September 22, 2010

Proper 21: Not Enough For Everyone’s Greed

by Ragan Sutterfield
Am 6:1, 4-7; Ps 146; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Lk 16:19-31

When I read passages like those in this week’s lectionary I find myself saying, not unlike the Pharisee in Luke 18, “God, I am thankful I’m not wealthy.” Of course, not withstanding the fact that I am quite comfortable and generally don’t go wanting for what I need, these scripture passages invite us into something much deeper than the matter of money; something that will challenge our way of living no matter the contents of our bank account. The lectionary passages this week invite us to a reorientation toward a life of radical dependence. Money is of course a major obstacle toward the realization of this dependence, but other resources such as degrees or physical ability or social status could just as well be stumbling blocks against living in the reality that God feeds us when we are hungry, vindicates us when injustice is done to us (Ps. 146:6).

In Amos 6:1a,4-7 we find a description of those living in lavish comfort without concern for the plight of their people and community. Their carelessness is purely negative and consumptive, focused on personal pleasure without realizing the connectedness of their lives to those around them. They have not looked at the problems of their community and lamented them, seeking to right the wrongs. Instead they have ignored these evils in order to more fully enjoy themselves. Of course, they can only ignore the problems of their community at their own peril, “the ruin of Joseph” will soon be their own ruin and the prophet warns them appropriately that they will be the first to go into exile, cut off from their place and community because they have chosen to be cut off from their place and community in its time of need.

In the Epistle to Timothy we find a similar tone: “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it, but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” The godly must be content with gifts of God and put their resources into the building up of the community. The problem isn’t so much with wealth per se, but with an interest in maintaining it. It is doubtful that someone truly pursuing Christ could maintain their wealth, given their constant generosity and concern for the needs of those around them.

Jesus’ parable of the rich man and Lazarus provides a stark view into the reality of maintaining wealth without concern for the well being of our neighbors. The nameless rich man is told that he received his reward while he was living while Lazarus did not. I am reminded here of Gandhi’s statement that there is enough in the world for everyone’s need, just not enough for everyone’s greed. If the rich man had lived in simple dependence on God’s abundant gifts he would have had plenty for his own needs and to share with Lazarus. Instead, the rich man ensured his own comfort by taking more than was needed, relying on the security of his grain bins and economic power rather than God.

As folks like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove have done so well to remind us, there is a different kind of economic order available to us that doesn’t require the minimal deposit for an IRA. To join we must simply live in the truth that what we have is not ours and live in the freedom of this dependence by sharing in God’s love and care for the divine neighborhood of which we are intimately a part.


Dives’ Sin of Omission

by Tobias Winright
Scripture Reflection: Catholic Lectionary (Am 6:1, 4-7; Ps 146; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Lk 16:19-31)

In my “Poverty, Wealth, and Justice” course, students still read Jonathan Kozol’s 1995 bestseller, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, which includes the author’s interviews with children in Mott Haven, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the South Bronx. It is striking how many of these kids bring up theology in their reflections, including David: “’Evil exists,’ he says, not flinching at the word. ‘I believe that what the rich have done to the poor people in this city is something that a preacher could call evil. Somebody has power. Pretending that they don’t so they don’t need to use it to help people—that is my idea of evil’” (23). Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, according to 2009 census data, one in five children in the U.S. continue to struggle below the poverty line. At the same time, New York Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman observes how America’s rich are raging about having to pay taxes, because “a belligerent sense of entitlement has taken hold: it’s their money, and they have the right to keep it." If any of these wealthy Americans also consider themselves to be Christians, this attitude stands in stark contrast to the theological meaning of the offering during Christian worship, which reminds us that all we are and all we have is from God—and that we are called to be good stewards, for the sake of others, of what we have.

In the Catholic Mass, we often recite a prayer, confessing our sin, for “what I have done and what I have failed to do.” Jesus’ story about the rich man (tradition has called him Dives, Latin for “rich man”) and the poor man, Lazarus, has to do with the rich man’s sin of omission. Dives did not maliciously do anything to harm Lazarus. Rather, Dives, who had more than he needed, neglected to make sure that Lazarus’ needs were satisfied. Jesus’ parable is a word of warning, much like that of the eighth century Judean prophet to Northern Israel, Amos, who denounced not only the wealthier people’s luxurious lifestyle at the expense of the poor but also their mere lack of concern for them. According to Psalm 146, God “executes justice for the oppressed…gives food to the hungry… sets the prisoners free…upholds the orphan and the widow.” That is how the rulers of Israel were expected to be and act as well, and Jesus’ echoing of this passage at the beginning of his ministry in Luke’s Gospel (4:18-19, but also found in Isaiah 61) offers a model for how Christians ought to think about justice (not charity) in connection with wealth and poverty. Moreover, as the author of 1 Timothy emphasizes, Jesus Christ is the “only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” It’s not our money to which we are entitled, as if we can merit our (economic) salvation. If we are seeking, by the grace of God, to “pursue righteousness [and] godliness” (1 Tim 6:11), I see no room for this talk of “entitlement” and the “right to keep” our money.

When Kozol tells Mrs. Washington, David’s mother, about a rich New York lawyer who said “They’re being killed by personal income taxes,” she replied, “There’s killing and there’s killing….I don’t think the man you talked to knows what ‘killing’ means” (110). A rich woman once told St. Vincent, “The poor frighten me.” To which he answered, “The poor are frightening, as frightening as God’s justice” (quoted on 186). I know this stuff won’t preach well in many churches, but there it is.


September 16, 2010

Redeeming Shrewdness

by Doug Lee
Luke 16:1-13b

Eugene Peterson observes that the story of the dishonest manager ranks as our least favorite of Jesus’ parables. What is there to cozy up to in a story where cheating goes unpunished and cunning is seemingly commended? Are we to use money to buy friends the way we buy objects for consumption?

Can Jesus truly be recommending such scandalous behavior?

But the scandal we hate in this story is precisely the scandal we love in the immediately preceding parable. Artificially separated by a chapter divide, the parable of the dishonest manager is actually meant to be heard alongside the parable of the lost son, most beloved of all the parables.

Both deal with underlings who squander wealth and violate a covenantal relationship. Both trust-breakers experience a moment of clarity that allows them to see their true condition. Both of these dubious characters hatch schemes to regain some measure of lost dignity. But both stories stupefy their hearers with the foolishly gracious response of the one in authority. Ignoring by-the-book justice and the insufficiently-gracious scheme proposed by the prodigal, the father will not have a slave but a beloved son. Similarly, the master responds to his manager not as a Bernie Madoff-class swindler but as a praiseworthy financial officer who has at last exhibited acumen instead of dullness. And both parables resound with implications and possibilities by leaving their hearers to supply their endings.

Juxtaposing the beloved scandal of Luke 15 with the stomach-turning scandal in Luke 16 strengthens and clarifies both. The outrage we feel in the second story can refurbish the surprise we have lost in hearing the father’s response to the prodigal. And the grace we so readily see in the father’s embrace of his son must be extended to the master’s commendation of the manager.

What is Jesus’ aim in telling these stories? What is the common thread that runs throughout, even to the story about another rich man and Lazarus at the end of Luke 16?

Jesus’ consistent vision of salvation in Luke’s gospel is one in which good news is proclaimed to the poor and the rich are judged for their dullness to the inbreaking of God’s good future.

It was a riveting moment for our congregation when our friend and Nigerian theologian Sunday Agang delivered a pointed assessment: “Your wealth persecutes you.” He said this in most sympathetic way possible, yet it was jarring nonetheless. His assertion paralleled Jesus’ declaration of woe to the rich (6:24-26), a lament over the deathliness that riches bring.

To be more truthful about all of this, Jesus laments the lifelessness that our riches bring. If you have the time and access to be able to read this blog, then you, like me, qualify as one of the very rich in terms of the whole world.

Still more to the point, Jesus’ message to us who are wealthy is that our riches divide us from the poor. The rich man knows nothing of Lazarus, who sleeps at his doorstep. Wealth hinders the have’s from showing hospitality to the have not’s.

But the persistent way that Jesus interacts with the rich is not merely to condemn but to save. Jesus’ appeal in the Luke 15 parables is for the older brother/Pharisees to rejoice in Jesus’ embrace of the younger brother/sinners. His desire in Luke 16 is for the rich/Pharisees to exhibit the same shrewdness as the manager, who finds scandalous grace by using temporal wealth to build eternal friendship. When Jesus employs “shrewdness” in this and other parables (“wisdom” in Matthew 7:24; 25:1ff), the word applies to those who have grasped their position at the inbreaking of the Kingdom and take clear action.

Luke’s Jesus has a lot to say about the destructive power of riches. But what if all his attention on wealth is not ultimately to condemn the rich but to evangelize us? What if hearing Jesus rightly means not handwringing but our conversion? What if Jesus’ message is not just good news for the poor but also good news for the rich?

The manager wins the commendation of his master by avoiding rationalization for his misconduct and using “what belongs to another” to build relationship. It is no coincidence that the shrewd manager does so by forgiving debts in a way that resonates with Jesus’ Jubilee campaign (4:18-19; 6:32-36; 11:4).

We receive God’s commendation instead of condemnation by employing His wealth to build relationship with the poor. We who are rich are to see our needy brothers and sisters as those who are ahead of us in hearing the gospel. Indeed, we are the needy ones who are to hunger for the blessing and joy of the Kingdom shared among our poorer brothers and sisters in our own communities and other parts of the world.

The Church is to be characterized not by greater effectiveness or more stringent disciplines, but by the scandalous generosity of God. The parable’s open conclusion beckons us to complete the story by entering into friendship with the poor. Then we will be able to hear Jesus’ hard words about Mammon as good news for the poor and good news for ourselves too.


September 07, 2010

Signs, Sheep, and Shepherds

by Kyle Childress
Luke 15:1-10

Our church’s logo is a shepherd’s staff, based upon the parable of the lost sheep, along with Psalm 23 and the Good Shepherd of John 10. We’ve had this shepherd’s staff with our congregation’s name written beside it out front on our sign since 1979 and it is on our letterhead, Sunday order of worship, and website. This shepherd’s staff is a constant reminder to us and to others of our vocation – who we hope to be and are called to be. More than that, it always reminds us who God is.

Our congregation began in 1968 as a gathering for lost sheep, black sheep, burned-out and beaten-up sheep, with a few old goats thrown in, as well. A lot of us were lost, but here, by the grace of the Loving Shepherd, we’ve been found. Furthermore, because of our own experiences, we have sought to make this congregation a body, or flock, where other lost sheep can find a home.

This is no small thing in today’s world. Surrounded by global capitalism, mass-marketing, big-box retailers, mega-churches with their large-scale-industrial-mass-production of Christians, and an all-too-common assumption that one needs to “get big or get out,” our church and others like us swim against a raging torrent. Shaped by Luke 15's story of the lost sheep, we believe in searching for each and every missing sheep and bringing it home; not the most efficient use of our time, not the most cost-effective, but it’s who and what we’re called to do. And when you’re the one sheep who has been lost, it is a life or death issue.

Last week at a wedding reception I had a conversation with a very talented and brilliant young woman, raised in our church, formed in part by that shepherd’s staff sign, who now teaches in the public schools of New Orleans. She teaches there because she says, “I’m called to be there.” She was telling me of the extraordinary challenges faced by the teachers and students in her part of the city and how each and every student counts. “There is an enormous difference between having 20 students or 19 students in class. When you have 19, you’re constantly worried over that missing 20th, and do all you can to find them.”

Wendell Berry’s writings are soaked in these parables found in Luke 15. His short story “Watch with Me” is a kind of extended meditation on a community watching out for a lost member with mental health problems (“Nightlife” is the nickname bestowed upon him), or as the other characters in the story put it, he had “a spell” come over him. They watch him and keep him safe until he is himself again. Toward the end of the story, still under the spell, Nightlife is in a barn, surrounded by friends who have been trying to keep him safe and he begins to preach on this very parable of the lost sheep. Berry writes, “Though Christ, in speaking this parable, asked his hearers to think of the shepherd, Nightlife understood it entirely from the viewpoint of the lost sheep, who could imagine fully the condition of being lost and even the hope of rescue, but could not imagine rescue itself.”

“’Oh, it’s a dark place, my brethren,’ Nightlife said. ‘It’s a dark place where the lost sheep tries to find his way, and can’t. The slopes is steep and the footing hard. The ground is rough and stumbly and dark, and overgrowed with bushes and briars, a hilly and hollery place. And the shepherd comes a-looking and a-calling to his lost sheep, and the sheep knows the shepherd’s voice and he wants to go to it, but he can’t find the path, and he can’t make it.’”

“The others knew that Nightlife knew what he was talking about. They knew he was telling what it was to be him. And they were moved.”

Luke 15 begins with the Religious Authorities murmuring that Jesus receives sinners and eats with them because, “The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him,” and it is in response to their murmuring that Jesus tells these parables. But I wonder, in the first place, if the sinners were drawn to Jesus because he could imagine fully the condition of being lost? The very reason he was the Good Shepherd was because he understood entirely the viewpoint of the lost sheep and he understood them because he received them and ate with them.

Contrast Jesus and the Good Shepherd way of seeing with what John tells us about the high priest Caiaphas when he said, “Don’t you understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed?” (John 11:50). In other words, Caiaphas and his kind say, sometimes it is okay, even necessary, to sacrifice someone or something for some greater cause: the company bottom-line, freedom and democracy, victory, efficiency, a brighter future, and on and on.

In this world of Caiaphases, the church is called to be a Good Shepherd people. And when we are faithful to our calling, then we become a sign pointing to the Kingdom of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Shepherd of us all.


September 02, 2010

Buckle Your Seatbelt

by Jenny Williams
Luke 14:25-33

Over 60% of teenagers admit to having texted while driving.
Someone is injured in a car crash every 14 seconds.
Car accidents are the leading cause of acquired disability nationwide.

The risks of traveling by automobile are tremendous, and yet most people drive or ride daily.  Why would we do such a thing? 

We have decided to get in the car because we have more important things to do than live in fear of the road.  We have to shop for groceries.  We have to take the kids to school.  We have to get to work. 

In Luke 14, Jesus issues a disclaimer about the risks involved in following him.  It’s not even hidden in the fine print.  It’s right out in public before the crowds, like a warning sign on a roller coaster:  do not ride if you are pregnant, have back problems, or a heart condition.  But whereas the amusement park posts those signs in their own best interests, Jesus’ warning is in the best interest of those who are considering following him.  He warns us that submitting ourselves to His lordship could mean division in our families.  And in a move at the end of the lection which nearly gives us whiplash, Jesus tells us that following him means we have to part with our stuff. 

It’s risky business, indeed, striking at the heart of two institutions prized by Americans—family and ownership. 

The sacraments may give would-be disciples some insight as to why Jesus would choose to announce these two risks in particular.  We might have to hate our family of origin?  Yep, following Jesus could create that division.  But through God’s grace and the application of water, you’re welcomed into a whole new family, loaded with brothers and sisters who love Jesus, too. 

We have to give up all our stuff?  Yep, but people who eat around the same table know that God calls us to participate in the weird financial arrangements of economic sharing. Your stuff won’t be yours any longer, but you’ll know that the people with whom you eat will have what they need. 

So you have to be willing to part with things and people—dear and cherished things and people—to follow Jesus.  But the sacraments remind us that our loss does not go uncompensated.  Surrounded by our dinner companions at Christ’s table, we know we’ll never be wanting for what we need.  Because of our baptism and place in God’s church, we will always have family.  Even in loss, there is security.  Even in the crosses we carry, there is new life. 

Jesus, however, is not only looking out for us in his disclaimer.  He’s looking out for the integrity of the good news.  If you begin building a tower only to have to halt construction half-way because you ran out of money, you’re going to have an unfinished spectacle on your property for all the neighbors to behold…and laugh at.  If you don’t think about the cost of discipleship in advance but enter the journey anyway, people are going to ridicule you when you give up.  And your giving up will compromise your living testimony to our Holy and Powerful God.  The loss of the saltiness of the salt of the earth affects more than the salt itself. 

So given these risks, why on God’s green earth (as my mother used to say) would anyone decide to get in the car with Jesus?  Because we have decided that we have more important things to do than to live in fear of the risks.  We have people to feed and work to do.  Just buckle your seatbelt.  It’s going to be a wild ride.