Monday, September 20, 2010

Pentecost 17C

This is one of my favorite gospel readings. It’s wonderfully, ethically ambiguous. It comes put of nowhere and leaves the listener with an itchy scalp.

To me, it gives permission to color outside the lines and to push the edges of acceptable behaviour, Jesus demolishes any sense of ideological purity.

What we have is a guy who really likes his job and wants to keep it. Or at least to clear a smooth exit for himself. So he goes to each of his clients and takes an axe to their invoices. It looks like he’s more interested in keeping these folks as customers then in keeping his boss happy. Maybe he wants to strike out on his own since he knows that a pink slip is waiting in his mailbox when he gets back to the office.

But when his boss finds out what the manager has done, the pink slip becomes a promotion. Apparently, the boss liked the way his manager played the game. Dishonest initiative is rewarded. A weird reaction, isn’t it? Or as one bible commentator put it, “ethically reprehensible.”

The punch line to this story makes even less sense, Especially after the story he just told, “You can’t serve God and money.”

So, which is it Jesus, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” or “You can’t serve God and money”? You can’t have it both ways.

I could be that Jesus is saying to make friends with money but don’t let it become your master. Be the chess player, not the chess piece. Work the system. Don’t let it work you.

That may sound like good news for anyone who’s been caught tipping the scales in their favour. After all, we have to live in the real world, where our messy hands leave a grimy film on the purity of God’s ethical demands.

But maybe that’s the point that Jesus was trying to make. Jesus could be telling us in a backhanded way that there is no clear division between clean and unclean, good and evil, comedy and tragedy.

Just as there is no such thing as clean money there is also no such things as a pure person. We are mixed both with the blood of Jesus which declares us innocent, and the blood of Adam and Eve which announces us broken and sinful. We are, as one writer puts, “citizens of heaven and tax-payers on earth. It’s no excuse for the trouble we get into, but it does explain our spotty record.”

So what does this story REALLY mean? I’m not entirely sure. But what I do know is this: the world will behave shrewdly and with calculation. Perhaps Jesus is asking us to make the best of a bad situation by being shrewd and calculating ourselves, not worrying about following every rule, but daring to think outside the cubical, knowing we aren’t saints, but forgiven stewards trying to figure out how to live faithfully as Jesus’ followers.

Jesus says that we can’t serve two masters. But that’s where we live. All of us. We serve one master who is merciful and loving and in who’s name we are saved - and live with another master who asks us to be shrewd and calculating. And all we can do is ask for the wisdom to tell which one is which.

And this wisdom is something we can discern together. Today we’re re-launching our ChristCare Small Group ministry. As many of you know, ChristCare is a specific model of small group ministry. A ChristCare group usually has 3 to 12 members, and it rests on four pillars:

Care and Community
Biblical Equipping (I call this “bible study you can use in daily living”)
Prayer and Worship
Missional Service

These four pillars make up the small group gathering and help each member grow as a follower of Jesus. ChristCare groups are microcosms of the large church. In fact, many people have pointed out that they grow more from Christ Care groups, because of the participation it requires, than they do after sitting through hours and hours of preaching. Even MY preaching!

ChristCare groups bring together the collective wisdom of their members, so that, together, they learn and discern God’s will. Then, with the help of God and the accountability of the group, live their faith in all that they do, being shrewdly gracious in their relationships.

And our participation in the One Community Project with Canadian Lutheran World Relief helps us reach beyond our doors and our lives as we help people in developing countries build a sustainable future. One thing I know about development agencies like Canadian Lutheran World Relief is that they are shrewd managers, working a system that is built to keep poor people poor, but reversing those who benefit from it. They raise funds, not by dishonest means, but they certainly need to have their voices heard over a cacophony of competing voices. And that takes creativity and cunning.

So whether it’s the One Community Project, ChristCare Small Group Ministry, or the regular healing the sick and raising the dead ministry that we do everyday, what I think this passage does is challenges us to think and act creatively in the cause of the gospel. To learn to work the system in a way that benefits the kingdom. To act on God’s vision in ways that would astound us.

Because we believe in a God and follow a saviour who broke all the rules so that we might have life.


Sunday, September 05, 2010

Pentecost 15C

“You cannot be my disciple if you own any possessions.”

This passage from Luke’s gospel is one that no one takes literally. Even the most ardent, fundamentalist who insists on the literal, word-for-word Truth (capital “T”) of the bible finds a way to weasel out of this passage.

I’ve heard some folks say that this passage only applies to those who let their money and their possessions get in the way of their relationship with God; those whose wealth is hurting them spiritually.

This is often followed by a declaration that this doesn’t apply THEM, because their money is not an idol. They could EASILY give it up if their wealth was hurting their relationship with God. And, of course, in this area, they were without sin.

But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. He’s talking about the cost of following him. He’s warning those who might be his followers of what might happen them if they walk away from their old lives and jump feet first into their new lives. It was as if he was pushing them away, turning on the crowd of would-be disciples, pleading with them not to enter into a contract for which there is no escape clause. He’s asking if they REALLY know what they’d be getting themselves into if they dropped everything and followed him.

It’s said that the crowds were much smaller after Jesus said these things. And it’s no wonder. This is a Jesus we don’t like. A Jesus who demands too much. A Jesus who seems more interested in our discomfort than in soothing our anxious souls.

To some it may seem like Bait and Switch. We’re introduced to a Jesus who preaches good news, who burden is easy and whose yoke is light. We want a Jesus who takes our pain and our sin away, not a Jesus who takes our stuff away.

We want a Jesus we can add to our carefully constructed lives; who sprinkles spiritual spice to a cozy existence; who blesses us conditionally; and, at the end, welcomes us into the heavenly realm.

But that’s not the Jesus of the bible. The Jesus of the bible makes absurd demands on us. He can’t control his anger. He asks that we shed ourselves of worldly pleasure, and cast our eyes towards our death. If we take Jesus at face-value, then everyone here cannot be a disciple Jesus, and we might as well pack things up, and go home.

And we know from a deeper reading of the bible that we do not take Jesus at face value. Jesus had a way of making a point by pushing it to the extreme.

He said that no one can be his disciple if they owned anything. Well, we know that Peter owned a house. In the Book of Acts, and early church leader named Lydia had a business selling purple cloth, which meant that she was anything but poor. Even Jesus owned stuff, if only a robe and a pair of sandals. After all, just how far was this “You can’t own anything and be Jesus’ disciple” thing go?

The Jesus in Luke’s gospel appears to have a potent hatred of rich people. That’s probably because Luke’s message about Jesus had a strong political edge. Luke’s Jesus was making a strong contrast between the rich and powerful, and the poor and oppressed.

“You cannot be my disciples if you own any possessions,” was political code for, “My kingdom turns everything on its head. Those who have been shut out of official religion will find a place in my family. Those who’ve been oppressed by Caesar’s forces and their puppets in Jerusalem have a home in God’s kingdom. Those who can’t afford to worship at the Temple, can access God through me, the new and everlasting Temple. You cannot be my disciple if you are part of the world’s self-serving regime.

“God’s power is in the weakness of serving. True religion reaches out in love. God’s kingdom gives without asking for anything in return. So be warned: if you follow me, people in power will hate you the same way they hate me. And whatever happens to me will happen to you.”

I can see why the crowds got smaller. Who’d want THAT in their lives?

And Jesus was right. We know the stories of the early Christians who were tortured and murdered for their beliefs. Every one of Jesus’ disciples were executed, none died peacefully on their death beds. They ALL died horrible deaths.

And today, Christians are being tortured and executed as we speak, just for being Christian.

We here, today, in Lethbridge, have it easy. At least we’re not being tortured and murdered for our beliefs.

But I think what is happening to Christians is more insidious. Quieter. Under the radar.

Our Christian witness become more about middle-class respectability rather than following the poor man from Nazareth. Our Christian lives look like everyone else’s, letting other competing activities distract us from living out our Christian faith. Most of our energies go to tension reducing activities rather than reaching out in Jesus’ name because its easier to fall into a comfortable chair than to rise and meet the world’s great needs.

But the good news is there for anyone with ears to hear. The good news is that the power to transform our lives and the world is not our own. This passage is not meant to condemn us, this passage is meant to mold us and shape us into the person that God wants us to be. This passage is God’s hands creating a new person and a new world. In the alternate reading from Jeremiah the prophet said:

Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

We are clay in the potter’s hands. You may be a insufferably self-centered, but one day you won’t be. You may look at the poor with abject disgust, but one day your heart will break at the sight of the hungry. You may worry more about the appearance of a good, clean, middle-class lifestyle, but one day, you will see that life is more about serving than on looking good on the outside.

I know this because the Word of the Lord is at work within you, molding and shaping you into the person that God created you to be.

And may this be so among US. Amen.