Monday, September 19, 2022

How To Make Friends In Heaven

September 18, 2022 – The 15th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 20C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 22:25.

Are you a Christian or an Arkansan? An Episcopalian or an American? Do you pledge allegiance to the flag or to God? I hope the answer can be both. Usually, we are able to hold onto both parts of our identity as citizens of this country and children of God’s kingdom without experiencing much conflict between them. One aspect informs the other. We can be both. Just as I am a priest and a husband, a father and a son, an uncle and a sibling, we all experience dual identities that we hold together without even thinking about it—until we have to. Do I cheer for Arkansas or Alabama? Usually, it’s both, but, once a year, I have to choose. Once a year, I must decide where my true allegiance lies.

Today’s gospel lesson is hard to hear in any age, but I think that understanding and applying the parable of the dishonest manager to life in the twenty-first century is even harder than it was back when Jesus first said these words. “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.” In the strange story that follows, Jesus describes a manager who cuts backroom deals with his master’s debtors in order to curry favor with them so that they will take care of him after he is fired. In the end, the owner actually praises the dishonest employee for his shrewdness, and then Jesus offers an even more astounding summary by encouraging his followers to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that, when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” What does any of that mean?

Before I try to pull apart the parable and make sense of it, let me remind you that this passage comes right on the heels of three other parables—those of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two lost sons, also known as the parable of the prodigal son. If you can’t remember the details of those parables, don’t worry. Suffice it to say that Jesus wanted his audience of religious leaders to understand why he always ate with tax collectors and sinners, so he told them three parables of lostness. God is the one who seeks after and finds those who have gone astray. God is the one who always welcomes the lost back into the fold. But, at the beginning of this parable, the audience changes. Instead of speaking to the scribes and the Pharisees, who didn’t like the fact that Jesus’ ministry was a model of this seeking out the lost, Jesus tells this story to his disciples—his followers—as if to remind us what it means to belong to the one who has come and found us.

So what is life as one of Jesus’ disciples supposed to look like—like a dishonest manager, quickly and quietly telling his master’s debtors to cancel large portions of what they owe in order to benefit from that malfeasance down the road? Well, sort of. This isn’t a parable that is supposed to teach us how to run a business or how to cheat and get ahead. But it is supposed to teach us that we should approach our place in God’s kingdom with the same focus, intensity, and urgency that someone who belongs fully to the ways of the world would approach the news that they were about to lose their job. But making sense of this parable requires us to separate the dishonest wealth, which is the currency of this world, from the shrewdness of the manager, which has a place both in this world and in the kingdom to which we belong.

Let’s look more closely at the story Jesus tells. The owner of a large agricultural business has heard that his chief manager is squandering his property. As soon as the manager learns that he must turn in his books and that he will lose his job, he hatches a plan. He tells one of his master’s debtors to change his bill from 100 baths of oil to 50 and another to change what he owes from 100 kors of wheat and make it 80. Those weren’t small amounts but hundreds of gallons and hundreds of bushels, worth tens of thousands of dollars in today’s money. And, because he was his master’s legal agent, those decisions were final. The manager’s dishonesty would surely be discovered, but there was no way for the owner to get his money back.

Part of what makes this parable so hard to understand is how Jesus seems to celebrate that deception. Plenty of scholars have tried to relieve that awkwardness by suggesting that the manager was simply foregoing his commission or eliminating the interest and, thus, making his master look better, but the debts that were cancelled were too large to be an interest charge or a commission. But, if we look carefully at the text, we see that Jesus isn’t actually praising the man’s dishonesty. The owner in the parable commends his manager’s shrewdness, and Jesus likewise encourages his followers to be shrewd as they deal with the dishonest wealth of this world, but the deception isn’t what’s celebrated here. The thing that is being held up for us to emulate is shrewdness—the ability to use the resources at hand to accomplish our goals. The question for us is whose goals are we trying to accomplish with the resources we have been given.

The children of this age, Jesus explains, know exactly how to get what they want with what they have. They know how to use money to manipulate a situation. They know how to make sure that, when the bill comes due, they aren’t standing there emptyhanded. And the tax collectors and sinners who were Jesus’ disciples would have been very familiar with that way of life. They all knew what it meant to belong to this world and to be good at it. It came naturally.

But the children of light—the ones who belong not to this age but to the kingdom of God—aren’t very good at using what resources they have to attain what God envisions for the world. And we aren’t good at it because using the currency of dishonest wealth to achieve godly results doesn’t come naturally at all. Shrewdness and sainthood don’t usually go together, but Jesus wants us to realize that, in fact, they do. For those of us who belong to God and God’s reign, we must—like the manager—use anything and everything at our disposal to accomplish our true purpose, and, because our true home is not in this world but in the world to come, our true purpose can only be to serve God.

We cannot serve God and wealth. We have to choose. Will we try to make enough room for God amidst our financial priorities, or will we trust that there is enough room for us and our flourishing in the kingdom of God to which we must devote all our wealth? If we belong to God—to the one who seeks us out and finds us—all our riches, our relationships, our positions, our power—everything we have in this life must be devoted to God as clearly and cleverly as the manager, who used his position to secure a comfortable place for himself when he was dismissed from his management. 

Because we belong to God, we are not waiting for someone to welcome us into an earthly home. We wait for God to welcome us into the eternal habitations. In this life, our wealth—the inherently dishonest currency of this world—is an opportunity to make friends for ourselves among those whom we know to be seated at God’s table—the poor, the outcast, and the disenfranchised. They are the ones who can welcome us into the eternal homes. So, when you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends, your relatives, or your rich neighbors in case they may invite you in return, and then 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 [when they welcome you] at the resurrection of the righteous.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

The Strange Love of the Cross


September 14, 2022 - Holy Cross Day
Isaiah 45:21-25; Galatians 6:14-18; John 12:31-36a

You know those moments from your past that fill you with embarrassment and shame? Things you said or did that you now look back on and wish you could go back and undo them? I don't dwell on any of them very often, but, every once in a while, when I'm in a particular setting or my mind wanders back through the past until it lands in an uncomfortable spot, I am overwhelmed by that sense of regret. Where do those memories live when they aren't at the front of our mind? What sort of baggage are we carrying around? Why do we keep reburying those things when they pop back up? In the end, when this life is over and we set our burdens down, what do we think happens to them?

Today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Cross. One legend has it that the original cross, the True Cross, on which Jesus was crucified, was discovered by Helena, the mother of Constantine during a missionary journey to found churches and relief agencies in fourth-century Palestine. When taken to the spot on which Jesus was said to have suffered, died, and been buried, Helena saw that a pagan temple stood in on the site. She ordered it to be destroyed and the earth under it to be dug out and carted away. As they dug away the dirt, they discovered three buried crosses, one of which must have belonged to Jesus and the other two to the thieves who hung on either side of him. To determine which once was the True Cross, they brought out a noble woman of the city who had suffered from an illness for many years and caused her to touch each cross. Finally, when she touched the True Cross, her illness was miraculously healed. Helena and her associates established that cross as an object of devotion in what would be come the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, but she took with her the Holy Nails and a few fragments of wood back to Constantinople, where this devoted mother ordered that some of nails be melted down and incorporated into the emperor's helmet and the bridle of his horse for added protection.

I'm not sure that I believe any of that legend, but I am sure that the legend points us to a remarkable and, perhaps, even more important discovery--the transformation of the cross from something we would bury in the ground as a reminder of a shameful death into to something we would venerate as a symbol of our new and everlasting life. We may take it for granted, but that discovery took a little time.

In the first century, the Apostle Paul wrote boldly of the cross of Christ as something in which he boasted--the source of his own transformation--but that wasn't something his readers would have taken for granted. First-century Christians largely did not know what to do with the cross. The earliest iconography and symbology that Christians used omitted the reminder of Jesus' execution. Paul instinctively used the shame of the cross to highlight the glory of God, but a fuller appreciation for how the instrument of shame and death could become a sign of life and hope took a hundred years or so to develop. By the end of the second century, mosaics begin to depict the cross as a reality to celebrate, but the first disciples of Jesus and the generation or two that followed them were so traumatized by the execution of Jesus that they preferred to bury that memory and all signs of it literally in the ground.

To me, that sounds familiar. My instinct is to hide away the reminders of my shame because, on the surface, they represent for me my greatest failures. Those are moments from my past that I would just assume leave behind. And yet a part of me knows that they have to come out--out of the dark, out of the ground, of out me--in order that I might be healed. And the cross of Christ is how they come out without the sting of shame and death.

"When I am lifted up from the earth," Jesus proclaimed, "I will draw all people to myself." This, John tells us, was to indicate the kind of death that we was to die. The confusing, strange, beautiful, counter-intuitive truth of the cross is that, by dying for us, Jesus lifts from us the shame of our own little, painful deaths. If the cross of Christ is the consequence of humanity's brokenness, then the empty tomb shows us that the death of Jesus is also the death of our own death--our own brokenness, our sin. We find salvation, therefore, not in running away from the cross or our own shame that belongs there but by turning toward it, uncovering it, looking at it, and giving it over to the saving power of God.

Because of Jesus, we believe that even our very worst has no power to defeat God and God's forgiving love. Because of Jesus, we believe that the things we most want to hide have already been confronted and defeated by God. We celebrate the cross not because it is an instrument of shame and death but because, though such an instrument, God has redeemed us and healed us and made us whole. Jesus Christ stretched out his arms upon the hard wood of the cross so that all people might come within his saving embrace. 

Which One Of You?


September 11, 2022 – The 14th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 19C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon beginning around 22:00.

Jesus sure did spend a lot of time with sinners. Of all the details in the gospel accounts, Jesus’ preference for spending time with social outcasts and notorious ne’er-do-wells is among the most well-known and reliable. Jesus loved hanging out with troublemakers, and all four gospel writers make a big deal about it. I wonder why Jesus liked spending time with sinners so much. Maybe it’s because they were more fun to be with than the religious leaders of his day. (I can believe that.) Or maybe it’s because Jesus knew that they were the ones who needed saving the most. (I don’t believe that.) Or maybe it’s because Jesus wanted to teach religious folks like you and me something about who God is and how God saves us.

If you think about it, Jesus’s decision to spend all that time with tax collectors and sinners doesn’t make a lot of sense. God is holy. God is faithful. God is righteous. The people at Jesus’ table were the exact opposite of that. Why would the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, the Holy One choose to hang out with people whose lives made it harder for God’s people to recognize God in their midst? God is always for God’s people, but these tax collectors worked for the enemy of God, the Roman Empire. By collecting taxes on behalf of the empire, they helped keep God’s people in its imperial shackles. We tend to dismiss the Pharisees and scribes because we know that members of their religious group were opposed Jesus, but it’s hard to fault them for grumbling about the company Jesus kept. 

If you were trying to build a following of people whom God could use to manifest God’s triumphant power in the world, why would you surround yourself with imperial sympathizers and faithless degenerates? Why? Because those notorious sinners are exactly the ones through whom God’s reign becomes manifest on the earth. Jesus wasn’t eating night after night with people whom polite society had rejected simply because he had sympathy on them. He surrounded himself with outcasts because God’s power comes into this world when those who are lost are found and recovered. And Jesus told some parables about that to make his point. 

“Which one of you,” Jesus began, “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?” There is some debate over whether Jesus’ depiction of the shepherd’s willingness to leave behind the ninety-nine is realistic. We even discussed it in staff meeting this week. Would Jesus’ audience have been surprised to hear that a shepherd would risk losing some or all of the ninety-nine just to search for the one that was lost? By presenting an unrealistic shepherd, is Jesus trying to tell us something shocking about the radical compassion of God? Surely he is, but I’m not convinced that’s the way he wanted to make his point. 

Historians have found secondary sources that describe under what conditions a shepherd would be justified—and thus be held blameless—for leaving an entire flock behind to search for a single lost sheep. As long as the temporary caretaker wasn’t blind or drunk or foolish, the action Jesus describes was considered reasonable and justified. Luke, however, doesn’t elaborate on the circumstances surrounding the shepherd’s decision to leave them behind except to say that he left them in the wilderness. That’s a less-than-comforting description, which may indicate a truly reckless act, but the fact that there were established rules for leaving the sheep behind makes me think that the point of this parable is more nuanced than that and that Luke decided to skip over those details because they weren’t as important.

I am more interested in the way that Jesus presents his parable—with a question that pulls his audience into the heart of his illustration. “Which one of you,” he asked, “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?” Which one of you? Even though the way that Jesus posed his question assumes that anyone who heard it would answer in the affirmative, in this case, the short answer was none of them…because none of the religious leaders he was addressing would have ever imagined themselves as a shepherd.

Shepherds weren’t good people. They were smelly, shady, and poorly behaved. There’s a reason they worked out in the fields, away from everyone else. An ancient proverb says that all shepherds are thieves because they always let their sheep graze on grass that didn’t belong to them. We know that David, before he became Israel’s king, was a shepherd, and we know that the psalmist and some of the prophets dared to liken our God to a keeper of sheep, but those were exceptions that proved the rule. No Pharisee or scribe would have ever deigned to think of himself as a lowly shepherd, and for Jesus to suggest it was the shocking part. That’s the part of the story that no one saw coming—that these good, faithful, religious types would be forced to imagine themselves crawling up and down a hillside, calling out in a most undignified manner for a single lost sheep.

I dare say the same is true for us. I only know one or two parishioners who have any sheep to lose, but, in our case, I don’t think this parable is about sheep. How many of us, having a hundred children in the Head Start program and having one fall behind, would not leave the ninety-nine to learn by themselves in order to get the one that was lost back on track? How many of us, supervising a hundred people on probation and losing one of them, would not stop calling to check on the ninety-nine and go after the one that was lost until we found them? How many of us, having a hundred children in foster care and losing contact with one of them, would not ignore the ninety-nine until we found the one that was lost? 

We belong to a God who searches diligently for each one of us and who rejoices when we have been found, but, even more amazing than that, we belong to a God whose salvation is manifest in this world only when the entire hundred are back together again. This parable isn’t about God seeking out and welcoming a stranger who didn’t belong among the other ninety-nine in the first place. This is about God showing the ninety-nine that they cannot be complete until the one who is missing—the one who has belonged in their midst the entire time but who has been lost to them—has been brought back into the fold. 

How often do we regularly and routinely identify our place in society as one that is linked inextricably to the welfare, inclusion, and prosperity of everyone else around us, especially those who live on the margins of life? How often do we think of God’s saving work not as something that elevates the individual out of whatever spiritual, economic, or physical crisis they endure but as something that brings the one who has been estranged by hardship back into a community that cares for them? If this sounds like a different way of imagining what Jesus’ death and resurrection accomplished, it is.

Jesus came among us and lived and died and was raised from the dead to set us free from the power of sin and death. The work of evil in this world is something that would try to convince us that the community of God’s children can be complete even while some of us are still missing. The isolating power of sin would hide from us the fact that all our lives are fully linked with one another and with God. But thanks be to God that Jesus has defeated those powers that would seek to pull us apart.

If you are here in this church or watching online but feel that you don’t really belong in this place among God’s people—if you feel like a lost sheep hiding in plain sight—then know that Jesus has come to seek you out and find you and bring you back home. And know that we cannot experience God’s saving love without you. And, if you’re here and already know that you belong in this place, then don’t forget that your place among God’s people cannot be complete until everyone is here beside us. 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 you find it? “Which one of you?” Jesus asks.