Friday, September 21, 2007

A Sermon for Pentecost 18

Amos 8:4-7
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Have you ever been in an office when a manager was due to be fired? These things rarely happen out of the blue – there’s usually been some build-up to it – meetings held off site – surreptitious conversations on the telephone and then the day itself.

It’s the thing not being talked about and it’s the thing that everybody is talking about. The air is electric.

One mouthy individual looking like he knows something which he may well not says something like ‘Well, it’s about time!’ This guy’s been carrying on like he was responsible to nobody. Morale here on the floor has taken a nosedive – how can the rest of us be expected to take our jobs seriously with him around.”

Somebody else might well try and soften the hurt – looking for some third party who has passed the buck on to this unfortunate individual.

And think about the man’s family – there are children at home. There’s a grandchild on the way!

A braver soul might even hint to the mouthy individual that his own slate is not completely clean – what about this, what about that. Pot – kettle, don’t you think?

Senior managers arrive and walk straight into the large board room without saying hello to anybody. A little while later the principal character arrives – alone perhaps – accompanied maybe by a friend or a Union official or a personal advocate of some sort. He too greets nobody although there may be a silent handshake. Somebody’s hand might brush his shoulder in a non-verbal sign of solidarity.

You’re not at the meeting. The curtains in the board room are drawn. There is just the smallest rise in the volume of voices for a moment or two in the course of the half hour meeting. A point being made forcefully – offense or defense we know not.

The reading from Luke’s Gospel is a curious one. The parable is numbered among the "hard sayings" of Jesus.  I know plenty of clergy who would avoid preaching on it. They’d preach on the Old Testament reading for the day, they’d preach on the Epistle. They’d preach on the Collect – they’d preach on the text of the Mothers Union announcements on the back of the pew leaflet. They’d preach on the washing instructions for the new choir robes rather than attempt to make sense of the fact that Jesus seems to praise the example of a dishonest manager who gets himself out of trouble by committing further dishonesty. There’s something here that just doesn’t add up -

except there’s something that does.

Let’s return to the boardroom where our unfortunate manager is meeting with the Senior Management Team and the company auditor. There he is at the end of the table. He’s feeling a bit like a caged animal – like a circus bear tethered by a rope. After listening to a list of reproaches and accusations he is given the floor. Now he is making his case. He has argued, perhaps, that his misdemeanours were not that serious. Something has been misunderstood. He has put forward the name of various people on staff who could speak in his defence about this or that transaction – who were there at the time, who saw the missing receipts and recorded them.

At one moment he has been surprisingly aggressive. At another, he has asked for understanding. He has put forward the proposition that although he is a faulted individual he has done a lot of good for the company. He invokes his wife, his family, the fact that he is in his mid fifties and might never find another job. All of these attempts to save himself meet with sympathy from some around the table – with manifest disgust from others.

There will be at least one person at the table, though, who will look at him with some degree of admiration.

This is no longer the fellow in the nice suit cracking jokes – this is now the man locked in mortal combat trying to retain a large part of his life. This is what we’re all like when life gets serious. We defend ourselves. We look for a way out. We’ve obviously taken the seriousness of our situation to heart. There is no illusion here. We are fighting for our survival.

When it’s all over and the man is fired or when it’s all over and the man has retained his position by the skin of his teeth we will not look back at the various jumps and backflips which he attempted around the board table. We won’t talk about them. We will forget them. The impulse to defend ourselves is so basic - so universal - when the ‘real issues’ of food on our table are being discussed that desperate measures are completely understandable. Everybody understands that. For a brief moment we had a taste of the human condition as something akin to a bit of lichen clinging to a rock. All the politesse of mature human discourse placed to the side – for that half hour it was a matter of ‘hang on boys we might just make it’.

The single admirer the man had at the table - not one of those who were beset by the sentiment of pity or sympathy nor one of those expressing righteous indignation that that the man carried on so in his own defense - the single admirer the man had around the board room table might have put it this way: that those who look upon such a grasping as beneath their dignity have never been there themselves. The man put up a spirited and admirable defense.

There is an old definition of the word virtue - one which held sway before the Church got hold of the word - one where a virtuous action was one most excellently proper to any particular thing or person. The virtue of a knife is to cut, of a shovel to dig into the gravel sharply and effectively, of a lever to pry, of a mother to come angrily to her childrens' defense. One might praise the virtue of a growing blade of grass. In spite of out best efforts to lay a tarmac or even concrete driveway it has somehow managed to make a crack. There it is now cheekily waving its green leaf at us on a sunny day. A fine piece of horseflesh - see how fast it runs. A perfect predator - see how it monopolises the food-source. An able defendant - see how he defended himself with fury and panache.

The reading from Luke’s Gospel consists of a series of sayings. Several are lumped together. The ones which praise honesty in all things follow the story of the dishonest manager – they’ve been grouped together with it but they are not part of the same story. Luke is doing what he told us he was doing at the beginning of his Gospel. He is travelling around collecting the stories of people who were there – their recollections and impressions and we have here a collection of sayings about wealth and honesty which includes this enigmatic story – this parable – which is supposed to leave the hearers shaking their heads because they no longer know what they thought they knew. How can Jesus be overlooking the obvious duplicity of the dishonest steward? What can Jesus mean? What is he telling us both within and beyond this story?

Are there similar parables spoken by Jesus? Could they help us understand this one? Well sir, there are three that come to mind immediately:

There is the parable of the king who makes war against a neighbouring ruler until he hears that his neighbour is marching towards his borders with a much larger army equipped with the latest in swords and spears.. Which king, asks Jesus, will not immediately send out emissaries and negotiators to make peace before his border is crossed?

There is the parable of a man ambling across a field who discovers a treasure buried therein and immediately goes and sells all he has in order to purchase that field.

There is the story of a woman who feels she has been denied justice who goes to the judge's house and bangs on the door with a large rock until eventually the judge gets out of bed and goes downstairs and rewrites the judgement standing there in his doorway in his housecoat and slippers just to be rid of the old harridan.

These are all stories with a curious moral twist in them – that’s what parables do sometimes – they tell us the truth but first they ‘deep six’ our conventional and tidy view of morality: The man has not told the original owner of the field that he is signing over a hidden treasure when he signs his missives. The woman is getting a revision of a judgement because she is a pain in the neck – not because she is obviously in the right in her original request. The king made a foolish decision to go to war in the first place. What a failure he is as a military strategist! And the peace he now seeks? Is it not necessitated by the possible loss of everything in his kingdom? Or the possibility that his head will be exhibited on a spike in a foreign capital?

The characters in this story are opportunists. We don’t much like them - not opportunists. We don’t invite them to supper. The characters in some of the stories are desperate people. They have a bead of sweat on their brow.

We would put a certain stock in people gaining what is theirs by right. Something which we receive by charity or by importuning ourselves – something that we receive by sharp practises – well that hasn’t really been earned has it? It offends Protestant sensibilities. Give us what is ours by right. We will be happy with that.

Now remember, if you will – that Jesus is talking about the Kingdom - some state around and within us which God ushers in and invites us to enter and to be members of.

Ask yourselves what the greatest impediment is to one who gives gifts. I give one of you a gift. One fellow on the Gospel side of the church pops up and says ‘that one is not worthy’. He doesn’t deserve such a gift. Who is he to be receiving something like that?' I give an envelope to one of you on the Epistle side of the church and you say 'no thanks. I don’t take charity. Who are you to be giving me what I haven’t earned? '

I suggested that we are most comfortable when we can say that we have received what is ours by right – something which we have earned. Is it not precisely that sensibility which tells us that something which has not been earned is not ours to have which this parable is designed to prod at?

We have had years of Christian formation, hymns and camp songs about grace and mercy. We are told that we receive our life, our grace, salvation and our future as failed and guilty human beings. We hear it. We say it. We sing about it. But still it sticks in our craw. We’re not sure about it.

Jesus is neither praising nor is he passing judgement on the unethical accounting practises of the unrighteous steward. He does, however, point once again , as he does in so many of his parables, to an ordinary person facing dire the direst of consequences and notes the degree to which he is able to muster up the energy not to simply go and meet his Doom. Virtue in the first sense of the word: See how that knife cuts! What a virtuous and useful tool. See how that housewife sweeps her house from one end to the next until she finds the lost coin. What a magnificent animal. See how that blade of grass breaks through the tarmac. What a sturdy plant! See how the unrighteous steward calls in his master's creditors and forges for himself an exit plan. Would that the Sons of Light had the same ability to recognise the necessities surrounding them and the response required of them.

Have you heard one of those testimonies where a man or woman tells his story publicly - how at a particular time and place they found themselves at rock bottom - at the very nadir of their life's experience? You might have heard such a testimony in a 12 step group. Or heard such a story at an evangelical crusade. You will remember that such an individual then committed themselves in a simple act of faith to Something or more particularly Someone beyond themselves. Like Saul of Tarsus blinded by a vision they accepted the ministrations of Ananias. Like the woman taken in adultery they avoided the full weight of the law. What they had in front of them were not a series of options but the further possibility of Life itself with its concomitant meaning, sense and future.

And you? You might feel a little jaded about these stories because you've heard so many like them. You're not sure you understand.

Are you looking for something which you have not earned? Are you trying to get a gracious future on the basis on somebody else’s effort? Are you looking for peace that you have not forged yourselves? Well, join the club. There is no part of your life in Christ which you have earned. In the economy of the Kingdom there is nothing which you can have by right – based on your own virtue, your own honesty, your diligence or the regularity of your habits. We come to the Cross, each one of us, as a refugee.

What is tragic is that some of us do not know this – we believe ourselves to have all our ducks in a row. We are perhaps the target of these words of Jesus. Because we need to be reminded that the sinners’ prayer is always a cheeky and importuning plea for love, for help, for comfort and for life which is uttered against the backdrop of our failure as individuals and as a species.

Will you take this yoke? Will you accept this gift? Are you desperate enough yet? Have you run out of all other options?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

When I started to dance again I felt ridiculous.

We covered miles of ground.
Walls and earthworks we fortified -
lonely nights spent guarding lines.

This crooked street for commerce
That one for death.
Each had seemed a gentle place at first.

I have looked at my Release a dozen times
and mouthed the Business English written there
I worry that my limbs are leaden weights.

The syncopated measure a mere wave.
That singer's words only invitation
and nothing adequately brutal.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Something for the Young People!

That's the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain doing their cover of Nirvana's hit - Smells Like Teen Spirit. Many thanks to our brother (update: sister!) in Christ Ali Chesworth working the ripe fields in the West end of Glasgow for the reference to this.

I shall not sleep tonight.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Victor Wooten (playing Norwegian Wood)

For those of us who've ever fiddled around with a bass guitar thinking that it might be an easy way to end up being in a band - sitting around on a Monday morning playing along with the stereo or going up and down the neck of the instrument in some approximation of 12-bar-blues - here's reason to simply despair and return to preaching the Gospel.

Thanks to BLS for the reference

Sunday, September 16, 2007

The call has gone forth for bad obituary poetry. I happen to have a few things on my hard disk which I scribbled down a few years ago which appeared in our parish magazine here in Scotland a few months back - published, I might add, rather hesitantly by the editor. A buddy of mine back in Montreal edits his parish magazine and I note that there was no hesitation in picking them up and reprinting them there. Just goes to show that bad taste works well in the Americas where it is treated as a commodity.

My husband's no longer alive
He insisted that he could still drive.
In lieu of carnations
our church needs donations.
The funeral's on Tuesday at five.

Dear Mummy has gone off to heaven.
She died yesterday at eleven.
The funeral's not private
so try to arrive at
the funeral parlour at seven.

Did anyone know Alvin Fetter,
the inveterate drunkard and debtor.
His family's bereft
but a few things are left.
If he owed you please send us a letter.

We're all feeling sorry for Ed,
especially now that he's dead.
We still find it odd
and wonder why God
didn't go and take Grandma instead.

respectfully submitted
R. Rabbit