Archives for September 2010

Forgiveness is central, Pentecost 17, Proper 20 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 and Psalm 79:1-9 (Track 2: Amos 8:4-7 and Psalm 113); 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

“Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Jesus didn’t really say that, did he?

Imagine the disciples hearing this story. They probably ask Jesus to repeat himself, clean the wax out of their ears, and look at each other for verification: did he really just say that?

It seems he did. Someone remembered this story, and Jesus has demonstrated a knack throughout Luke’s gospel for telling memorable stories. Most of them are parables, which invite us to remember the story and mull on it. It is always a mistake to treat parables in the same way we treat allegories, and this story in particular could represent real trouble for the interpreter who treats it as allegory. Who is God in the story? Who is the dishonest manager supposed to represent?

That’s not what Jesus is doing. It’s difficult to know precisely what he is doing, but he hasn’t stopped believing in and demonstrating the kingdom of God, a reality that includes perfect justice and mercy; so we assume that the dishonest manager, who operates entirely out of self-interest, isn’t a direct stand-in for God, or for us.

This story highlights our need to take great care in interpreting pieces of scripture in light of their context. If we were to read this passage under the rubric that we are to take everything in the Bible literally, we’d find ourselves in real trouble, and probably in jail.

Clearly, the startling image of the dishonest manager as the “hero” of Jesus’ story will help us to remember it. But if it’s not literal, what are we supposed to make of it?

The story in Luke that comes immediately before today’s story is the much-beloved story of the prodigal son, the cranky older brother, and the ridiculously forgiving father. Today’s story may well highlight the same situation: someone in trouble stumbles into grace practically by accident. In the story of the prodigal, the younger son does not acquit himself well. He makes some very selfish choices that offend nearly everyone, and only comes to his senses to the degree that he realizes something must change so that he can survive. Continuing to act in his own self-interest, he returns home to discover that grace and forgiveness have been waiting for him the whole time, and we have a sense that he may finally get what it means to be loved.

In today’s story, the dishonest manager is in an equally bad situation, and for the same reason: he has acted entirely selfishly without concern for how his actions will affect others, just so he can slip some money into his pocket that doesn’t belong to him. When his employer figures out what he’s done, he figures his goose is cooked, and so he continues to act in his own self-interest by cutting deals with his employer’s debtors. What he wants is for these people to owe him something, because he is sure that manual labor is beneath him, and begging is so embarrassing. What’s disturbing to those of us listening to his story is that it works! It works even better than he had planned; not only do the people who owe money to his boss get a better deal, the manager himself has regained some status in the eyes of his employer because of his shrewdness.

This is just crazy, upside-down grace. We who hear his story want him to pay for his dishonesty, not to get out of a sticky situation smelling like a rose. What kind of moral example is this?

Well, it isn’t one. What Jesus seems to be highlighting in this story, which we can perhaps see more clearly by comparing it to the story of the prodigal son, is the ridiculous nature of God’s grace, and our call to live in it.

This foxy manager and self-serving younger son sound a lot like Jacob, whose name became Israel; he connived and manipulated, wrestled and argued, when God’s blessing was available to him from the beginning.

Jesus commends the shrewd – and shady – manager as an example, not for his dishonest dealings, but for his clever solution. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says this manager – who is “of this world,” meaning someone whose values are entirely plebian and self-oriented – has managed to scratch and claw his way into a better situation; what can Jesus’ followers do, he asks, with the grace of God behind them?

What Jesus thinks his followers are capable of is what he himself has been busy doing: healing, reconciling, truth-telling, and proclaiming the kingdom. We must be as clever as the manager in today’s gospel, with a different goal: serving our self-interest, alongside the best interests of the world that God loves, by building the kingdom of God.

Today’s collect contrasts being “anxious about earthly things” with “loving things heavenly.” It would be simple to imagine that “loving things heavenly” means some kind of ethereal, spiritual experience, bathed in light, with some harp music playing in the background. However, the stories Jesus has been telling in this long narrative of his journey to Jerusalem don’t sound ethereal at all. They are earthy, everyday stories that connect right into regular human lives. It’s once of the central ironies of the Christian life that in order to “love things heavenly,” we must turn toward the dust and dirt of which we are made, and try to envision and build the reign of God.

Today’ gospel is a reminder of a couple of things: when we get anxious about money, status, power, what letters come before or after our name, what kind of car we drive, what brand of clothes we wear; when we get anxious about those things, we end up using our best skills for ourselves alone. It’s also a reminder that in spite of ourselves, we are bathed in grace and forgiveness.

We are called to be shrewd about recognizing grace and sharing it. We are called to love things heavenly, by loving God’s creation, seeking justice for everyone,

Perhaps most importantly, today’s gospel is centered on one action: forgiveness. The manager intends to make his own situation better when he forgives his master’s debtors, but the more he thinks about it, the better it gets: the people who have owed his master more than they’ll ever be able to repay are suddenly going to have their burden lightened, and that’s going to make the master look good, and that’s going to make the master happy, and that means the manager won’t lose his job. Everybody wins. Forgiveness – which is an act, not a feeling – has positive consequences for everyone.

We can get hung up on the undeniable fact that the person in the story who forgives is acting dishonestly and manipulatively, and we’d like to distance ourselves from that kind of behavior. But Jesus chooses his story illustrations carefully, and this one sticks in the memory precisely because it’s outside the boundaries of any conventional morality tale.

Forgiveness and its consequences are central in this gospel and in the story of the prodigal that precedes it. No matter who does the forgiving, it’s going to create ever-widening circles of positive consequences. Forgiveness, Jesus seems to be saying, is the starting point for building the kingdom of God, and of course, this cycle begins with God’s grace toward us. If God kept score, we would be in some serious debt, like the people who owed more than they could pay in today’s gospel. But God’s grace precedes our entire existence, and if we choose to be kingdom-builders, we begin by accepting God’s grace, and extending our own forgiveness to others. There is really no other way to transform our limited sense of tit-for-tat justice into an expansive sense of God’s justice and mercy.

The Good News is today’s gospel isn’t immediately obvious, but it’s there; forgiveness is the engine that drives our journey toward the kingdom, and we who receive it gladly are called to share it freely.

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Written by the Rev. Kay Sylvester
The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s in Tustin, California. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader, and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

God’s covenant, Pentecost 16, Proper 19 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28 and Psalm 14 (Track 2: Exodus 32:7-14 and Psalm 51:1-11); 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10

[NOTE: Suggested hymn, “Amazing grace”]

Throughout Pentecost we have been hearing readings that tell us about the nature of God. Today’s readings follow that theme with an in-depth look at God’s merciful nature. A closer reading reveals to us how God works in a covenant relationship with His people.

In the Exodus passage we find God’s initial anger with the people whom he has led to deliverance from slavery in Egypt. They have become bored and disillusioned and have returned to the worship of other gods and have built a golden calf as an image. Like anyone who has done something good only to be rebuffed, God is angered by this repudiation and threatens violent wrath until Moses intervenes.

A teenage boy recently was caught joy riding, having stolen a car from family friends. His father confronted him and told him how ashamed he was, how their friends had done so much for them, “And this is how you repay them?” But later the friends sat down with the enraged father and reminded him how they had all once been young and done foolish things. They then told him they were not going to press charges.

God is persuaded by Moses in the Exodus story to remember, to remember the covenant and promise to Abraham, and how that promise needs to be fulfilled. The family friends reminded the wrathful father that all of us do stupid things, and that while there are consequences, there is also mercy and forgiveness. It is in God’s nature to be merciful. We worship a merciful God.

Paul, writing to Timothy underscores the mercy of God as he recounts his own conversion from being a persecutor of the gospel to its promoter. He knows from experience that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”  Paul makes this powerful witness out of experience as well as a faithful conviction that God is merciful and prefers that all be drawn to the message of salvation and eternal life.

The most powerful witnesses of God’s mercy and renewal come from people who are recovering addicts. They can tell with absolute conviction of their redemption through God’s mercy. They know their depravity and the depths of despair, and as they begin to move to a life of sobriety, they witness to how much God has done for them. Their stories continue to move others and save many who are lost and who only imagine God is punishing them or determined to destroy them. For many it has been a long road, but they have learned to find God mighty to save.

The gospel lesson summarizes the basic teaching of Jesus about the nature of God. We are not dealing with a God of whimsy or one subject to influence by expensive gifts or sacrifices. Rather, we are in relationship with God who is most concerned about each of us, wanting to find us when we are lost, and yearning to bring us home.

An older couple despaired for their son who was an alcoholic. They had tried tough love, and they prayed for his deliverance. The addiction had been a problem since high school, when he wasn’t able to receive his diploma because he was in jail for underage drinking. Now in his thirties he was in the hospital; this time the doctor told them he wasn’t sure he could save their son.

Now, a year later he is at work, attending daily AA meetings, and dating a woman who is also a recovering person. He has a job and is becoming very involved in his church. God sought him, when he was most lost, and found him through friends and AA, who led him back to sobriety. And God does this over and over, sending people to us when we need them, putting us in the places where we can get help even when we would rather reject it.

The Good News is not that God is going to make us successful or rich. The Good News is that God is loving, merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness. If you ask anyone who has been through the pain of addiction or felt lost and alone and then been found, they will tell you without any doubt there is a God who is mighty to save, and that God is found at work in the world today.

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Written by the Rev. Ben E. Helmer
The Rev. Ben Helmer is vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. He lives with his wife in nearby Holiday Island.

Friends and Family, Pentecost 15, Proper 18 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139:1-5, 13-17 (Track 2: Deuteronomy 30:15-20 and Psalm 1); Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Somebody once made the remark, “Friends are God’s way of apologizing to us for our families.”

One might ask, How shall we see our way through such a curmudgeonly statement into something edifying? However irritating the attitude, there is a grain of truth in this grouchy remark.

Today’s gospel reading is tough, but a tough gospel lesson is the only kind that can really do what it is supposed to do – proclaim the release of captives from a particularly formidable prison, the prison of a destructive family system.

So here it is once again, in not so many words: “If you don’t hate all your old family members, and even life itself, you can’t be my disciple.”

If we do that, what will we have left? Do we like the direction this is taking us? What good does it do to ridicule our traditional aspirations of being thankful for all that we have received from our mothers, fathers, their relatives, and the people they married? Why isn’t Jesus encouraging us, instead, to help and love our relatives?

We must patiently wrestle with these questions as we consider today’s gospel, and not run around them like an impetuous Ferrari driver behind a string of eighteen wheelers that happen to be blocking the view of our destination.

Often in the gospel, the prospect of discipleship or a commitment to follow Jesus as Lord involves requirements that are a little scary. Here we are being told to abandon our relatives – after all they’ve done for us. Does that seem like the right thing to do? Let’s be patient with ourselves and pray for the grace to be open to the surprising ways of God, so that God can move us ahead with our spiritual development into realms greater than what our past has equipped us to imagine.

Consider the family relationships of two people. Let’s call them Elsie and George. You probably know people just like them. Both Elsie and George came from backgrounds that were very limited spiritually. They assumed that their present and their futures would really not be much different from their pasts. They knew no angels. Their gift of faith had not been delivered to them.

Elsie was the daughter of a very depressed mother, a woman who medicated her depression with alcohol and then would spend days at a time in bed. Her mother’s husband abandoned the family before Elsie was in her teens. She had a younger brother and a little sister whom she loved and looked after. Very typically of the adult child of an alcoholic, Elsie felt she was the cause of everything that went wrong in her midst. In fact, she believed that she was the cause of her mother’s depression.

Similar in some ways was George. George was a gentle spirit who led a tragic life. He felt obliged to step up and expand on his father’s very profitable business as a consultant for factory plant managers. George hoped that if he took on his father’s vocation, his father would finally show George that he approved of him and would give him his blessing. George wanted desperately to have that. But George’s talents were quite different from those of his father. George was miserable for many years, and eventually the business failed and his marriage ended in divorce.

There were churches and ministries in the neighborhoods of both of these people. They sometimes even attended services. But neither Elsie nor George ever realized how God calls all people to understand themselves by a greater instrument than the familiar experiences of their pasts.

We, the human beings that we are, are a people who understand ourselves by the way we experienced and remember the support of, or betrayal of, our critically important relationships in the past. The late British psychoanalyst John Bowlby developed a theory that adult personalities are best understood by the quality of attachments they had in their childhoods. Bowlby believed that adults who, as children, experienced traumatic betrayal of their early attachments, needed healing in order to form the bonds of affection that are generally understood as necessary for healthy living in maturity.

Most of us were fed, clothed, and sheltered in the critical first decade of life by our families of origin. This can even be said of the people in Elsie’s and George’s pasts. We owe our physical survival to the people who raised us.

With that affirmation, though, we must realistically acknowledge that no family of origin is without flaws. Even in the Bible, we see examples of these flawed family relationships: chemical abuse, obsessive-compulsive behavior, domestic violence, pathological behaviors stemming from the hopelessness of unresolved grief, and destructive sibling rivalries are all there, along with their confessions and redemptions.

These flawed relationships are a part of our spiritual histories. Many of us have been guilt-tripped and otherwise manipulated by our family members. We may also have done the same to them. To get relief or perspective, some of us have sought out therapy. Others may attend twelve-step meetings.

Others may prefer to seek support from friends or blow off steam with drinking buddies. Because we seek relief by such activities, we find a grain of truth in that impious remark, “Friends are God’s way of apologizing to us for our families.”

There are friends who, in some ways, act like the Good Samaritan, who bind up our wounds and leave us prepared to think a little more clearly. And by the grace of God, there are other friends who are even more fully like the Good Samaritan, who stay with the broken ones, people like Elsie or George, so that their wholeness can be restored by discovering or recovering the baptismal way, the commitment to Christ’s way, and by understanding the true purpose of his or her existence.

We, as either the ministering, or the ministered to, as we begin our journey through the wilderness of life’s challenges, come to know what is really meant by Jesus’ tough language. As we travel with him, we learn that the flaws and sins in our histories, along with the destructive patterns of behavior they generate, are the things we are called upon to hate, not the souls of the ones who were victimized by them.

In the compassion that comes to us in our new life, we come to understand the spiritual blindness that infected both our relatives and ourselves. That is a far better thing than to let them do what they may have once done: define who we are.

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Written by the Rev. David Somerville
The Rev. David Somerville is a retired U. S. Army Chaplain with credentials in hospital work and the pastoral care of people with the issues of recovery and adaptation after a life-changing diagnosis. He has been in the priesthood for more than forty years, is currently interim priest in charge of Saint Athanasius Church in Brunswick Georgia in the diocese of his canonical residence. He enjoys model railroading, traveling, and tandem bicycle riding with his wife Sherry.