Benediction Online

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The parable of the dishonest manager.

Amos 8:4-7
Luke 16:1-13

At first glance it’s difficult to know what this parable is about. Instead of being furious that the manager has written off a lot of his receivables, the owner commends him. And astonishingly Jesus seems to approve of him too.

Jesus had a knack for telling memorable stories, and sometimes we forget that they are not allegories, where everything in the story represents something or someone else, but parables. Parables are teaching stories intended to make us see things differently. So we don’t need to try to understand the owner as God or the manager as us or the Pharisees or whoever. Instead let’s listen to the story with as open minds as we can muster.

A manager has been caught cooking the books and is given notice. He doesn’t want to become a manual laborer and begging is beneath him, so he decides to make himself very popular with those who owe money to the business. He calls the customers and gives them hefty discounts so that they will be obliged to him and will support him when he’s unemployed. And when he finds out, his boss approves.

It may help if we look at the context for this story in Luke’s gospel. Just before this Jesus has told three stories about forgiveness. First the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to look for one, then the woman who scours her house looking for one lost coin, and finally the prodigal son. It seems as though Luke is focusing on the question of forgiveness – who gets forgiven? And how much?

The prodigal son gets forgiven even though he has acted outrageously – having squandered his inheritance on wine, women and song he comes crawling back home. And his father welcomes him and isn’t even angry.

That’s a story about God’s grace – God’s incredible willingness to take us back and to give us the gifts of the kindom regardless of what we’ve done or how we’ve behaved. Perhaps this parable is too. The manager gives huge discounts. That’s certainly a picture of God’s grace. We can never earn enough to pay for God’s approval, but we don’t have to – it’s given to us at a huge discount, in fact for free! The manager could expect to get into even worse trouble than he is already, but his boss seems to treat his behavior as an example of savvy business practice, so the manager gets off scot free – that’s surely a picture of grace.

It’s all quite startling. No-one gets what we would expect. Which is the whole point of the gospel. We can let go of the fear and the shame that we carry, because God’s way of doing things is startlingly different. We don’t need to be afraid because, as the New Testament reading mentioned, God “desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”. Everyone.

What difference does it make to us to know that we are forgiven, that we are free? Jesus commends the actions of the dishonest manager – if he can think outside the box and come up with a way to save his skin, how much more can we be creative knowing that we are safe? What risks might we take in following Christ, knowing that ultimately all is well?

After the parable, Luke’s gospel segues into a conversation about money and stewardship. If we do not have to keep grasping and grabbing for ourselves; if we do not have to think about number 1 all the time because God’s already doing that; what difference does it make in how we live?

It means that we can risk being faithful to God even when that means going against the way everyone else thinks. It means that we can risk following gospel values of gentleness, cooperation, forgivingness instead of feeling that we have to compete and push others out of the way. We no longer have to keep tally of who owes us what and who we owe… we can risk living in grace, giving freely and recklessly because we are the children of God and that’s what God’s like.

We tend to confuse God and Santa. Santa is the one who keeps a list and checks it twice. Santa is the one who checks whether you’ve been naughty or nice. God doesn’t keep a list, God knows that we’re human and we sin. It’s part of the package. And through the work of Jesus Christ, God allows us to write off our debts and step back into full fellowship with the divine.

Living in communion with God, aligning our will with hers, is going to make a difference in our lives. Jesus says you can’t serve God and wealth; the prophet Amos who we heard from in the first reading underscores that – if you’re walking with God then you’re not cheating on other people in order to get ahead. But walking with God goes much further than that. If you are walking with God then you don’t need to be afraid of other people attacking you, which means you don’t have to attack them first.

Most of us have inner critics. We are always criticizing ourselves and we’re always criticizing other people. We’re always mentally attacking them. We don’t have to do that any more. In fact as children of the all-compassionate God we get to learn how to stop criticizing. That’s what forgiveness means. That’s what the radical grace that takes our bills and writes them off, calls us to do. To stop criticizing. To stop holding grudges. To stop tallying up what someone else has done or said. To stop tallying up what we have done or said.

This inner bookkeeping has to go. It isn’t Christ-like.

It’s not easy to let go of our negative thoughts about other people. For some of us it’s even harder to let go of our negative thoughts about ourselves. But the two tend to go together.

So here’s a way to start. Think of someone you find particularly annoying. Whoever comes to mind. Most of us won’t have to think very hard!

Make it a daily practice to pray for that person asking that God may make them the grace-filled Christ like being they were made to be. Whenever you find yourself criticizing them or remembering things they have done, ask God to forgive you and help you forgive them. Instead of thinking the angry, critical, negative thoughts remind yourself that they are as precious to God as you are. Whenever you come in touch with them, ask God to help you to see Christ in them.

This isn’t easy, this is mature discipleship. Letting others go free of our criticism and hidden anger challenges the way we have been conditioned to live. Allowing ourselves to fully experience God’s love for us, and allowing ourselves to realize the forgiveness that is ours in Jesus is mature discipleship.

Trusting in God’s radical and abundant grace so that we can become, like God, recklessly giving in every area of our lives, trusting that we will be held in grace, this is mature discipleship. We are the managers of all that God has given us. It is not ours, it is held on trust. Our job is to manage it without fear as beloved Children of a reckless and all-compassionate God.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Following Jesus is not for sissies.

Jeremiah 18:1-11
Philemon 1-21 Luke 14:25-33

Today’s gospel reading is the same one that we have on St Benedict’s day and so it seems to have special significance for us, as the people of St Benedict’s. I find it humorous that Jesus paints a picture of someone who sets out to build a tower, (we might say a church) and doesn’t get his math right in advance so he doesn’t have enough cash to finish it. I imagine that building was rather simpler in his day so that one could be confident in advance how much a project would cost. Even with the relatively small kitchen and bathroom project we’re in the middle of, we’ve had some surprises and have had to ask y’all to dig a little deeper.

But it’s not actually a gospel about building projects. It’s a gospel about discipleship. Jesus was the big celebrity of his day. Wherever he went people followed, curious to see him, eager to hear what he might say and to comment on his actions. A lot of those folk thought it would be cool to be his disciples, so today Jesus is warning that it just isn’t that easy. Our old friend, Lois Felmlee, used to repeat frequently “Getting old isn’t for sissies.” Jesus’ message today can be summed up as “Following Jesus isn’t for sissies”.

Being a disciple is not about going to church to hear an uplifting sermon, sing some great hymns, have a good time with friends and come away feeling warmed. Those things are good and when they happen we praise God. But that’s not what it’s really about.

The reading from Jeremiah has the powerful image of God as the potter. Those of you who have ever taken a pottery class know that clay gets slapped around. You can’t just pick it up and make it into something beautiful, however skilled you are. You have to pummel the clay until it’s soft and malleable then as you work it there are often false starts especially if you’re working on a wheel, so again and again you bash it into a lump and start again until you have the perfect bowl or whatever you’re making. But that’s not the end – you have to let it dry out, glaze it and then fire it in a very hot oven.

Being clay isn’t for sissies. Jeremiah is to tell the people of Israel that God will treat them like his clay. If the church is God’s clay perhaps the upheaval we are going through today with conflict, decline and uncertainty is one of those breaking down times before the new pot starts to be made. If you and I are God’s clay… well, what can I say? Being clay isn’t for sissies.

The second reading was from the rather odd little letter to Philemon. This was probably included in the New Testament because it is a letter from Paul, but unusually it’s a letter to one individual, Philemon. Philemon owned slaves and one of them had run away. Normally that he would receive a severe punishment if he were caught, but Onesimus had connected with Paul and had become a son to him. So this letter is to ask Philemon to accept him back as a brother and in love, not in anger and punishment.

What a lot to ask! What was Philemon to do? What would his friends think if he didn’t punish this runaway slave? What would it do for morale among his other slaves? If they saw there were no repercussions, perhaps they’d all start running away. But how could he go against the apostle’s wishes? Did his new faith really demand that he let his slave walk all over him and come back scot-free?

God often asks us to do things and to allow things that seem wrong to us. Our little egos have definite ideas of what’s fair and what isn’t. Our little egos have definite ideas of how the world should be, and they are willing to defend their ideas at all costs. Runaway slaves should be punished. Period. Our society has definite ideas of what the good life is and even in the face of evidence that we are destroying our planet, we go on defending our way of life. Slave owners are powerful, slaves need strong discipline. Period.

My friend Chuck said to me yesterday, “It takes courage to play the hand you’re dealt”. I think he’s right. Each one of us finds ourselves in situations which are only partially of our own making. They are the results of decisions we have made, but they are also just the way things turned out and the result of God pummeling the clay. Philemon didn’t expect that his new faith would create such a quandary. Onesimus never imagined he’d be going back to his old master. I never expected to be a priest in California.

Often there are things about “the hand we’re dealt” that we don’t like and we fight against them, we lament, we complain and even become bitter. Discipleship is picking up our cross and carrying it. Discipleship is accepting that what we have is what we have, what has happened is what has happened, and asking for God’s grace to live serenely and fully in God’s amazing love.

God’s love is able to transform us and the hand we’ve been dealt. When we give it to her. And that’s not easy for us humans because it takes humility. It takes asking every day, “Not my will but thine be done”.“Have thine own way Lord, have thine own way. Thou art the potter, I am the clay.”

The more we are able to turn things over to God, the more we will experience the joy of God’s abundant life welling up inside us bringing new hope. Jesus warns us - Discipleship is not for sissies. It is not an easy road, it has many unexpected twists and turns, but it is the road which brings us the greatest joy and the greatest life, because it is the road we were made to walk. We can depend on God’s overflowing love to hold us and comfort us even when we are being pummeled.

Often people tell me “I know this happened for a reason”. We want to make sense of our lives, and especially our losses and griefs, so we look for a reason. We need look no further. Thou art the potter, we are the clay.

Following Jesus is not for sissies.