Sermon – September 18, 2016

John M Hayes
September 18, 2016
Homily: Luke 16:1-13

Jesus’ parables are nothing like Aesop’s fables – they are not simple tales like the tortoise and the hare, the fox and the grapes that have an obvious morale.

Jesus’ parables are rather more like Zen koans – the linguistic equivalent of landmines – when we take them in, when they get imbedded in our minds they blow up our ordinary ways of seeing and thinking. Like the koan, these parables of Jesus undermine ordinary consciousness until there is a breakthrough into a new way of seeing and understanding. The computer of our mind gets an upgrade, and we get a glimpse of what things look like from God’s view, we get a glimpse of what this kingdom of God that Jesus is always going on about might look like on the ground of lived life.

Did you hear Jesus’ words? – “His master commended him for acting shrewdly, for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the 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.” Really? What does that mean?

The rich man calls his manager to account and finds that he was squandering his property. The manager fearing his ruin, goes and writes off his boss’s debt, taking the liberty to forgive his master’s debtors so to ingratiate himself to those who owed the master money and in the process regains his master’s trust and good graces.  He saves himself by giving away what is not his to give. And this is the guy Jesus recommends we emulate? It makes no sense.

In this parable, everything is turned upside down – the unjust steward winds up teaching the tight-fisted master about forgiveness, perhaps by shaming him into forgiving those debts that his steward wrote off. The extravagance of the steward brings the master to a new level of consciousness.

Some scholars have noted that the unjust steward is a Christ-figure: he dies and rises and raises others in the process, the masters’ debtors and the master himself who is caught in conventional ego-mentality. Grace comes not by respectable effort and good management, but only by failure and disgrace and loss.

Jesus didn’t aspire to respectable bourgeois status; he eats and drinks with crooks and prostitutes. He knew well that conventional respectability often cloaks hypocrisy, cruelty and avarice. The respectable have had the reward. Jesus refuses respectability becoming sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead.

The steward forgives debts that are not his to write off, debts owed to his master. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and advantage and to compensate for past crimes. Does the purity of his intentions matter to the poor peasants getting a break. We might recall that the indebted peasants in the ancient world lived in constant danger of being sold with his wife and children into slavery.  More than a Visa bill that’s gotten out of hand was at stake.

Jesus’ kingdom vision is this – none of it matters. All of life is pure gift. All of life’s gifts are pure unmerited gift, given in love, by a God who loves us senselessly, extravagantly, even shamelessly, loves us to his death and beyond. And if we get that what are we holding on to? What are we holding out for?

We are all thrown in this world together, here for a brief time, with one purpose: to find our way home to God, and to walk each other home to our God.

In Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive the debts of those indebted to us”. 

Who are we who have been given everything we have and who could never begin to pay our debt to God, who are we to withhold forgiveness of a brother or sister?

I need not remind you this is not the way of the world.

The Pope asked the nations of the first world make the year 2000 a Jubilee year, a year of forgiveness of the debts of third world countries locked into ruinous debt to first world governments and corporations. Needless to say that was a non-starter. That request I’m sure was met with indulgent, knowing smiles in many a boardroom. That’s not how the world does business.

Ta’neishi Coates’ article in the Atlantic a made a compelling case for reparations to African Americans to pay the debt owed for the exploitation, heartbreak and labor that built up the wealth of this country, from which they were systematically excluded. The talking classes had a good time entertaining themselves with that idea, but we all know that’s not going to happen, certainly not anytime soon. And if it did happen, there would be massive resentment and rage in some quarters. Can we expect any different from the world?

We are called to live an alternative reality, not just to see things from God’s view, but to be like God. We are called to become by grace what God is by nature, self-emptying love and radical, senseless, extravagant forgiveness.

One bleak, dark winter morning I took the Greyhound and arrived very early in Manhattan, delivered into the bowels of the lovely Port Authority Bus Station. The city that never sleeps, actually does sleep. Hardly anything moved and all the underground shops were shuttered and locked, except this one grimy coffee joint. I blearily got my coffee and sat down. Across from me, an old man who swept up and cleaned the bathrooms was taking a break and having his coffee, when a homeless guy comes hustling with an elaborate story about money he needs for medicine. Most of us customers gave him a dollar or some change, but this old janitor gives him a hard-earned ten-dollar bill that I imagine likely took him a couple of hours of unappealing work to earn. Not a few minutes after the homeless guy made his rounds, the liquor store across the way within view opened its gated doors. No real surprise the homeless guy was their first customer getting his “medicine” for the morning. Knowing glances were exchanged, we all knew we were scammed. The old janitor was the only one really amused, he laughed heartily and generously, and said, “You know, I knew that would happen, you know I was there myself once.”

And who was most like the Kingdom of God?

Sermon – Sept. 11, 2016

September 11, 2016
Jeremy Funk

Today’s Gospel lesson features two parables from Jesus about lost things searched for and found. First, Jesus supposes that a shepherd who notices one animal missing from the family flock of a hundred will go looking for the sheep until it is found. When the sheep is found, the shepherd will carry it back to the fold, rejoicing. Thrilled that all in the flock are accounted for, the shepherd will call together his men friends and neighbors to celebrate when he gets home: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.”

Second, Jesus supposes that a woman who loses one of her ten silver coins inside her windowless house will diligently light a lamp and sweep the premises. When she finds the coin, Jesus says, the woman will call together her women friends and neighbors to celebrate: “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.”

Luke puts these stories in Jesus’s mouth to answer Pharisees who grumble that Jesus eats with sinners and with tax collectors—with irreligious Jews and with traitors, local agents of the occupying Roman Empire. Pharisees grumble because Jesus is nearly one of their own. (Like the Pharisees, Jesus aims to uphold the law and to live according to its spirit.) But Jesus is adding to God’s fold sheep wandering for so long that their places have been nearly forgotten. That Jesus shares food with such forgotten ones embodies the words of Isaiah and Jeremiah, who call all God’s people to return to God.

So Jesus speaks today’s parables directly to his muttering critics; in English they come across as rhetorical questions: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost?” Why, none of you would let part of your family flock remain lost, of course, is the obvious answer. And, “what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?” Certainly no woman would leave her money missing, is the expected reply.

Surely lost things must be found. Jesus finishes each parable by letting listeners know that it is God who commits to looking, and it is God who commits to finding. It is God who has found these nearly forgotten ones, these sinners and tax collectors. And God is overjoyed. The parable of the Lost Sheep ends this way: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.” And the parable of the Lost Coin concludes like this: “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

I have always been a Bible geek and a book lover. When I was eleven or twelve probably, we were visiting our relatives in California during the summer and I used money from my Grandma Lepp to buy a New Testament at a local Christian bookstore. I recall buying it mostly because it was thicker than many Testaments there, and I liked the feel and heft of it. When I came back with it, Grandma was surprised (as was I) to find that I’d purchased the New American Standard Bible Soul-Winner’s edition, a special edition of the Bible designed to help convert lost souls to Christ.  The trouble is, who gets to define which of us are lost? I remember Grandma smiling and even chuckling about it. (My mom’s mom was a proud fundamentalist who sometimes handed out tracts to strangers.)

Yes I sometimes hung around fundamentalists as a kid, and yes I inadvertently bought a Soul-Winner’s New Testament as a preteen. But today when I read our lesson about the lost sheep and the lost coin I realize that the shepherd is the only one who knows the sheep is lost, and the woman is the only one who knows one of her coins is missing. The other sheep and the other coins don’t have a clue that anything may be wrong. I’m glad that God is the one committed to seeking and finding the lost, that I am—that we are—not in charge of deciding who’s lost and who’s found, who’s saved and who’s not, and what salvation looks like.

Yesterday on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, host Scott Simon commented on the crisis in Syria, a consequence of the instability that 9/11 and its aftermath have brought to the Middle East. Simon cited data from Syria provided by the charity called Save the Children: “There’s been an increase in the number of Syrian children who’ve tried to take their own lives,” he said. He quoted a schoolteacher in a besieged town: “‘The children are psychologically crushed and tired. When we do activities like singing with them, they don’t react at all. They don’t laugh like they would normally.’” Simon, who has been a war correspondent, added, “Usually in war, you are amazed to hear the laughter of children rise above the rubble and sorrow.”

This morning as we remember 9/11 and its dark ripple effects, we trust in the hope that God continues everywhere the work of seeking and finding. Our parables do offer us this hope. In the words of Jesus, God is a tireless shepherd looking for lost sheep. God is a woman on an exhaustive search for her valuables. God is determined to reach even the most faraway corners, to shine a lamp in even the darkest places, to find everything of value that she has lost.

If God is the one committed to seeking and finding the lost, then what is our commitment to God? Against the world’s darkness, celebration seems callous. But to celebrate is exactly what we are called to do. We can commit to embodying God’s never-ending joy—God’s heavenly celebration—as best we can as the church here on earth. We can celebrate because we trust that God is always about the work of seeking and finding. Plenty of people have been found here at Saint Luke’s—after all, here we are. And plenty keep coming back to find God and to be found by God again and again. For even if God has already found us, God is never through seeking us out. God is never through revealing Godself to us. In what ways has God been present in your life this summer?

Celebrating God together does not mean we should lock ourselves up in our buildings and keep to ourselves. No! But it does mean we should be ourselves. Let’s open our all our doors and windows so that any who want to can join us. God only knows who’ll come our way. God only knows who’ll be found, who’ll find a home, with us.

In her memoir Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott recounts how she was found by God. She eventually describes her experience of conversion as being chased by a cat. “I knew what would happen,” she says. “You let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and it stays forever.”

Yet before God began chasing her, God gradually sought her out, a drug addict with a hardened spirit, at St Andrew Presbyterian Church:

If I happened to be [at the flea market] between eleven and one on Sundays, I could hear gospel music coming from a church right across the street . . . [I]t looked homely and impoverished, a ramshackle building with a cross on top, sitting on a small parcel of land with a few skinny pine trees. But the music wafting out was so pretty that I would stop and listen . . . Finally, I began stopping at Saint Andrew, standing the doorway to listen to the songs. I couldn’t believe how run-down it was, with terrible linoleum that was brown and overshined, and plastic stained-glass windows. But it had a choir of five black women and one rather Amish-looking white man making all that glorious noise, and a congregation of thirty people or so, radiating kindness and warmth. During the time when people hugged and greeted each other, various people would come back to where I stood and shake my hand or try to hug me; I was as frozen and stiff as Richard Nixon.

Lamott goes on:

Eventually, a few months after I started coming, I took a seat in one of the folding chairs, off by myself. Then the singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food.

Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the barriers that kept me so isolated. Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life.

Amen.

 

Community Garden Update: Sept. 8, 2016

Last night, the garden was vandalized…

We have many happy memories of the 2016 garden:  its flowers and vegetables; the ways it showed us the growth of seeds into incredible mature plants with just air, water, soil, sunlight and care; the ways it brought the church people, the NorthStar volunteers, and the community together.

We will start planning our next steps.

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Community Garden Update: August 29, 2016–Praying Mantis

In the garden on this calm cool morning, sitting atop the tomato plant was a beautiful praying mantis.

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Here is more on this lovely insect.

http://www.itsnature.org/ground/creepy-crawlies-land/praying-mantis/

“The Praying Mantis is one of the most loved of the insect world to humans and one of the most feared to other insects.

It is extremely beneficial to gardens and humans because of its penchant for eating the things that bug us. They will eat mites, aphids and most other insects that are within the grasp of their front legs.

The praying mantis is related to grasshoppers and crickets, belonging to a family of insects called orthoptera.  They have, like their cousin the grasshopper, mouths which have parts designed to chew and very distinct wings.”

 

http://www.whats-your-sign.com/animal-symbolism-mantis.html

“Animal Symbolism: Meaning of the Praying Mantis

The mantis comes to us when we need peace, quiet and calm in our lives. Usually the mantis makes an appearance when we’ve flooded our lives with so much business, activity, or chaos that we can no longer hear the still small voice within us because of the external din we’ve created.

After observing this creature for any length of time you can see why the symbolism of the praying mantis deals with stillness and patience. The mantis takes her time, and lives her life at her own silent pace.

These traits have lead the mantis to be a symbol of meditation and contemplation. In fact, in China, the mantis has long been honored for her mindful movements. The mantis never makes a move unless she is 100% positive it is the right thing for her to do. This is a message to us to contemplate and be sure our minds and souls all agree together about the choices we are making in our lives.

Overwhelmingly in most cultures the mantis is a symbol of stillness. As such, she is an ambassador from the animal kingdom giving testimony to the benefits of meditation, and calming our minds.

An appearance from the mantis is a message to be still, go within, meditate, get quite and reach a place of calm. It may also a sign for you to be more mindful of the choices you are making and confirm that these choices are congruent.”