Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Dishonest Manager

Today is the eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Readings appointed for today can be found here. The gospel reading, from the sixteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel, is a challenging one. I was at Trinity Church in Shrewsbury today - a congregation that is struggling to discern their future. It seemed to me as their guest a convergence of Word and context, as they wrestle with some hard questions.

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The parable I just read – it’s confusing, yes? Actually it’s more than confusing. For two thousand years it has stumped Christian interpreters. It stumped the early church fathers and mothers, it stumped reformers like Calvin and Luther, and it has stumped even those wicked smart German-trained twentieth-century scholars. I looked this week to my favorite interpreters for help. I read a bunch of commentaries because I really wanted to wow you all today.

But to be honest, none of them were much help. Seriously, nobody understands this parable. Which at least puts us in good company! They could explain why the parable is confusing, but not what it means! Well that part I could do on my own! Because the parable itself is reasonably straight-forward. Jesus is talking to his disciples – not just the original twelve but to us, across the centuries. We know Jesus and we love him and we probably have our own favorite stories. But today he says:
There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this manager was squandering his property.

There are some little cues here worth noticing. First of all, we have met rich men before in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus tends to be pretty critical of them. I know that surprises some of the evangelists on television who like to think Jesus showers his friends with money, but almost always in the New Testament when Jesus talks about the1% what is implicit is that they’ve missed the memo about sharing with others. If they are rich, it means others are poor. They have missed the memo on generosity and gotten confused about which god they worship – the living Abba of Jesus or mammon. (In fact this story will return to this point at the end as you may have noticed.)

We also heard the word squander in the previous chapter of Luke in a story I bet you all know. This man had two sons – the younger son went off and “squandered” his inheritance. Remember? So if we were listening to a performance of Luke’s Gospel these verbal triggers would catch our attention. I’m not sure what they mean, but they are worth noticing.

So there was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property.
And so he summoned him and said to him, `What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.'

Now the manager is freaking out. He's just been handed a pink slip. Perhaps some of you have been there yourselves. About to become unemployed, he says to himself, `
What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.

But he has an idea. If he’s going to be fired, the most important thing he can do is network. That’s what everybody says, right? He needs to make some new friends on LinkedIn. One way to do that (not necessarily an honest way but still, one that often has success) is to bribe them. He does this by reducing their debts to the rich man who is about to fire him.

You owe him a hundred jugs of oil? Let’s call it fifty. You owe him a hundred containers of wheat. What do you say we call it eighty?

You all with me? We may not expect it in the Bible – on the lips of Jesus of all people – but we surely aren’t surprised to learn that this is how Wall Street works and this is how Washington, DC often works and sometimes other places, too. Money makes the world go round. No wonder ivory-tower-trained clergy don’t get this! But people who work for a living get it, right? Maybe?

But that isn’t the confusing part; it’s what comes next. The master
commends the dishonest manager for acting shrewdly. Say what? He apparently reconsiders and it sounds like the guy gets to keep his job even though he just cheated the rich man, because the rich man likes his shrewdness. So this is a confusing response. But then Jesus says to his disciples, not just the twelve but to us, wait for it:
…the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

And then there is some more teaching on money:

Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Wow! Confused yet?  I hope so! The form critics help us to remember that like Matthew and Mark and John, the gospel writer Luke didn’t follow Jesus around with a clipboard. He’s not writing a play so much as putting together a whole bunch of teachings. Think of Luke with a pile of index cards and these sayings of Jesus that maybe he said on a Tuesday or a month later on a Wednesday – all of these like forty or fifty years before Luke writes them down. So they are all yellow by now and mixed up and there’s a pile of cards about money, all kind of jumbled together and Luke is trying to order them. So in other words we can blame Luke if we want rather than Jesus for a good bit of the confusion. Even so, when I said today that this was the gospel of the Lord, you said “Praise to you, Lord Christ.” Did you mean it?

Is there good news here for us?
What comes next in this sermon? I’ve been telling you that none of the scholars agree on what it means. Or have a clue, even. But you are tempted a little bit I bet, and I’m tempted a lot, for me to now tell you what it means. To pull a rabbit out of the hat and show you that I cracked the code, that I did my homework, that I have the answer and so then we can all go home a little smarter. Sorry to disappoint. But I don’t know.

In my day job as Canon to the Ordinary I’ve taken to using, in a very particular way, the word “agnostic” to describe my work. I believe in the living God, don’t worry. And working at the diocesan level actually reinforces my trust in the Holy Spirit every day. But literally the word agnostic means “to not know.” And I find that most every day I am facing questions that lead me to say, “I don’t know.” I may have a hunch, but not certitude. We get hints and guesses…

So when is it time for a congregation to merge with another or to take a risk and spend the endowment to call a bright young energetic priest or to say “well done good and faithful servants, while the Church of Jesus Christ is forever, congregations come and go you have fulfilled your ministry?”

I don’t know. I am agnostic on these questions and many more. I find that what I think will happen if we do “a” sometimes doesn’t happen. And if we just wait and see, sometimes “c” happens out of nowhere. I find myself surprised a lot, sometimes at the resiliency of congregations and sometimes at how much they are their own worst enemies. I get a glimpse from the pulpit or behind the altar or in a vestry meeting of complex dynamics of a complicated history that is never really past. I had that experience here a couple of years ago when we reviewed Trinity’s history and reflected on it. But it’s only a glimpse. I don’t know. I am agnostic about whether the Church is dying or being born again, although I suspect that these may be two sides to the same coin. By faith, I believe in the resurrection and I trust that God will be God, to the end of the ages. But whether or not that is with the Episcopal Church – or if denominationalism needs to die because Jesus really doesn’t care whether one is a Lutheran or a Methodist or an Episcopalian or a Roman Catholic? I don’t know. And so I walk by faith, not certitude.

We have been taught to be afraid to say “I don’t know” but here is what I’m learning: when we don’t know together, we can become explorers together. We can listen better to each other because we haven’t settled anything. The Bible is a book meant to be opened – to be learned and marked and inwardly digested. But too often we try to settle it and close it. We are meant to ponder the parables and let them work on us and it seems that when Jesus told them they were open ended and often left people scratching their heads. But 2000 years later, we moralize them and tame them. We hear the story of a man with two sons and we say “just forgive your little brother and join the party” or about a man going down from Jerusalem who is mugged and we say “if someone’s car breaks down on the side of the road, help them.”

But today’s parable from the sixteenth chapter of Luke 16 won’t allow this. We can’t moralize or tame what we don’t understand. So for today at least we have to leave this place, if we are honest, and simply say, “we don’t know…”

Congregational meeting after worship
You all are trying to figure out your future as a congregation. It’d be nice if the bishop or the canon or the senior warden or the vestry could just say, “all you need to do is this! Believe me! Just do this and all will be well. It’ll be great.” Sometimes that comforts our anxiety, to believe that someone has an easy answer to a hard question, because hard questions can keep us awake at night. But in my experience, easy answers to hard questions are usually just wrong. It takes courage to say, “we don’t know” or “we aren’t sure” or “we’ll continue to ponder this…”

And maybe that’s the great gift of today’s gospel reading and maybe it really is good news for a world weary of clich├ęs and false assurances. It means we look to each other not for the answers, but to be companions along the way. And we look for God to be God – the one worthy of our trust. 

We try to worship that living God – and no other, Not mammon, Not false messiahs. Only the one worthy of our trust, who has claimed and marked and sealed us in Holy Baptism. 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Reconciliation House, Webster

The Rev. Janice Ford, Rector of Reconciliation,
receiving a proclamation from the State House
My job description includes the phrase "...and other duties as assigned by the Bishop." This week my boss is gathered with Episcopal bishops from across the country and beyond in Detroit for the House of Bishops. In the meantime, there was this amazing dedication of a new ministry at Church of the Reconciliation in Webster. So I got to "stand in" for the bishop there.

I have always enjoyed these kinds of events. Actually, that's not quite exactly right. I always think these events are super important. I've prayed at the dedication service for a new Safety Building in Holden and preached several baccalaureates at high school graduations, and blessed motorcycles to name a few. I know colleagues who graciously say "no thank you" to such invitations, but for me this is an important part of the work and when I get there I always enjoy it. So I really was glad to be there on behalf of Bishop Fisher. In any case, here is what I said...

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Ribbon Cutting at the former rectory, now Reconciliation House
On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there…

Some of you may remember this story from John’s Gospel about Jesus’ first miracle, the miracle of turning water into wine. The main difference between a magic trick and a miracle is what happens next: this sign, John’s Gospel says, revealed God’s glory and led to belief.

Now, please stay with me on this…that was Jesus’ first miracle; but definitely not his last. And sometimes the much harder miracle is the work of turning wine back into water: the miracle of sobriety as a gift given and received, one day at a time. And it’s truly a miracle because almost always when that happens, it reveals God’s glory and leads to a deeper faith. 

I’m here today on behalf of my boss, Bishop Doug Fisher. He is very sorry that he couldn’t be here himself but he is gathered with his sister and brother bishops from across this nation in Detroit. He is the kind of leader who, when Janice started talking about this new ministry, said to her, “go for it.” I love working for him for just that reason, because his passion and encouragement free up energy for mission. But my personality and my role on his staff led to a million questions: how will we go for this? How can we be supportive of not just Janice but something that would become a shared vision of this church dedicated to reconciliation in the neighborhoods of Webster? A million things could have gone wrong along the way to prevent this daring, courageous vision from becoming a reality. It truly is a miracle that we are here today: an outward and visible sign of God’s glory that affirms what we believe.

With an old friend, Sheriff Lew Evangelidis
Much has been accomplished so far, and so we rightly pause to dedicate and bless this Sober House and to offer our prayers on behalf of those who will live here. 

But this is only the beginning. The real miracle will continue beyond this gathering: the miracle of second chances in a society that too often locks people up rather than to treat addiction; the real miracle of partnerships between local government leaders and church leaders; and especially the real miracle of people accepting the gift of sobriety one day at a time. Wine into water. 

Thanks be to God!

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Prophetic Imagination

Today, on this fifteenth anniversary of 9/11, I was at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Auburn. They are preparing to welcome a new priest-in-charge into their midst in just three weeks, the Rev. Julia Dunbar. The readings for today can be found here, the same readings we heard fifteen years ago on this weekend. 

Congregations take on a personality of their own over time due to many different factors.

One of those factors, I think, has to do with when the parish was founded; related to that is the architecture of the building. We have lots of suburban church plants across the diocese founded under Bishop Hatch’s leadership, whose roots are in the 1950s and 1960s post-war suburbs; these include St. Francis, Holden, Nativity, Northborough, Epiphany, Wilbraham, St. Mark’s, East Longmeadow and St. Christopher’s, Fairview. In my travels around the diocese I walk into those buildings and feel like I know the place, like this one - although I know that this building is not your first one as a congregation and your roots go back further, to Cherry Valley. They were all founded at a time when people assumed that the Sunday School would always be filled with children, at a time when church-going was at historical records. So they built buildings with that vision in mind.

There is something different not only about the architecture of those places from a parish like Christ Church, Rochdale, founded in 1821, or All Saints, Worcester, founded about twenty or so years later, or Grace, Oxford which was built after the Civil War. It’s not better nor worse; just different – because church was different in the nineteenth century than in the twentieth. All of these places are trying to figure out, with all of you, what it means to do ministry in the twenty-first century and to find inspiration from the past without being bound by it.

Other things affect a church’s “personality” for good and for ill, including the rectors who have served there. Some congregations suffer from clergy misconduct, some from a father-knows-best mentality. Others benefit from wise pastors and visionary leaders. Sometimes people either speak out loud or sometimes in hushed voices about the days when so and so was here.

One of the things that I believe also helps to shape a congregation’s “personality” is its name. You could ask, with Shakespeare, “isn’t a rose still a rose by any other name?” But I think even in asking that question we know that it’s not quite the case. Names do matter. I served the only parish in the diocese named for Francis of Assisi from 1998-2013. We had two theme songs in that parish, both of which we’d sing every first weekend in October when we remembered St. Francis. One was “All Creatures of Our God and King.” It reminded us of Francis’ love for all creation and it challenged us to be stewards of God’s good earth. The second one is the prayer we just sang, a sung version of the prayer attributed to St. Francis. Even if he didn’t write it himself, it goes to the heart of his spirituality which was not only about the wonder of God’s creation, but about our call to be instruments of God’s peace. Where we see hate or doubt or gloom or tears we seek to be channels of God’s peace who sow seeds of love and faith and hope and joy. This work isn’t limited to congregations that bear St. Francis’ name. It is work we are all called to as part of the Jesus’ Movement.

But today I stand among you here at St. Thomas. You also are a one-of-a-kind parish in our diocese - the only one that takes its name from good old “doubting” Thomas. We also sang your theme song today as we began, whether or not you claim it as such: an Easter hymn for the Second Sunday of Easter.

          We walk by faith, and not by sight; no gracious words we hear
          from him who spoke as none e’er spoke, but we believe him near.
          We may not touch his hands and side, nor follow where he trod;
          but in his promise we rejoice, and cry “My Lord and God!”

I’m going to give you my Second Sunday of Easter Sermon in just a couple of sentences today and then I’ll move on to today’s readings. In Greek, the word used that we hear for faith is pistis. And doubt is apsistis. It’s not about intellectual doubt. Pistis is about trust; so apistis is about not trusting. It’s not doubt so much as fear.  Doubt can in fact can be a path toward deeper faith. But fear paralyzes us. So what we need to do is work on trust, because we can never move forward in faith without trust. An abiding trust in God, to be sure. But also trust in each other. People who feel their trust has been violated stay wounded and we only move on with scars rather than wounds when we restore trust. Now hold that thought because I’m going to come back to it….

The lectionary is a way to read the Bible in public worship, as we come together each week for common prayer. It’s a template organized on a three-year cycle. What that means is that the same readings that we heard today come up every three years. So we last heard them in September 2013 and before that in 2010 and 2007 and 2004 and yes, before that on the weekend of September 11, 2001.  

At St. Francis, Holden on that weekend there were people who came to church that I’d never seen before and never saw again. They came, I imagine, looking for a word of hope and comfort in the midst of events that were too frightening to comprehend. You could have heard a pin drop when the lay reader got up to read from the fourth chapter of the prophet Jeremiah, these same difficult words we heard today:

For my people are foolish, they do not know me;
they are stupid children, they have no understanding.
They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good.
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
and to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
and all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD,
before his fierce anger.

What struck me was that as brutally harsh as Jeremiah’s words sounded as they filled the room on that Sunday morning, they also seemed to capture where we were emotionally. We, too, had just beheld what can happen when people put their talents to work for doing evil rather than good. We too, were beholding a city in ruins. Jeremiah of course, did not have lower Manhattan in mind when he spoke nearly six hundred years before the birth of Christ. He was speaking about the city of Jerusalem being “waste and void” because of the devastation caused by the Babylonian army.  He was speaking of the temple, not the towers, being brought to the ground. Even so, on that September Sunday fifteen years ago it seemed as if the gap between Jeremiah and us had been closed and that we were all together in our confusion and grief and fear and anger. The biggest theological question of all was right up front as well: where was God?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that the prophet is not only the one who hears God’s voice, but the one who can feel God’s heart. Heschel had no patience with the “god” of the philosophers, with Aristotle’s famous “Unmoved Mover.” As Heschel read the Bible (and especially as he read the prophets) he discovered what he called the pathos of God. The God of the Bible, he said, is a God who loves us even when we do behave like stupid children who have no understanding; a God who loves us even to the point of Her own broken heart. Jeremiah imagines God more like a frustrated Parent than an Unmoved Mover: “I’ve done everything I can,” the prophets hear God saying. “I created humanity in my own image. I gave them the gift of Torah, a gift “sweeter than honey.” How on earth could they have messed things up so badly?”

Prophets like Jeremiah push us way out of our comfort zones. But they do so for a reason: they are trying to push us hard enough and far enough out of our denial so that we will take another look at our lives and the world around us, so that we will see the parts of ourselves and the world that we would prefer to cover up. They do this not to depress us, but to wake us up. They sound the trumpet in Zion (and in Auburn too) so that we can wake up and truly live.
When tragedy strikes, we ask, “where is God?” The answer that the prophets give is one we don’t usually want to hear: that God has been holding up God’s end of the bargain, and the real question is this: where have God’s people been?

Most of us can’t bear too much reality, and we don’t really want to hear about the pain of the world. Denial is the easiest response. Getting numb is another, and we have any number of options in our time to help us get numb. Flannery O’Connor once said, “to the hard of hearing you need to shout.” I’ve always thought that is as good an image of what the prophets are up to as any. They seem like mad men at times, shouting away. But they have the difficult task of breaking through our defenses to get us to see what we prefer not to see. Walter Brueggemann has said that it is the task of prophetic ministry to “nurture, nourish, and evoke an alternative consciousness” to the dominant culture around us.

There is a prayer found on page 815 of the Book of Common Prayer that to my mind fits for this occasion, this time in the life of this congregation as we remember the events of 9/11 and as you prepare to more officially welcome Julia here.  

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in       your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

So do you remember what I said earlier about St. Thomas, about how the opposite of faith is not doubt, but fear?  I am praying that St. Thomas is working on trust right now as a congregation for a whole lot of reasons. Trusting your bishop and the diocesan staff, trusting me and the other canons to be partners in ministry. Trusting your new priest-in-charge who is about to begin. Trusting one another. Not keeping secrets. When we trust God we can tell the truth, truth that helps nurture and nourish and evoke an alternative consciousness that leads to abundant life. 

As my old friend, Francis would put it, we can become instruments of God’s peace. As your old friend, Thomas put it when he put his hand on Jesus’ side – my Lord, and my God! Perfect love really does cast out fear. I pray that as a new chapter begins here with Julia Dunbar as your priest-in-charge, that love will continue to cast out fear and that a new day will dawn, with God's help. 

Friday, September 9, 2016


While I am not quite a Luddite, I am often slow to adapt to technological changes. It took me a long time to buy my first cell phone and then a long time to move from a flip phone to a smart phone, as one example. We have been later than most of our friends to HD/flat screen televisions. Eventually we get there - and mostly I appreciate what technology offers us. But I still don't have a Kindle.

Truth is, I might find it convenient. But there is something for me about the feel of a book in my hands and the smell of the paper. I've had a love affair with books that goes back at least as far as Watty Piper's The Little Engine That Could. I love books, and almost every book in my library has left a mark on me. I admit that there are a few books (but not many) that I've been given as gifts that have not yet been opened, and maybe one or two that I bought myself but have not yet gotten to. But the vast majority of the books I own have been read at least once - and some of them so many times that the binding is ruined.

On occasion there is something on Facebook that says, "quick - name the ten books that have been most important to your life, or at least left a mark." I find that so challenging! A bit easier for me  might be to speak of writers who have left a mark - many of whom have written many books that I've devoured: Walter Brueggemann. Barbara Brown Taylor. Paul Tillich. Miraslov Volf. Flannery O'Connor. David McCullough. John Irving. William Faulkner. Charles Dickens. Mary Oliver. 

These people have become my friends, even if they don't know my name. I feel like I know them, or something at least about them. I suppose that might be conveyed through a tablet but holding their books in my hand - seeing what I underlined when I last read the book, what struck me - well, I know myself better through their insights about the world.

I have been pondering these things a bit (ruminating on them, as it were) since my stepfather's recent death, and in the aftermath spending some time with my mother in his library. He was a better reader and scholar than I, and when I close my eyes and try to see him it is usually with a pipe in one hand and a book in the other. It's hard to say goodbye to books, which I think is why Marty just never did. And unlike many clergy I know who are forced to deal with their libraries when they retire, Marty served the same parish for thirty-one years and didn't live in the parsonage. So upon retirement he only had to find room in his library at home for the books that had accumulated in his church office.

He found the space. The thing is you can almost always find room for one more book even if it's side wise on the bookcase and stacked up on top. Going through those books I felt connected to him - to his love of F. D. Maurice, which I knew about and to his love of Mary (and a Protestant appreciation for her) that I didn't know as much about. (That interest is hinted at in this paper.)

I've spent the past week distributing some of Marty's books to people whom I knew would give them a good home, including the series pictured above on American Spirituality. I trust that in so doing, the smiles on the faces of those receiving these gifts would make Marty very happy, and in some real mystical sense does make him happy.

Marty used to defend his book purchasing to my mother by saying that these books would be "worth some thing some day." I suspect he knew that wasn't true, at least financially. But in a deeper sense, what I've experienced this week has been priceless.