Changing the Rule

Exodus 16:2-15  | Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45 | Philippians 1:21-30 | Matthew 20: 1-16

Everybody stretch your shoulders a minute for a brief exercise, if you are able. By a show of hands, how many of you here today are cradle Episcopalians, meaning you’ve been Episcopalian since your infancy? . . . (keep ‘em up, if you can) How many of you have been Episcopalian for 20 years or more? . . . How many of you have been here at All Saints’ since its beginning in 2007 or have been in The Episcopal Church at least 10 years? (you’re probably getting tired, cradle folks–hang in there!) Five years or more? For how many of you is this your first visit, or you’re not even part of The Episcopal Church but have landed here at this point in your spiritual journey? Here’s the thing:

All of you are welcome here, in this place and at this table.

(You can put your arms down now.) All of you are invited now as ever to taste and see God’s grace and mercy. Is there more grace and mercy available to you if you’ve always been faithful and devout? Do you have special privileges if you’re an old timer, get more bread at communion for holding your arm the longest? No. It’s the same for everyone, infinitely and abundantly the same. The kingdom of heaven, according to our gospel today, shows no partiality amongst its workers.

This is good news. We are all equal, have the same access to God through Christ, receive gifts of the Spirit. Why can’t we leave it at that?

Well, Jesus said, “the last will be first and the first will be last.” All I hear at first glance is that there’s a first and a last, and Jesus knows I want to be first. I want to be rewarded for my efforts. I want it to show how much I love and serve, how close I am to Jesus as His number one fan. Last week (I’m sure you remember) I mentioned that Peter’s question about how many times to forgive was a question of quantity: just how much do we have to do to be good or right? This is a humanly economical thing to do, to quantify something so we can measure rank or amount, put “stock” in something. With such a measure, we can gauge our self-worth, estimate our value. We can also judge others. I want to be first in my devotion and faithfulness, not the least devout and most unfaithful. In my striving to be the best and most, I compare myself to others. I might even begin to think that I don’t have what it takes to be first. So focused am I on increasing my value in the system that I complain when things fall short, I complain that I don’t have enough. I might even think that I am not enough.

When we lived in Fayetteville from 2004-2012, I noticed this increased lingo about who was “native” or not in Arkansas, especially in Northwest Arkansas. Returning to the area of my nativity, I can’t help but notice that this distinction between natives and non-natives has reached almost a fever pitch, as if only those born and raised here have a right to give voice to the way things should be, now or going forward. We’ve been here longer than they have, so we have greater value.

Consider also the young children brought here with their aspiring immigrant parents, parents who were hoping to find their place in the economy, establish their value in the social and cultural constructs. These children, many now adults, are struggling to maintain a sense of security in the only place they know as home. They are looking to the others who have been here longer to help them, to protect them. Somewhere along the way they heard and believed that people were to look after the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner, that people were to love their neighbor. As they clamor to rush paperwork, our DREAMers are trying to navigate a system that sees them as another statistic, another number.

With our emphasis on earthly things, we cling to our human economy, constantly compare, and make our value judgments based on what we determine matters most. We get anxious thinking that we will come up short in this valuation, afraid that we won’t measure up.

And then Jesus goes and affirms that if we’re first, we’re going to be last.

That makes us even more anxious, unless we understand the love and compassion Jesus shares in these words. Can you hear him saying that you can be first, third, 50th, or last; what matters is that you’re part of the kingdom. You’re in. Notably, however, we’re not the boss. We’re the hired laborers doing the work, tending to the resources made available to us by nature of our position. We tend to think that the materials we work with, the resources we use, the compensation we’re given is all ours. So we hold onto it. We might even do a really good job of tending it well, watching the quantity multiply. But holding it to ourselves traps it, in a sense, keeping it from being in circulation. Whether it’s money or time or products or anything valuable, if we hoard it, we prevent it from being in the flow, being part of what Eric Law of the Kaleidoscope Institute calls “holy currency” (he has a whole book about it). Healthy congregations, healthy societies, healthy systems reap the cycle of blessings when the holy currencies are enabled to flow and fulfill the will of God, to manifest the Kingdom.

At one of his workshops, Eric Law shared with us an example of how not just someone but a community rallies to perpetuate an economy determined by values of the Kingdom, where everyone and everything has value. It did take the resources of one to help make it happen, but it has involved the whole community to keep it going. It’s the JBJ Soul Kitchen in New Jersey. (JBJ for Jon Bon Jovi, of course.) It’s one of those kitchens with great chefs and many hands and many patrons. Where some pay for their meal with cash, giving whatever they can afford but at least the minimum donation, and some pay with an hour of their time to volunteer, paying for their meal with dignity. What is most valued here is LOVE.

Love is God’s economy, and we can’t get it fully because it defies our understanding. In our human economy we are so predisposed to focus on scarcity, of there not being enough, that accepting even the possibility of there being enough for everyone seems improbable. It’s improbable if our systems adhere to human economy. Enough for everyone is provided by God. We, as caretakers and workers of Creation have imposed our earthly values. Gold is just another metal except that “its rarity, usefulness, and desirability make it command a high price.” What if we replaced greed with love? What if we gave power to those who truly exemplified the love of Christ? What if we frame our hope for the future around a kingdom of heaven that does welcome all, that values love above all things, and requires us to be good and faithful workers in the field, doing whatever work we are gifted to do?

I’m an optimist. Of course I can imagine a place in time where we make the Kingdom a reality this side of heaven. I’m also realistic, so I know that the odds are not in our favor for the whole world to coalesce into a single hum of peace and love. But if we keep making pockets of the kingdom, we are doing good work. We support places like Soul Kitchen–places that affirm and support the dignity of all persons and pay attention to their stewardship of creation. We realize that whether we’re native or alien, we are here together–whether that be in Northwest Arkansas or in this country. Our job is to love one another. That might look like protecting one another. It might look like getting someone out of a ditch, carrying them to the one who has the cure, or standing or kneeling beside them in their deepest, darkest grief. We might have done this all our life or just realized that this is what we’re given to do. Either way, we don’t push our way to the front of the line.

We make a bigger circle so we can gather around the table and marvel at the beautiful tapestry of the heavenly kingdom revealed as beloved community on earth.

 

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Shrewd Stewards

 

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 | Psalm 79:1-9 | 1 Timothy 2:1-7 | Luke 16:1-13

We all have those teachers or authority figures in our lives who seem so hardheaded and resolute that we just don’t know if we can tow the line they set. We might grumble about them, but we can’t help but learn from them and thus come to respect and maybe even love them. One such professor in seminary (who shall remain nameless) emphatically stated that there is no such thing  as “Stewardship Season.” We have the Season after Pentecost, and we have Advent; we have no distinction or color for “Stewardship.” And that was that. So I guess over the years church leaders have hopped onto the “stewardship season” boat despite the best liturgical advice, undoubtedly at the behest of vestries looking forward to making balanced budgets come January. It probably helped that the lessons coincided with a focus on wealth and money-management, and if they didn’t, there’s plenty in the gospels to choose from to work in a line or two. In fact, there’s actually lots in our tradition about being a good steward, period. We’ve come to realize that it’s not just about managing our pocketbooks but about managing all of our resources: our health, time, relationships, environment, you name it. Everything that we have–all of it, tangible or intangible–has some sort of value.

Today we’re being schooled on how we manage our valuables.

The dishonest manager or unrighteous steward has to provide an account to his master or lord because he’s been accused of squandering his master’s property and is getting fired. He knows he’s too weak to dig and too proud to beg, so he comes up with a way to provide for himself after he gets the boot. I couldn’t help but imagine this manager being a kindred of the former Wells Fargo consumer banking chief Carrie Tolstedt; perhaps you’ve read about her in Fortune or the Washington Post. Some squandering has occurred, but 27 years in the business with a seven-figure income didn’t come about because she’s a fool. Think fast and get out fast. After 27 years, who isn’t ready to retire, especially if it comes with something to the tune of $124.6 million in assets? That’s a lot of olive oil and wheat. It still remains to be seen if she has to give any of the payout back. (I wonder if any of the 5,300 employees who lost their jobs in the past five years because they didn’t meet quotas for opening new/fraudulent accounts have any input.) The CEO of Wells Fargo conveyed praise for Tolstedt, saying she “had been one of the bank’s most important leaders and ‘a standard-bearer of our culture’ and ‘a champion for our customers.’” His words sound an awful lot like a master’s commendation.

Jesus gives us this parable. When Augustine pondered why Jesus gave us this parable, I imagine him imploring with disgust as he preached that Jesus “surely did not approve of that cheat of a servant who cheated his master, stole from him and did not make it up from his own pocket.” Perhaps after a moment of composure, he suggests that the focus isn’t on the servant’s cheating but rather “because he exercised foresight for the future. When even a cheat is praised for his ingenuity,” Augustine says, “Christians who make no such provision blush.”

The cheat of a steward gets praise even from Jesus for exercising his shrewdness and insuring his future. The steward in the parable lowered the bills by getting rid of interest or commission and garners goodwill from the debtors. By the time the master realizes what’s happened, he’s going to honor the accounts as they are or lose honor with his customers. (Even Wells Fargo is paying back its fraudulent charges.) The master is saving face, so to speak, and even the manager gets by with his misdeeds that ended up bringing about goodwill toward himself. It’s like when two villains look at each other and say, “Well played.”

Jesus doesn’t deny the good move.

With this parable, Jesus points out that the corrupt masters and managers are getting away with their misdeeds while the people are suffering under the weight of all our systems and even our best intentions. The words ring a little too true, a little too clearly:

“…the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”

It’s like Jesus is challenging his proclaimed “children of light” to up our game. He did this 2,000 years ago, and it’s as true today as ever. “You can serve God and act shrewdly,” he’s telling us. “Think fast and act on my behalf, which is your behalf. We share eternity together.”

That choice to serve God is our first shrewd move, managing our free will by aligning it with God. Rather than promote our own agenda or save our own face, we serve God. As children of the light, we “have seen the kingdom dawning in Jesus’ works and in His calls for a radical commitment to God’s power to deliver people from corruption and oppression.” We stand up for what is good; we love our neighbors; we come to church; we pray. We collaborate with those who differ from us, reconcile with those whom it’s hard to love, and help those whom we are uncertain about. We manage our diversity, hospitality, and generosity knowing that we are merely stewards of God’s creation.

Jesus isn’t necessarily telling his followers they and we aren’t being faithful and serving God alone. He’s showing us how easy it is to fall to the wayside, how significant a little dishonesty can be, how easily we can fool ourselves.

In her book The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist shares her meeting with Mother Teresa, her lifelong role model and inspiration. Upon arriving at the Old Delhi orphanage, Lynne picked up the crumpled newspaper at the door, finding within it a newborn baby girl. She removed the newspaper and wrapped the tiny infant in her shawl before handing her to the nun who greeted her. While waiting for Mtr. Teresa to return from bailing two girls out of jail (because they had turned to prostitution), Lynne worked alongside the nuns in caring for the 51 children under the age of two. She noticed the cooing and singing before turning to her work, and found herself in what she called “a state of grace.”

Finally, Mtr. Teresa emerged from a shadowed hallway with “her familiar figure stooped over. She was smiling and glowing,” accompanied by a devoted black lab. Lynne kissed her hands and “instinctively kissed her sandaled feet” before they sat at the simple table together. Lynne thanked her for being her lifelong inspiration, asked for prayers for her family, and talked about her work with The Hunger Project. “In her presence,” Lynne writes, “I felt an unconditional love and connectedness to the whole world so profound that I could not hold back my tears and so I spoke to her through them.”

This beautiful, intimate moment was shattered by a large and flashy couple–wealthy, loud, and demanding–barging in to get their picture with Mtr. Teresa. Lynne was given the camera to take the picture and watched in horror as the rich woman tried to force Mtr. Teresa’s stooped frame upright. They didn’t even say “thank you,” not even to Mtr. Teresa. Lynne says that Mtr. Teresa continued with the conversation after they left as if nothing had happened but that she hardly heard her through her own rage toward the intrusive couple.

Weeks later, Lynne received a letter from Mtr. Teresa, handwritten. In it Lynne is admonished by Mtr. Teresa because while she shows great compassion for the poor, Lynne showed no compassion toward the wealthy couple. She took no heed “of the suffering of the wealthy: the loneliness, the isolation, the hardening of the heart, the hunger and poverty of the soul that can come with the burden of wealth.” From that point on, Lynne vowed to open her heart and have compassion for the wealthy and the poor and hungry alike. Mother Teresa opened Lynne’s eyes to see how she had surrounded the rich couple with her anger and hatred, while Mtr. Teresa showed them as much love and respect as the orphans she tended.

MtrTeresa-and-childIs there a better example of a child of the light than Mother Teresa? Well, she is one of many. She embodies one who is smart/wise/discerning/shrewd enough to tell the difference between what will pass away and what will endure. She shows us how with God’s help we can act decisively, committed to God’s power to end corruption and oppression. No, we won’t all be saints, but we do all have a choice as to whom or what we serve. The most powerful, valuable thing we have is our love and devotion.

Jesus keeps teaching us how to use them well.

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