Sunday, September 23, 2001

Faith Handles Change

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 16: 1-13


Before us today stands Jesus Christ, robed in mystery and announced in a strange parable. There is no easy interpretation for this parable. Why is its hero, my favorite accountant, commended for dishonesty, which is a breach of the ninth commandment? We do not know. Why is his master happy to be cheated? We cannot say. Why is an accountant's swindle upheld, in this parable here attributed to Jesus, as a preparation, somehow, for heaven? No one can tell. What, please, does verse 9, as tangled in the Greek as it is in your bulletin, intend? We do not see. What possible connection is there between the story, and the four trailing proverbs? Little at all, except that they all deal with money. How did this mess make it into Luke's travel narrative? It is not clear. Is this dishonest manager our role model, in the church, as we try to "manage wealth in the direction of justice?" (Ringe) Perhaps! And, most of all, where is Jesus, The Divine Mystery Incarnate, to be found in our reading today?

For some weeks we have ridden hard for three points a sermon. We will rest the horse a minute, a little feed and little water. Easy big fella. Get well soon, we said: Healing in Christ, and healing in society, and healing in people. The lamp of the poor we cried: Christ, church, disciple. Meet sin again, we implored: Sin is personal, sin is pervasive, Christ saves us from sin. Three points, and a poem. But the horse is tired. And our fellow bandits, interpreters Craddock and Ringe and Tittle, are tired too, at least in reference to this passage. I continue to curse the lectionary. The parable of the dishonest steward has really just one meaning, and it is very good news.

1. L'Etranger

For the mystery of Jesus Christ falls upon us, approaches us, and enchants us, when and where we least expect Him. In the strange world of the Bible. In the midst of the community of strangers that is the Church. Hidden in the brutal estrangement of our personal life. Here, behold, the Lord Christ Jesus, "L'Etranger".

Contrary to much preaching, televised and popular today, his presence is neither simple, nor surface, nor easy, nor fundamental, nor shallow, nor ideological, nor one dimensional, nor ahistorical, nor primarily political. He draws us, lures us, and enchants us. So he sets us free.

For St. Luke has captured a collage of portraits of Jesus, "On the Road". We are on a journey, as Luke reminds the church. We are making a trip to the promised land. We are headed in a certain direction. With our spiritual forebears, we are traveling, on a journey. Israel left Canaan to go to Egypt to find bread. There they became the slaves of Pharaoh. But Moses led them out, parted the Red Sea, and guided them through the wilderness. He brought them the ten commandments. At last, he sent them forth, with Joshua, to inhabit the land flowing with milk and honey. In such a glorious land, they hunted and farmed. They even built a temple, and chose a King. Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon reigned, but were followed by others less wise and less strong. Although the prophets did warn them, the children of Israel left their covenant and their covenant God, and at last suffered the greatest of defeats, the destruction of Jerusalem and the return to slavery in Babylon, 587bc. Cried Jeremiah, "O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep, night and day, for the slain of my poor people." (9:1) Like Israel marching in chains to Babylon, and then trudging home again two generations later, we people of faith are on a journey, from slavery to freedom.

Luke's mysterious Christ meets us today, hidden in the calamity of unexpected change and economic crisis. On the road, the journey of faith, Luke has most to say, and Jesus most regularly addresses the issue of money. Remember how Luke traces the Gospel. Mary in the Magnificat honors the poor. John the Baptist preaches justice, in the great, unique tradition of the Hebrew prophets, from Amos forward. Isaiah's words and hopes are affirmed. Jesus blesses the poor, not just the poor in spirit, in his 'sermon on the plain'. Remember the parable of the 'rich fool', "tonight is your soul required of you, and these riches, whose shall they be?" Luke sets Christian discipleship at odds with, in contest with, anxiety about possessions. And in conclusion, meet Lazarus and Dives. Jesus Christ calls us to manage our possessions toward justice, both as a church and as individuals.

2. An Initial Personal Application

But you may wonder whether this parable speaks to you, especially if you are in financial calamity. Along Luke's Jerusalem road, Jesus has a healing word to say about possessions, money, wealth.

To me it is clear that the chief communal issue before Luke's (Antioch?) congregation was the management of wealth. This means that they had money. This also means that they did not immediately throw it away. This further means that they reasoned that the apocalypse of the end was not so very near that no financial planning was necessary. This additionally means, as Luke's writing shows, that they were trying to learn to become prudent, astute, imaginative, shrewd, clever, insightful, accountable, interpreneurial managers. So they are reminded, in argument from less to more: "Keep faith in the little things, to be ready for the big ones." An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. "Be faithful with money, which belongs to God, so that you will become faithful in soul, which belongs to you." A stitch in time saves nine. "Do your pre-season training with possessions, so that you will be ready for the regular gridiron season of the spirit." Look before you leap. Be penny wise, not pound foolish.

In other words, "use possessions so as to gain, not to lose, your future" (Craddock). Be creative. "For all the dangers of possessions, it is possible to manage goods in ways appropriate to life in the Kingdom of God" (Ringe). Remember that you are a manager of someone else's accounts, an absentee landlord who has a claim. And go ahead, be clever. Be creative and loyal, but if you have to choose - be creative.

3. The Gospel of the Dishonest Manager

The deeper truth in this passage, though, is simply that faith handles change. Faith carries the power to master the vicissitudes of change. Ultimately, this parable cannot be interpreted along moral, or economic, or even political lines. So read, it makes no real sense. Luke has gone ahead to read the parable so, in part, by appending the four parables about fiduciary fidelity. We have honored his teaching. But the parable itself says something else. Like the mystery of Christ itself, the story is not moral but mystical, not theoretical but theological, not law but grace. It is good news.

The good news is that faith handles change. A man gets the pink slip, and leaves under suspicion, with the sheriff on the way. He is looking at doing time. He is on the lamb. He is headed for jail, prison, the lockup, the pokey, hoosegow, calaboose, the slammer, the joint, the tank, in stir, goin' up the river, doin' time, in the brig, the gray bar hotel, the big house, the can. (Isn't language wonderful? As the steel magnolias said, "accessorize - it's the only thing that separates us from the animal kingdom". I would add speech.) He is not a moral exemplar. But just as his ingenuity handles the sudden change in his circumstance, so the powerful grace of faith, the faith of Jesus Christ, handles the constant change of life. Faith manages change, masters change. So Paul can shout, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me and the life I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me." (Gal. 2:20). The faith of Jesus Christ, working heteronomously through life, handles change. Faith is nimble, not flatfooted; agile not stolid; creative not loyal; shrewd not complacent; quick not quiescent; fast not slow.

Notice what my favorite accountant does not do. He does not pray, go to temple, seek ministerial counsel, bellyache, celebrate his victimhood, join the choir, or leave it all up to Jesus. He does not say, 'let Go let God'. Unlike Jerry Falwell this week, he does not claim that God has done this to him. In fact, the faith here acclaimed has no religious clothing at all. No, he does none of that. Rather, he responds, shrewdly. He finds the faith to handle change, and lives the faith that handles change. Change is real hard, and real good. Like life, like love, like faith, like…any of the things of God.

Of course, this week, I cannot help think of the young father, RIT graduate, and others on the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. Somehow, amid sudden and calamitous change, they found the courage to act in a way that, at least in part, handled change. They even had the presence of mind to call home first. Faith handles change. I cannot help think of the men who carried a person in a wheelchair down dozens of flights of stairs. Faith handles change. I cannot help think of the several firemen's boots you have put dollars into. Faith handles change (literally). I cannot help think of Mayor Giuliani, in his finest hour. Faith handles change. I cannot help mention our President, who found a grand phrase when he needed it, this young leader of such few words: "We shall meet violence with patient justice." Beautiful. Subject, verb, predicate. May our actions be as eloquent as that old Yankee sentence. Faith handles change. The faith of Jesus Christ, our salvation, does not fear to change, nor does faith fear change. Faith manages change. This is the grace and beauty of church meetings. You can see this ordinary grace at work in most church meetings, where faith is called upon to handle change.

It makes you wonder whether there is collectively an unforeseen, creative, shrewd response to our changed circumstance as a people. How to meet violence with patient justice…hmmm…in the trust that faith handles change. This is the faith of Jesus Christ, apart from which all else is sin.

Keep this portrait of the shrewd manager in your wallet, especially for the days your wallet is empty. He meets the report of his mismanagement, itself possibly false, with calm. He does not try to change the world, or this news. He raises the basic question with courage: "What shall I do?" He thinks creatively, acts enterpreneurially, communicates astutely, relates cleverly, strategizes shrewdly...and lands on his feet. When the cheese moves, he does too. And Jesus commends him, I guess. And Luke commends him, I guess. And even his old boss commends him, I guess. You can't help but love the guy.

And I have no idea what verse 9 means.

Sunday, September 16, 2001

On Meeting Sin Again for the First Time

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Luke 15:1-10


Today our hearts are heavy. With our children, and with the world's human family, we have had to watch the sinful, terrorist destruction of a part of our one city, New York.

It recalls the night, July 1977, our first year of marriage, in which we stood atop the Union Seminary roof and looked out at a completely darkened New York, shut down by the blackout of that hot summer weekend. Not a light burning, save the cabs rocketing down Broadway. Like the darkness of sin which is our natural condition, East of Eden.

It further recalls an evening in the Union Seminary quadrangle, June 1979. The President made an effort to mention something personal about each graduate. Of me, he said, I thought it odd at the time, "we shall miss Bob's love of New York". He was remembering, I guess, a poem I had written about walking from Battery Park, underneath where the World Trade Center once was, north, and gradually, to Spanish Harlem. Wall Street. The West Village. Soho. Times Square. Columbus Circle. Central Park West. Morningside Heights. A city of such lust, avarice, pride, like the sin which the Scripture describes, yet one that in the autumn is as dazzling in color and sound and life as any place on earth. (The stickers for our children last week, the Van Gogh prints, came from 54th street, the Museum of Modern Art.) In heaven it is always autumn, said John Donne. And in New York the autumn is just heavenly. Which has made this week's attack all the more hellish.

Perhaps it is fitting that this week's lesson presents Jesus, in his primary colors, not as teacher of righteousness, but as savior of sinners. Perhaps this is one week, maybe the best week in my 24 pension years of ministry, to think about sin. Maybe we are ready to meet sin again for the first time. For when, only when we have brought ample appreciation to the nature and power of sin, will we ever be able amply to appreciate the grace of God in Christ, who has come into the world to save us from our sin, both collective and personal. Once we have met sin again for the first time, we may be ready to meet Jesus again for the first time. For "where sin abounds, grace over abounds".

Truth to tell, we do not use well or regularly the verb "to sin", the noun "sin", or the related personification "sinner". Our use of these words, in general, lacks any significant confidence or regularity. As Gardner Taylor so memorably said 25 years ago, "sin may be out of our personal lexicons, but it is not out of our lives". In 24 years of ministry, I cannot recall a single week in which such a consideration of sin would have been more timely than this week terror and loss.

For the most part, the word resides outside of our regular vocabularies, at least our workday verbal wardrobe. The word does not seem to fit well, any longer. It droops in the midrift, and the collar, ever stiff, runs high and starchy. Thoreau said, "nature is right, but man is straight". Sin is neither, neither right nor straight, and so the word is ill-fitting. This puts us worlds apart from the author of the Third Gospel, for whom the word (verb, noun, all) carries a meaning so readily clear that it needs (much to our later misunderstanding and consternation) no definition or clarification. Luke says "sinner" with the same unselfconsciousness that we would use with words like felon, patient, criminal, or victim. What does it mean? What does this ancient word, propped for a moment on the lips of the Lord, tell us about the hidden, mysterious, strange Jesus of this far too familiar set of stories?

1. Scripture

a. It is curious that church-wide (for the most part), the other numinous oddities of language in Luke 15 we do understand and use. We hear you use these great words, and use them well. One says to his son, in the pew, as the Scripture is read, "I remember—a parable is a story with a message, and I remember that Jesus always taught using parables. He taught by telling stories. These parables were set in the countryside, and were about people and about justice. Jesus taught adults with simple stories." You understand 'parable'. Someone else, driving home today, interprets the word 'joy' for her rider: "Joy is God's delight, given us by God's spirit. You is one of the footprints, hallmarks, earmarks, landmarks, benchmarks of the Holy Spirit. What pleasure is to the body, joy is to the soul." I might have thought that 'repentance' would throw you, but no. In the choir, disrobing, an alto tells a bass, "Repentance means to turn around, to head home, to dust off and try again, like that story about the son and the pigs." And angel means messenger, and presence means joy, and heaven means the message of the presence of joy. You have passed, and more the Scriptural SAT, to this point.

b. But what is a sinner, and what does this tell us about the grand mystery of Christ? Our passage holds itself several clues, but finally the two fundamental meanings for 'sin' we shall have to intuit, congruent with Luke's usage, from the rest of the Bible. For Luke uses the word as if we all did know what he meant. And maybe after this week, we clearly do.

Here are some random clues, found in Luke 15:1-10. A sinner is somehow a cousin to a tax collector, one who represents, that is, an alien unjust power, who inflicts that power for ill upon the children of God, and who yet has a conscience with which to listen and draw near to God (vs. 1).

A sinner, next, is one whom Christ Jesus welcomes and with whom Jesus shares the intimacy of the common table (vs. 2).

Jesus comes for others, as Paul said, "the saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost". A sinner, primarily here and also in the later account of the Welcoming Father, is lost, dislocated, and alone. For this reason, then, a sinner found is the cause of inexpressible delight, joy. Including the lonely, discovering the dislocated, reconnecting with the disappeared—these moments provide a heavenly joy, a consequence of the discovery of the sinner (vs.7)

c. Luke trusts, as he recalls or recasts or casts these parables out of his own past, that there is a divine purpose coursing through history, building the church, propounding the Gospel, and saving the lost, and gradually and expensively and individually finding people who have been lost in the rubble of life, darkened and dislocated by sin. But what is sin?

2. Personal Sin

In the first place, sin is utterly personal. This we understand. The covenantal commands of the decalogue have a personal consequence (Exodus 20). For we confess, too a personal dimension to the apocalyptic sway of sin. The angels in heaven—and perhaps a few others—may "need no repentance". As grace touches ground in Jesus Christ, sin touches sand in personal confessions. We get lost. It is our nature, east of eden. We get lost in sex without love: lust. We get lost in consumption without nourishment: gluttony. We get lost in accumulation without investment: avarice. We get lost in rest without weariness, in happiness without struggle: sloth. We get lost in righteousness without restraint: anger. We get lost in desire without ration or respect: envy. And most regularly, we get lost in integrity without humility: pride. If you have never known lust, gluttony, avarice, sloth, anger, envy or pride you are not a sinner, you are outside the cloud of sin, and you need no repentance. (You also may not be quite human).

3. Pervasive Sin

a. In the second place, sin is pervasive. (On this point, today's sermon bears down, because its sibling is so much better understood.) Sin has a corporate, expansive, even institutional reality. We mistake its power, if we see only, say, several dozen individuals acting to destroy property and life in lower Manhattan. That of course is real, and true. But sin is the power of death, throughout life. Sin is the condition of life under which such treachery takes place. Sin is the absence of God. Sin is an orb of confusion in the world. Sin is the advance or retreat of a great thunderstorm, a frontal advance, though theological not meteorological. Sin is like a city blacked out, a power far beyond any individual lamp turned down, any individual light switch hit. Sin is a shadow, the one great shadow. Whatever is not of faith, is sin. And that is quite a lot in this world. All have sinned and all have fallen short of the glory of God. All. Sin is the air we breathe. Sin is the architectural design for our natural state, east of eden. Sin is the controlling legal authority of our being. Sin is the occupying army that has our beloved homeland, love, under siege. Hence, sin is the knock at the garret door, late at night, and the thud of the storm troopers' boots, and suicide bombing of the terrorist. Sin is a force, a wind, a phalanx, a competing entity. Sin is all that mutes the voice. Do we blame sheep for being lost—hardly by the way a comprehensively intelligent beast—for getting lost? It is his nature. Do we blame the coin—inanimate, hardly noticeable—for getting lost? It is Isaac Newton's gravity at work. But we only sin clearly when we are ready to see it, by revelation, and often only once we have left its borders behind. Like all lasting reality, we know it in retrospect. Read again the works of William Stringfellow.

b. That is, the power of sin vastly surpasses any individual, human attempt at cure. You might as well try to stop a reeling boat hoist wheel, holding 2000 lbs, with your bare arm. It is just that impossible, that foolish. Individuals may behave morally or imorally, usually some of both. But corporate sin marches on, R Neibuhr showed in 1932: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary". Sin is that 'inclination'. "If social cohesion is impossible without coercion, and coercion is impossible without the creation of social injustice, and the destruction of injustice is impossible without the use of further coercion, are we not in an endless cycle of social conflict?" Sin is that 'impossible'. As a rule, in American Protestant Christianity, we vastly underestimate this primary, pervasive form of sin. This is both our achievement and our defeat.

Perhaps the stock market symbolism may work again for us, 70 years later. The power of sin is as free before any single individual, as is the stock market before any lone investor. The market moves due largely to corporate, institutional, fiduciary choices, which themselves are not influence by individual courage, but first by the fiduciary responsibility of corporate officers, thinking of and for the collective. The same is tragically true of nation states, and alliances. They march to the beat of a different drum. The chief weakness of my beloved Methodism, so American and so optimistic, is its congenital naivete about pervasive sin.

While it took individuals to knock down the twin towers and kill thousands, it took more than individuals, too. That 'more' is sin.

Getting rid of males or females will not destroy sin, nor the exodus of caucasians, nor the ostracism of the wealthy, nor the browbeating of heterosexuals. Sin is a pervasive, brute, existential reality, which does not give ground before any merely ideological assualt. As Wesley, "sin remains even when it does not reign."

Sin traps us in an endless cycle of social conflict. For this theological reason, some US response to Tuesday's heinous crime is probably inevitable. We may hope that as a nation we shall have the courage not to overreact, and, indeed not to react at all, but to respond. It is devilishly difficult not to overreact when you have been humiliated, even as an individual, and perhaps impossible for a collective. But let us hope not to react, but to respond, and to respond justly, mercifully, humbly, prudently, rightly, and effectively.

That is, if we are to use force to bring order and protect peace, then may it be force that does not create more disorder and less peace.

If we are tragically to find military action necessary to address a clear and present danger, then may it be action wisely chosen that makes danger less present rather than more.

Let us summon the faithful courage of collective patience, and take our time. We have all the time we need.

We recognize that there are times when force, alone, is the required and necessary response (December 1941), but that there are also times when force is wrongly used and unnecessary (August 1998), bringing only further retribution. Not to have responded to Hitler militarily in 1941 would have been as lasting a collective sin upon the conscience of this country as we could imagine. We may be entering such a time, both similar in tragedy and different in scope.

May we respond with courage, not react with vengeance, as, in Christ, we grapple with pervasive sin.

Christus Victor

Luke's little stories assume a recognition of sin, pervasive and personal. You know, it takes a while in life to know what you are up against. Once you begin to see, you begin to appreciate. Once you see the reality of sin, you can appreciate the awesome gospel, "Christ died for our sin." You come to yourself. But that is another, nearby, parable. Once we have fully met sin again for the first time, we may also meet Jesus again for the first time. Not the Jesus of Marcus Borg's self-portrait (wisdom teacher, religious mystic, social prophet), but the Jesus of Luke's Gospel. Jesus Christ is not a teacher, only, but a Savior, a Lord. And his grace, alone, carries enough power to grapple with sin, pervasive and personal. That is why, on this Lord's day, with heavy hearts, and nostrils still full of the stench of body parts in lower Manhattan, we may yet lift our heaviness to God. Sursum corda! Lift up your hearts.

We have much to do. Jane Addams said it of our nation, but her insight now fits our world: "The blessings which we associate with a life of refinement and cultivation must be made universal if they are to be permanent. The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in midair, utnil it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life". How prophetic her words do sound this week.

Have faith, people of faith.

Terror may topple the World Trade Center, but no terror can topple the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, hub of global economies may fall, the economy of grace still stands in the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, communications nexus for many may fall, but the communication of the gospel stands, the World Truth Center, Jesus Christ.

The World Trade Center, legal library for the country may fall, but grace and truth which stand, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, symbol of national pride may fall, but divine humility stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The World Trade Center, material bulwark against loss may fall, but the possibility in your life of developing a spiritual discipline against resentment (Niehbuhr) still stands, through the World Truth Center, Jesus the Christ.

The soul that on Jesus still leans for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to his foes
That soul though all Hell should endeavor to shake
I will never, no never, no never forsake.

Wednesday, September 12, 2001

Good to Hear Your Voice

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: John 15: 1-5, 12-17

We are a people drenched in sorrow. Our fears for the future, for our loved ones and country, take root in the tragedy of yesterday's events. Our outrage, our anger, at the spectacle of the murder of innocents, smolders just underneath this sorrow. Our desire for justice, coupled with our recognition of our own many shortcomings as individuals and as a people, has its birth in this sorrow. We are a people drenched in sorrow.

So we have come together, just for a little while, to be silent together, to sing and pray, and to grieve a sorrowful loss: of innocent life, of reliable security, of defensible freedom. Some have died, others have lost loved ones, but we all have been violently violated. We need to see one another, and to hear each others voices.

I am increasingly impressed by just how much depth and meaning lies latent in the simplest of daily phrases. "Have a good day." "Get well soon." These simple lines have profound significance. As does our often repeated commendation, "Good to hear your voice."

Tonight we have our ecumenical, East Avenue friends and clergy. It is good to see you and hear your voices.

We are honored by the presence of our Bishop. It is good to see her and hear her voice.

Our interfaith coalition has brought a printed word, and that voice too is helpful.

I could not help notice, yesterday, at home and in the office and around town, as people called to check with loved ones, they often ended the conversation by saying, "it's just good to hear your voice." It is our most personal characteristic, our voice. A daughter or son's voice, far away but safe. A brother or uncle's voice, near danger but delivered. A friend's voice, steady over the years. These voices bring comfort.

We are numbly aware that for many in New York and Washington, dear voices have been silenced. Not naturally, but tragically. Our own halting speech, and our own silence tonight, become a part of our response, so inadequate, to such sorrowful loss. This loss of voice and life brings us to worship tonight. That is the way with us, we do not know what we have until it is gone. We do not know the precious value of a fragile voice until it sounds only in silence. Then its silent power for us becomes thunderous.

For to stay human, and to keep faith, we realize, down deep somewhere, that we need to hear other voices, too. We need to hear the choral voices, raising our hearts and spirits to God, who still reigns, on earth as in heaven. We need to hear the voices of our family in Christ—ecumenical, denominational, and congregational, reassuring us that at the very least, we are not alone in our sorrow. We need to hear the voices of Scripture, our measure of truth. We need to hear pastoral voices, who represent the unity and continuity of the church through the ages. It is good to hear these, your voices.

Our need, though, is deeper still. In the face of such calamity, such unspeakable horror, for the children of faith, there is a yearning to hear, clearly, a divine voice. A trustworthy voice that will remind us, clearly, of who we are—human, made in the image of God; faithful, forgiven by the grace of Christ; free, supported by the Holy Spirit.

The words of Jesus, read earlier, were collected and coveted by a community, that of John, also drenched in sorrow. They too knew loss, both that of the Lord and that of John. They too knew, especially, division over culture and race and religion. They, these Johannine Christians, had suffered expulsion from their mother land, tongue and church, and they were alone.

They clung, fiercely, to the voice of Christ, remembered, preached, and finally written, so that we have it tonight. To you I commend this one voice, a voice like no other, so equable, so powerful, so serene, so loving. ( Sermon concludes with a recitation of John 15).

I am the vine, you are the branches
You are made clean by the word I have spoken to you
Abide in me, and I in you
Love one another as I have loved you
You are my friends if you do what I command you
Go and bear fruit
You did not choose me, but I chose you
This I command you, love one another

Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, to you we turn in our sorrow. It is good to hear your voice.