous who interest God most, he says, it’s the ones who’ve wandered into danger. It’s you and I when we fall through the cracks of life and clatter off into a dark corner. And God, says Jesus, is like the shepherd, like the woman—God looks for us, won’t rest until we are safe and sound and found again. Well, last week, someone said, “There may be people in this world who are not broken or lost, but they aren’t very interesting.” One brave person said to me once, “You know, sometimes I feel like I’m not the one who’s lost . . . sometimes it feels like God is the one who’s missing.”
Oh, yes. An honest human experience. An honest Christian question and a brave one. I say brave because I can’t tell you how many times I have encountered Christians who somehow think that admitting their doubts, admitting their struggles to believe, that all that is somehow sinful. I wonder if that wasn’t part of the burden the man in the hospital was carrying too. Well, I am here to tell you that there is nothing un-Christian about doubt. There is nothing unfaithful about admitting that God seems absent, at least sometimes. Our theological tradition even has a term that tries to describe it—from Thomas Aquinas through Martin Luther and into our own time, theologians speak about God as Deus Absconditus, the hidden God, the God who cannot be known or grasped by the human intellect.
I wonder if you remember the letters of Mother Teresa published several years ago now. They reveal something profound about the nature of faith. As a young woman Teresa seems to have enjoyed a period of intense, almost physical closeness to Christ. Some kind of mystical encounter led her to leave the relative comfort of her monastic life as a Sister of Laredo to single-handedly start her own community, caring for the destitute of Calcutta. At the very start of this work she describes being full of peace and joy, but suddenly all that vanished. It’s as if she stepped off a cliff and found herself in complete spiritual desolation, no sense of the presence of Jesus in her life. She wrote this: “Such deep longing for God—and . . . repulsed—empty—no faith—no love—no zeal . . . Heaven means nothing . . . .” Mother Teresa’s letters indicate that she suffered this sense of having lost God for the next fifty years. Through the phenomenal growth of the community she founded, through the incredible work of caring for the poorest of the poor, despite the admiration of the world, she felt God was lost to her, and yet she went on. And this is the most important thing: She went on.
Some critics of Christianity seized on the revelations about Mother Teresa’s crisis of faith as evidence that believers have been hoodwinked by religion which is nothing more than a mere human invention. But that ignores the vast mystical tradition of Christianity and other major religious traditions that point beyond the level of feelings and even intellect to the possibility of genuine relationship with God—what the 16th century saint, John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” This is a night he says in which God can heal us of our narcissism and self-centered desires.
The Spanish mystic St. Teresa of Avila taught that feelings and other experiences are not reliable signs of a deepening relationship with God. This is an important reminder, especially in our own time when our highly individualized culture reinforces the notion that my experience is the measure of all reality. We may speak about “knowing” God, but Teresa and others point out that knowing is a poor word to describe union with God who is, by definition, beyond our human capacity to understand. Immortal, invisible, God only wise, as the reading from Timothy puts it this morning.
The continual human temptation has been to try to tame the mystery of God, like Israel in the desert, to boil God down into little idols of our own making which are much easier to keep track of than the real God who will not be nailed down or walled up or enshrined in a church. Bowing down to our own little gods of certainty and control and comfort is the real essence of sin.
So, if feelings or thoughts are not the main indicators of the presence of God in our lives, what might be? Maybe just this “going on,” the decision to continue loving, to continue serving and caring for one another and the world in the face of our struggles and doubts and fears. Jesus has come to us to rescue us not from doubt and struggle and even despair, but from the real danger, from sin, from believing that our little idolatrous gods can save us. The only power which will never betray us is the energy of love, God himself who has come to us not as a neat theological idea or an iron clad doctrine, but as a human person—in Jesus—a human being with all the mystery that implies. And the wideness of God’s mercy is so great, that God still comes to us that way, in one another. The goodness of the Lord is in our hands.
Back to our chaplain and her patient at the hospital. As the depth of the man’s physical and spiritual pain increased, the chaplain told me that she was reduced to silence. There were no words, no ideas, no easy concepts about faith that could address his sense of having lost God. And then, she said, it dawned on her—“I am with you here in the mud,” she told him. “And I will not leave you.” In that moment the lost was found. God was there, holding them both.
When you struggle to believe, when God seems absent, when you’re down for the count and it all seems lost, then go on loving anyway, go on believing anyway, go on giving yourself away. God is good beyond our knowing. And we can know it best, we can only know it at all in our decision to love, to give, to abandon the idols that promise in vain to keep us safe, and never to turn away from the pain of the world.
September 22, 2019,
“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 yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
A young man in Montana bought a horse from a farmer for $100. After he paid the money, it was agreed he would show up the next day to take delivery of the horse. But when he arrived to take delivery, the farmer told him he was sorry, but that the horse had died. The young buyer then asked the farmer to return his $100, but the farmer refused, saying he had already spent it. The young man thought for a moment and then said, “Okay, then just bring me the dead horse.” “Fine,” said the farmer, “but what in God’s name are you planning to do with a dead horse?” “I’m going to raffle him off.” “You can’t raffle off a dead horse!” “Sure I can,” replied the young man. “I just won’t tell anyone it’s dead.”
About a month later, the farmer happened to run into the young man and asked him, “Whatever happened with that dead horse?” “I raffled him off,” came the answer. “I sold 500 tickets at $2 apiece and cleared a profit of $998.” The astonished farmer replied, “And didn’t anyone complain?” “Just the man who won. So I gave him back his $2.”
While some might applaud the young man for turning a bad situation around and making a profit, others might label him a “con man” for his trickery . And while, as Christians, we might quickly place Jesus in that second category, the puzzling and often misunderstood parable of what’s come to be known as the “dishonest steward” causes us to think twice about just where Jesus would come down on this question. So, let’s recap the parable.
A rich man had a manager for his estate, but apparently the fellow was a bit lax in his duties and was called on the carpet for squandering his employer’s property. Not even allowing an explanation, the rich man fired the steward on the spot and demanded a full accounting of his work.
And here’s when the story takes kind of a bizarre turn. Despite being fired on the spot, the steward either still retained some authority to act for his employer or—and I think this is more likely—the word just hadn’t gotten out yet. So, having just been sacked and realizing he was unsuited for any physical labor and was too proud to beg, he hit upon a plan, worthy of our young “dead horse buyer.” Calling in his master’s debtors, one at a time, the soon-to-be ex-steward initiated a 1st century version of “Let’s Make a Deal.”
He asks the first debtor, “How much do you owe my master?” “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” “I tell you what,” says the steward. “Make it 50, payable now; and we have a deal.” Then to the second debtor, who owed 100 containers of wheat, the steward offers to bring the account current for 80 containers. At this point, the master apparently walks in; and instead of calling the authorities to have his former steward hauled off to the klinker, he commends the fellow for acting “shrewdly” by using his final hours on the job to make some new friends who might think about hiring him when he ended up on the street. Was he taking a big risk? Absolutely! His master might just as easily had him thrown in jail—and that’s probably exactly what would have happened in the real world. But, of course, we’re not in the real world here—we’re in the land of “Parables,” where things are often turned upside down by Jesus in order to make a larger point; the land of parables where we typically find Jesus thinking way outside that box we often hear about. So it is; we find the boss commending the steward he had just fired for acting “shrewdly.” “For the children of this age,” says the master, “are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
But it’s not only the praise of his former manager’s shrewdness that has made this particular parable so controversial; it’s the next words that come out of the master’s mouth that have caused Christians across the ages to cringe, shaking their heads in puzzlement: “And I tell you,” says the master, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Quotes like this have us wondering why some Christian denominations make such a big deal about our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers raising money through Bingo. I mean, why not just go for broke—raffle off a bunch of dead horses and refund a few bucks to the winner?
I mean, is Jesus seriously endorsing dishonesty as a means of being welcomed into His Father’s house? Sure sounds like it—at least on the surface. But of course, that’s the giveaway: “On the surface.” If we’vc learned anything about parables—we’ve hopefully learned that His true meaning is never to be found “on the surface.” If we want to mine the true riches of Christ’s teachings, we had better be prepared to strap on our miners’ hats, sling our picks over our shoulders, and then to dig a lot deeper! Because Jesus knows that it’s only in doing this that these timeless lessons of life will stay with us. Of course, even if we finally get to that deeper meaning, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the pot-of-gold of Christ’s teachings is yet in our possession. As we’ve seen, Jesus is also prone to making the occasional shocking statement at any given moment. Especially when He feels it’s necessary to break through our complacency by challenging our desire to preserve a status quo, at a time when His message calls for decisive actions that will cross long-established boundaries.
Today’s parable is one of those occasions; and it should come as no surprise that it has to do with money: our relationship to money; our use of money; and, yes, our love of money are things that Jesus talks about more than any other topic in the four Gospels. Of the 39 parables, over half involve money as a teaching tool.
This particular parable presents us with a kind of double whammy, if you will, praising what seems a negative trait—shrewdness, while seeming, at least, to endorse dishonesty as a means to achieve eternal life. So, clearly, a little more deconstruction is called for if we want to grasp the full meaning of just how this controversial story might impact our lives today. A good place to start is shrewdness, as it involves a word and a behavior more easily defined.
While the negative vibes we associate with shrewdness, or being shrewd, can probably be traced to such characters as Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and his infamous pound of flesh, the word itself is actually a rather positive one. It means, simply, to be astute in practical matters with synonyms like prudent and intelligent, or to act wisely.
But, of course, it’s more than just acting shrewdly we must deal with, because the real elephant in the living room is the apparent endorsement by Jesus of dishonesty as a means to an end. But is that what Jesus is really saying to us here, that dishonesty is an acceptable behavior as a means to an end? Listen again carefully: “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.” Is it really dishonesty that Jesus is endorsing here, or is it instead using money which has been obtained through dishonest means?
Before anyone calls this a “distinction without a difference”—an argument I often heard and made during my time as a trial lawyer, in this case there is a difference—and a big one at that.
As you all know, because we’ve talked about it before, the Episcopal Church never asks us to check-in our brains at the door of the church, urging us to use those God-given minds and powers of reason when studying the Bible and, when called for, to draw reasonable assumptions.
Here, since we know Jesus would never condone cheating to acquire money—no matter how worthy the reason might be—it’s reasonable to assume that what He’s talking about as dishonest is not the behavior of the soon-to-be-unemployed steward or manager. Recall that nowhere does it say that this manager pocketed a single penny of the master’s money; only that he squandered it and managed it poorly.
So it is that the label dishonest attaches not to the behavior of the manager, but to the wealth of his master--wealth acquired through exorbitant rents, commissions, and taxes he was imposing on his debtors. And so we can now see that it was this dishonest wealth being returned to the master’s debtors, in order to secure a better future for the recently fired manager that Jesus was referring to when He said, “ . . . make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth . . . so you may be welcomed into the eternal homes.”
To me this is just another example of Jesus reminding us all that the admonition for Christians not to be of the world does not mean that we are to be push-overs when it comes to dealing with the world. We would also do well to remember that while the meek may indeed inherit the earth, that biblically speaking, meek is not synonymous with being a wimp. In fact, in its biblical context, meek is more accurately defined as power under control, calling each of us to be resourceful, decisive, and, like the shrewd manager, also to be creative in dealing with what the world deals to us. And then to use the world’s resources, even tainted resources, combined with our own personal sacrifices of time and treasure to help feed the poor; to help clothe the naked; and to do all in our power to free those prisoners trapped behind bars of abuse or neglect; and finally to shine the light of Jesus Christ into those dark corners of prejudice and hatred.
As you leave here this morning, with that misunderstood story of the not-so-dishonest steward rattling around in your heads, I would ask of each one of you a small, personal favor. Please start asking God now for some divine guidance on how much of your worldly mammon, aka money or treasure, you will be giving back to God to keep your church healthy and making a difference in Dixon and in our lives next year. Because, tempted as we may be to start raffling off dead horses, at the end of the day it comes down to the sacrificial giving of each one of us, of our worldly money to support our ministries and to support our huge staff of me, Carol Linboom, and a yet-to-be named organist. As each of us makes that important decision next month, let us also make it boldly, fearlessly, and decisively, recalling Jesus’ closing words in today’s Gospel:
“You cannot serve God and money!”
September 29, 2019
“The poor man died and was carried away by the Angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.”
According to a fairly recent poll, which included both church goers and non-churchgoers, while 67% of those polled believed there was probably a Hell of some kind, just 25% of those polled felt that Hell would be their final destination. The results were consistent with similar polls taken in prior years. While polls and statistics must always be taken with that proverbial grain of salt, it seems clear that some form of massive self-denial and delusion is going on here when it comes to one’s final destination when our lives on earth are over.
There seems to be a widespread and understandably comforting delusion going on in America—and probably in other countries as well—that has probably been around in one form or another since the dawn of Christianity--the delusion that really very few people actually end up in Hell; assuming, of course, that there even is a Hell. Another closely related delusion seems to be that Hell is meant for other people and not people like me who are good citizens, pay their taxes, and behave normally at least most of the time.
Another popular delusion, closely related to the two I’ve mentioned--giving us the always preferred number 3 when talking about anything Christian—is the idea that, one way or another, and again, regardless of whether you even have a faith, or if you do, whether you actually practice it—that one way or another a loving and compassionate God will open those famed Pearly Gates . . . to just about everyone after they die. However, for those who do practice their faith and have even a casual knowledge of Christianity and the Bible, passages like the one before us this morning from the Gospel according to Luke bring an unpleasant dose of reality to this fairytale notion that pretty much everyone is destined for Heaven.
Passages like this one about the rich man and Lazarus probably explain why many just choose to stay away from church, creating their own end-of-life scenarios about “Our Father, who art in Heaven.” Scenarios which, no doubt, include their being whisked off like Lazarus to rest in the bosom of Abraham upon their death.
In short, they choose to live in denial rather than be exposed to an unsettling truth that might cause them to question the way they are living their lives. But please believe me when I say that I am not here this morning to cast aspersions on the choices made by others, as I lived in that state of denial for many years until—like that lost sheep Jesus set out to rescue—God brought me back into the fold in a rather dramatic and, to be honest, somewhat frightening way. The take-away for us who are here this morning is never to forget that judgment and one’s destination following death is solely in the hands of God.
If you believe in some kind of life after death—a life spent in God’s Kingdom of Heaven or in Satan’s domain of Hell—and please don’t be surprised or alarmed by my use of the word if, the truth is that we accept these things and many others in the Bible on faith and faith alone. No one can truthfully say that they know there is life after death, be that in heaven or hell. But I do believe, with all of my heart, soul, mind, and strength, what we say together every Sunday in the Nicene Creed. Therefore I also believe what is reflected throughout the New Testament and the Gospels, that when our time on earth is over, passages like the one before us make it clear that at that point there are no second chances. Witness the passage we have before us today which is, at least to me, one of the most chilling passages in the entire Bible, when from hell the rich man pleads with Abraham for mercy as he was in agony in the flames. Hear again the answer from Abraham: “ . . . between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” Whew! Hard and final truths spoken from Heaven to Hell. Notice too the response to the rich man after he asks Abraham whether Lazarus—whom he obviously still regards as somehow beneath him on the social ladder—when he asks Abraham if Lazarus might “run an errand” to warn his five brothers what awaits them, if they don’t change their ways. Abraham’s immediate answer? “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” Today we have even more information and warnings. They had only the Hebrew Bible, while we have the new Testament, including the four Gospels to warn us of the fate awaiting those whose lives on earth do not bear witness to the faith they were baptized into, the faith they promised to God would be mirrored in their lives on earth. Which brings us again to the rich man, whose real sin is revealed not to his having money and possessions—for wealth alone has never been a sin in God’s eyes: His real sin that landed him in the devil’s playground was the fact that while he was on earth, the man did not use his riches responsibly to help others. He had allowed people like Lazarus, the sick, the poor, and the disadvantaged, to become virtually invisible to him! Poor Lazarus, starving, covered with sores that dogs were licking, was apparently just outside this rich man’s gates and was ignored day after day. The man’s riches bore no fault; after all, money isn’t moral or immoral; money can’t distinguish between right and wrong or tell the difference between a rich man and a poor man. It isn’t money, but the love of money that is the root of all evil—to quote an often misquoted statement of St. Paul in his first letter to Timothy, which we heard a few moments ago. Lazarus is meant to represent for us the poor, the marginalized, the bottom of the rung people in every generation--those who sit outside those gates day after day, who have been rendered invisible by those engaged in a love affair with their riches.
Before any of us start thinking that we’re off the hook because we’re not rich by society’s standards, let us not lose sight of just what society we’re using as a measuring rod. The truth—and we ignore it at our peril—is that we are living in the richest, the most privileged, and most powerful country in the history of the world. Americans near the bottom of our economic ladder would be considered to be quite well-off, if not wealthy by a huge percentage of the world’s population today, especially in those so-called developing nations, where the only things really being developed, if the truth be known, are largely populations of the poor and marginalized.
And so, looking more closely at today’s Gospel, the question on the mind of all of us who believe ourselves to be practicing Christians is simply put: “How should I be living? How should I be responding in my life to Moses, the prophets, and especially to Jesus, so that I don’t end up after death next to the rich man in today’s parable?” Because all those polls aside about who is in and who is out when it comes to one’s destination after death, the only thing that really matters is just what reality will our eyes open to following our death—assuming there is a life after death? Does the Bible give us any guidance, any blueprint to follow that will lead us after death to wake up in the bosom of Abraham looking down, and not in those hot shoes of the rich man, looking up across that great chasm?
Thankfully, the answer is yes, or that handbasket to hell my Nana used to speak of would be awfully crowded. In fact, while there are any number of blueprints or road maps to those pearly gates, a pretty good one is found in Paul’s first letter to Timothy, which I suggest you take home with you today and put in some prominent place at home. Here’s what Paul says, translated into plain, everyday English: “Teach those who are rich not to be proud and not to put their trust in money, which is unreliable. Their trust should be in God who richly gives us all we really need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good; to be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others.” Paul also states the obvious when in his opening sentence, he reminds Timothy that you really can’t take it with you. “We brought nothing into this world,” says Paul, “so that we can take nothing out of it.” Or, as someone once observed, “I’ve yet to see a hearse pulling a U-Haul.”
If God has blessed you with good fortune in the form of wealth and possessions, then, by all means—enjoy them! Just don’t fall in love with them or get too attached to them. Also, do not forget to be generous in sharing your good fortune with God’s only visible presence here on earth—the Body of Christ, your church. Jesus has made it abundantly clear that God can learn just about all He needs to know about a person’s faith, whether it is a lived faith or merely a talked about faith by their giving—or lack thereof—of themselves and their treasure. While there are many examples of this throughout the Bible, I kind of like Jesus’ simple statement that, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
We often hear it said, especially during the stewardship season—which, if you haven’t guessed by now, we are in--that, “We should give until it hurts,” Personally, I’ve never liked, or used, that phrase, as I think it’s both negative and carries with it the wrong message. I think what Jesus would say is to “Give until it feels good!” Because stewardship is not just a time of year that rolls around every fall. I much prefer the idea that stewardship is everything we say and especially every thing that we do in our lives after we have said Yes to God. In other words, stewardship is not seasonal; it’s year round and life round, following your Baptism. You’ll all be receiving soon some very simple and straightforward information along with a request for your commitment to St. Luke’s in 2020. Please, review it, pray, decide what “giving until it feels good” means for you in 2020, and return it.
I want to conclude today’s message with a short life-lesson from my favorite author, Stephen King, known more for his scary novels than for being quoted in stewardship sermons. It’s from an address he gave some years ago to the graduating class of Vassar College. Years before while walking near his home, King had been struck and almost fatally injured by a mini-van. In his graduation address, he referred both to his accident and to the earning potential of the graduates. “I’ll tell you one thing you’re not going to do, and that’s take it with you. I’m worth, I don’t know how many millions; and a few years ago I found out what ‘you can’t take it with you’ really means. I found out while lying in a ditch on a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out of the leg of my jeans. I had a Master Card in my pocket, but when you’re lying there with broken glass in your hair, it really doesn’t matter how much you can buy with that Master Card. We all know that life is ephemeral; but on that day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life’s simple backstage proofs: We come in naked and broke; and while we may be dressed when we go out . . . we’re going out just as broke.” And how long in between? Just the blink of an eye. King concluded by issuing a challenge to the soon-to-be graduates: “Giving,” he said, “isn’t about the receiver of the gift, but the giver. One doesn’t open one’s wallet to improve the world, although it’s nice when that happens. One does it to improve oneself.” Closing his speech, King issued a challenge to the graduates: “I want you to consider making your lives one long gift to others.”
What a wonderful image this is, not just for Christians, although when we think about it, wasn’t that exactly; isn’t that exactly what Jesus did and is still doing with His life? In his 30+ years on earth and then through His Resurrection, the life of Jesus Christ was and is one long gift to the world. May his example guide each of us next year in the daily use of our earthly mammon and in setting next year’s pledge to our church. May Stephen King’s challenge become a daily morning prayer for each of us that we might be a gift that day to someone, in Christ’s name. Amen.