Monday, September 24, 2007

Sermon from Sunday, September 23

Based on Luke 16:1-9 (read it here: )

A couple weeks ago, I had an initiation into suburban parenthood. The Chester County Library has storytime for kids ages 1-6. This was the first year that Gracie was eligible to go to storytime, and Jill and I thought it would be convenient to go there as sometimes I could take her when I was down at the office, and sometimes Jill could take her if I had another commitment.
Now, in my experience, storytime at the library is a fairly laidback sort of activity; you might come one week and not the next, and there may be a group of six parents and kids on any given week. I soon found that this was not the case at the Chester County Library, but that storytime was a rather high-powered event.
Our first clue that we were out of our league came when Jill picked up a flyer about storytime and it said (in bold print, no less) that signups for storytime would be on Tuesday, Sept. 4 at 9:30 AM. Apparently, if you came long after 9:30, you could forget storytime. Sure enough, I showed up at 9:32 and the line snaked from the back of the library all the way out the front door. Fortunately, many of those in front of me had kids older than 1, so there still were spots available for 1-year-old storytime. Still, by about 9:45 when I finally got to sign Gracie up, she was the 13th 1-year-old signed up for storytime.
I think the thing that most surprised me about the sign-up day was how nervous we all looked. Lots of us suburban dads and moms lined up, hoping we can get our kids into storytime; all of us jittery, hoping we get our place. (Some of us were jittery just because of that, and some of us had our hands wrapped around large Starbucks coffees that made us even more jittery.)
Everyone looked nervous. Mothers with three-year-olds stood on their tiptoes to look over the people in front of them and tried to count the three-year-olds in front of them to try to figure out if there would be room for little Tommy. Fathers glanced behind them to make sure no one was trying to sneak ahead of them in line. At first I thought all this was rather funny; but then, I found myself doing the same thing. Looking ahead of me to see how many kids looked like they were one year old, constantly weighing the odds in my head of Gracie getting into storytime. Looking behind me to be sure no wicked little one-year-olds would come along and snatch my rightful place in line. The nervousness of the place infected me.
There are two words that come clearly to mind when I think about my morning at the library, and these are words that I’m afraid somewhat define our suburban experience: control and defensiveness. There was a desire among all of these parents to be in control of the situation. While we were waiting in line, we were out of control and so we fidgeted and looked around. We desperately wanted to be in front of the line so we could sign our little angels up and have control over the situation again. And our desire for control made all of us parents quite defensive. We protected our spots in line; we kept conversations with each other short and surfacey; it was not a time to make new friends, it was a time to circle the wagons and protect our turf.
As I said, these words, control and defensiveness, can define the suburban experience. Control and defensiveness tend to be issues whenever people have a good deal of money. I say that as a relatively wealthy person myself. There are those who say that it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, being a Christian is a matter of what you believe; and of course in a sense that is true. But you can’t get past the fact that those who have a lot generally are tempted with control and defensiveness a lot more than those who have little. When you have a lot, you are constantly tempted to control and defend it in ways the poor simply are not tempted.
This passage is one of the most difficult parables to interpret because it seems so strange. It almost looks as if Jesus is looking at the dishonest man as the good guy, doesn’t it? St. Augustine, one of the great early saints and theologians of the church, once said, “I cannot believe this came from my Savior’s lips.” Indeed, we see Jesus saying, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth…” and it does make us scratch our heads a little bit. Now I don’t want to pretend that I fully understand the parable or that this sermon should be the last word on it; but I want to give you a little glimpse into my insights on this parable.
I tell you the story of my time at the library because I think this parable speaks to the two issues I saw on display so clearly at the library and in our own lives: control and defensiveness. Control and defensiveness.
First, this parable has a real grasp on the reality of how limited human control of any situation really is. As Jesus tells the story, there is a rich man who had a manager, a person who ran his estate for him. And apparently, this manager is not doing a great job. We don’t know the details exactly, but the man is not doing a great job as manager. And so the man calls him up and says, “You’re fired. You cannot be my manager any longer.” Boom. Just like that, the man loses his job, probably his home (since he likely lived at the estate), and his identity as the manager. One minute, he is a man with a good job and standing in the community, even if he’s not the best at what he does. But the next minute, he’s in the bread line with all the other beggars, not sure where his next meal is going to come from. In the days before good labor laws, the world worked that way; no notification necessary, no severance pay, no advanced warning, no nothing: you’re fired. That’s it. Nice to know you. Enjoy the rest of your life.
It sounds harsh, and by modern standards, it certainly is harsh. I’m glad there are laws that protect employees from abuse at the hands of their employers these days. But even though things like this don’t usually happen quite so suddenly with jobs these days, we all know that similar things happen like this in every life: one day we are one person, sitting on top of the world, enjoying life, and then something happens and suddenly—boom!—something happens and the illusion that we are in control just bursts. If you haven’t experienced yet, ask the person who discovers they have cancer. Or the one who has lost a friend or loved one suddenly. Or the one who suffers through a hurricane. In each of our lives, sometimes life just happens; and even though we used to feel powerful, we become aware that we are not the ones calling the shots.
This parable is very honest about that fact. We are not the rich man; we are just the manager. And so while we may be under the illusion that we are in control, life has a way of ripping that illusion away. This is a vital thing for us suburbanites to remember. Control is so important to us. We don’t ride public transit—we take our cars. Why? We like to be in control of getting places. We don’t like living in apartment complexes, where there could be noisy or smelly neighbors; we like living in single-family houses where we can be more in control of our surroundings. And people trying to sell you everything from burgers to banks to Beemers promise us more of an individualized experience, where we can be in control of the things we get. Our culture has a lot invested in making us believe we are in control, and value being in control. But this parable comes in and like a bolt out of the blue reminds us that we can be laid low at any time, that control is fleeting. It may sound harsh to say that, but it’s good to be reminded so it doesn’t surprise us and devastate us.
The other piece that this parable points us to is defensiveness. Our desire for control makes us defensive of our turf when we are threatened, and lash out at those who we perceive are responsible for the threat. If someone cuts us off in traffic, we curse them at least in our hearts, if not with our mouths. If someone tells us that we are wrong about something, instead of asking if they are right, we try to find reasons why that person is wrong and lash out at them, at least in our hearts, if not with our mouths. If neighbors move in who disrupt the quiet of our neighborhoods, we lash out at them, at least within our four walls, if not to their faces.
This tendency toward angry self-defensiveness is deeply entrenched in the way we act and think. Yet nothing could be further from the ideal if we want to follow Christ. He was the one who was never self-righteously angry, and never defended his own rights at all, but willingly gave himself away completely. He was the one who said his followers should do the same thing: “If anyone wants to follow me, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.”
Look at the steward in this parable. Whether or not you think what he did was a good thing, look at what he did when he was threatened. He did not sit around and lash out at the man who caused him pain. Instead, he took constructive action. The first thing he says is, “What will I do?” And he goes around to the people who owed his master. And to the first guy, he says, “How much do you owe my master?” And the guy says, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” And he says, “Here, quick, make it fifty.” Then he went to another guy and says, “How much do you owe?” And the guy says, “A hundred containers of wheat.” And he says, “Quick, make it fifty.” Rather than lashing out, the man reaches out. Rather than making a bad situation worse by cursing the manager who fired him, he took action. And as one preacher put it when he talked about this text, the man took the bad hand he had been dealt and did some wheeling and dealing in faith that some good could still come out of this.
But it is not merely the fact that you should do something constructive when you are threatened that matters. It also matters what you do. Now, I want to share with you an insight I have into the parable that it seems most commentators do not share. So I guess I am one of the few people who sees this parable this way. I don’t say that proudly, because often when you’re thinking of something unique, you’re thinking wrong. So you’re welcome to disagree with me if you want.
But I think this parable is at least in part an allegory. An allegory is a story where the characters in the story represent other people. Parables are often allegories; the Prodigal Son, for instance, is an allegory. The father is meant to represent God; the prodigal son represents the person who has run away from God but wants to come home; the faithful but bitter elder son represents the religious elite who were so proud of themselves but not willing to be happy when others came to know God. Often, in allegorical parables, God is depicted as a master or a rich man who entrusts some of his property to a hired hand, who represents the religious elite of the day. In the parable of the Vineyard, for instance, the story is told of a rich man who owns a vineyard and hires tenants to take care of it. The master sends a servant to collect his produce, but the tenants seize the servant and kills him. This happens time and time again. Finally, the master says, “I keep sending servants and they keep killing them. Certainly they would respect me if I sent my son” so he sends his son and the tenants kill him too. This parable is an allegory; the rich man is God, and the tenants are the religious authorities; the servants that the rich man sends are the prophets, and the son who they kill is Jesus. The parable is an allegory, a sort of code.
I think this parable could be understood in the same way, that it’s not just an illustration, but a commentary on our relationship to God. Do you notice in the parable how the rich man is only happy with the manager when he starts forgiving debts? Why on earth would the rich man be happy when this man goes out and gives away so much of his stuff? That doesn’t sound like any rich man I know; you don’t get rich by cutting people’s debts in half, you get rich by squeezing money out of people and defending your turf, not giving away anything that’s rightfully yours. Doesn’t this sound not like an earthly rich man, but like God?
Perhaps the message of the parable is that when our carefully built suburban houses of cards start to collapse, when life happens and we are dealt a blow, it is then that we must reflect God’s generosity to the world. It is natural in these times for us to look inward, to worry, to be paralyzed, to defend what we’ve got, to tend to ourselves; but it is God’s desire for us in that moment to look beyond ourselves and tell the world, “Don’t you know how good my master is? He forgives debts, he wants you to know that the debt you owe him will not crush you, but he forgives. When life whacks you over the head, when it’s your instinct to look inward, it’s then you must look outward to tell others how much God loves them and how you love them with the love of God.
I once knew a church located in a changing neighborhood. Once a prosperous resort town, public housing projects moved in in the 1960s and the neighborhood changed drastically. Some old-time residents said the neighborhood had gone to pot. Some said it had gone to hell. Some said things that can’t be repeated here. Many of the old-time residents and church members moved out to nearby towns. Still, they were members of the church and came back to the old town every week to have church. But they were totally estranged from the town around them. They no longer knew, or cared to know, the people who lived around the church. A town which had changed ethnically and financially was simply not of interest to them. No doubt life came in and dealt this church a blow: the town was going to change. But they retreated inward instead of looking outward and imagining how things could be different, imagining how some good could come out of this. One supposes they could have become a multi-ethnic church, pioneering a new way of doing ministry in a new town. Instead, the desire to blame others rather than solve problems paralyzes them to this day. They looked inward when they could have looked out and it cost them so much spiritually.
As we have said, those times when life knocks us down a peg will come. They come for all of us. What would happen if we looked at them differently? What would happen if we weren’t so concerned with defending ourselves and turning inward—what would happen if we turned outward? What would happen if we reacted to disaster constructively rather than destructively? What if the trials we all fear became an occasion to reach out and love the world? What if?