Finding Our Way (#itscomplicated)

A version of this sermon was originally preached on Sunday, September 22, 2019 at Kingsway Baptist Church.  What follows is reconstructed and expanded from my rough notes.  The texts are Amos 8:4-7 and Luke 16:1-13.

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Last week, we encountered Jesus offering healing and hope to the sick and the outcast – healing Peter’s quarantined mother-in-law, touching and cleansing a leper. You belong: that was the message. You belong. You belong with Me. You belong with one another. So come close – so close, the Apostle Paul declares, that we become one body in many parts.

Belonging is an essential ingredient of the gospel story, what the good news of Christ is all about: feeling loved by and at peace with one another. That’s also what makes the parable before us today so very challenging – because it appears to be sending a very different message.

Make friends for yourselves through dishonest wealth so that when it is gone you might be welcomed into eternal homes.” What in the world are we supposed to make of that statement, especially coming from the mouth of Jesus? And even if we manage to make something of it, what are we supposed to do with it? It seems so contrary to what the church stands for – what Jesus stands for.

The truth of the matter is most of us don’t do anything with it. We simply ignore it or skip it. If we’ve heard and remember anything from this story in Luke 16, it’s probably the punch line: “No one 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.” Of course, we don’t much like that either because that’s exactly what we long to do: lead holy and affluent lives. We aspire to the glories of heaven in the hereafter even as we pursue the perks and comforts of the here and now.

We’ll return to God and wealth at another time. That’s a sermon unto itself. First we have to deal with this parable, because that’s our path to the punch line. “Make friends for yourselves through dishonest wealth….”

Let’s start with what appears to be going on. Jesus seems to be condoning the swindling of the rich and powerful, because that’s what the steward of Luke 16 does. When he gets sacked, he doctors the books – but with a twist. He doesn’t embezzle funds and make off with a briefcase full of cash. Instead, he calls in those who are in his master’s debt and reduces the amount they owe. 100 jugs of olive oil becomes 50. 100 containers of wheat becomes 80. Rather than stealing, he undercuts his master’s profits and ingratiates himself to these debtors. That’s his plan: to bank brownie points rather than money. He’s done these guys a huge favour – a favour he can call in one day when he needs it.

Now, let’s consider our reaction to this story. If you’re like me, part you – like the rich man who’s duped – applauds the steward for his shrewdness, even though it makes you a little uncomfortable. He’s stickin’ it to the man. And while that phrase is modern, the sentiment is quite ancient. The trope of the celebrated trickster goes way back. Think of Odysseus in Greek mythology, Robin Hood in Enlgish folklore, or Jacob in the Old Testament. We delight in the poetic justice of stories in which the rich and powerful have the tables turned on them – even when we ourselves are rich.

Yet, somehow we don’t respond to the steward of Luke 16 in the same way. Perhaps it’s because these other heroes are of another world of legend and folklore, and we can enjoy their shenanigans from a safe distance. Even Jacob, while a figure from the Bible, feels like he belongs to a different, more primordial age. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses – their stories enrich and inform our faith, but they aren’t the foundation of our faith. Jesus is. Perhaps because this is a story told by Jesus, it feels closer to home – even though it’s some 2,000 years old. Still, we have trouble seeing this steward’s actions as heroic or noble in any way. He’s not on a great quest. He’s not fighting on behalf of others. He hasn’t been duped or wronged in some way.

Or has he…?

Because the focus of the parable is on the steward’s actions later on, we tend to coast through the beginning of the story. Someone tells the rich man the steward is squandering his money. Then, essentially in one breath, the rich man demands an accounting from the steward and dismisses him. He’s accused and he’s done – just like that. There isn’t a hearing or a trial. The steward isn’t afforded an opportunity to actually give his accounting and defend himself. He’s simply dismissed, and he has no recourse. The rich man holds all the power. The steward is at his mercy. Furthermore, the Greek word for “accuse” that Luke records – diaballo – carries with it the connotation of falsely accusing someone. It doesn’t have to mean that, but it can mean that. Either way, the fact that Jesus uses that word to set up the story complicates things.

There’s something else, too – another difference between the steward and these other heroic tricksters we’ve mentioned. All three of them are free agents and nobles of one stripe or another. Odyessus was king of Ithaca. Robin Hood was the Lord of Loxley. Jacob is a patriarch, the very namesake of Israel, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham. Our steward is middle management at best. He might even have been a slave. What difference would that make?

Well, let me ask you this: who is in our prisons? Studies have shown that people of different races and socio-economic standing commit crime at more or less the same rate. But statistics reveal that poor people, especially poor men with brown and black skin, are disproportionately represented in our prison populations. That means that poor minorities are more likely to be prosecuted when they are charged with an offence, and more likely to be sentenced to jail time when they are prosecuted and found guilty.

One of the consequences (if not functions) of social class is to delineate not only who gets to make the rules but who gets to bend and break the rules. It makes us nervous when “the wrong people,” the people lower down the social ladder, start bending and breaking rules, because when they start bending things, the ladder starts to shake. If it shakes hard enough, it might just come tumbling down.

When Odyseus, Jacob, or Robin Hood “stick it to the man,” they’re sticking it to their peers at the top of the social ladder. It’s all rather entertaining – but none of it is threatening to the status quo. Odysseus outwitted fellow princes and minor deities, but the didn’t disturb the cosmic order. Laban and Jacob were relatives. All those sheep and goats that Jacob conned Laban out of may have left town with Jacob, but ultimately they stayed in the family. Robin Hood robbed from the rich and gave to the poor, but at the end of the day the rich were still rich (and the poor were still poor) in Sherwood Forest. A few nobles’ purses might have been lighter, but their titles and lands were very much intact.

I would submit that the steward of Luke 16 makes us uncomfortable, not only because we haven’t fully understood the scenario Jesus has set up, but also because his actions give the social ladder a firm shake. Not only is he a lowly steward, he erases debt: one of the chief levers (if not cudgels) of power both in our time and in Jesus’ time. Those who hold debt have control over those who are saddled with it. So, whenever someone starts messing with debt, they start tinkering with the balance of power, the very base of the ladder. In fact, we might find the steward more palatable if he had run off with a suitcase full of cash. As it stands, he’s not just lowering an amount for these debtors, he’s loosening a grip. He’s not only shrewd, he’s subversive.

Now, I can hear the objection and the question rumbling through your minds. Hang on, preacher! That’s all very interesting; but there’s something else the steward is that you haven’t mentioned yet. He’s dishonest! He falsifies official documents. He cheats his employer for personal gain, whether the gain is in the form of money or not. What about that? Surely you aren’t suggesting that Jesus is suggesting that’s okay?

It’s true. There’s no denying it or getting around it. The parable is clear about the steward’s actions. However, the parable is also clear that the steward is completely at the mercy of his master, who is shown to be capricious at best. He is caught in an economic, social, and political structure that doesn’t offer him recourse or reasonable alternatives – at least none that he can see. He’s a man doing all he knows to do to find his way through. “I’m not strong enough to dig, and too proud to beg.” Perhaps he shouldn’t be too proud to beg. Nevertheless, are either of these options really an acceptable outcome? Would we accept either option for ourselves or those whom we love? I don’t think so. Because if it were us or our loved ones in this situation, we wouldn’t lose sight of our (or their) humanity as we debated what to do: what’s right and what’s wrong, what’s possible and what isn’t.

Jesus’ story reminds me of another story an African-American friend of mine from Hyattsville told one night at our book club meeting. The conversation somehow turned to people on public assistance and the perception that they play the system. Why, then, should American taxpayers continue to support a program that is regularly abused? My friend is a successful jewellery maker, married to a doctor, a member of the city council: a true American success story. He’s also a child of the projects in Baltimore. His response to the objection was quick. Look – I lived that life. And yes – we gamed the system. We gamed it because we had to. We gamed it to survive. Because the system wasn’t designed to serve us. It was designed to serve a bunch of politicians in Washington. If we didn’t game the system, we wouldn’t have made it. We did what what we had to do – pure and simple.

This retort completely changed the tenor of the conversation because my friend put a name, a face – a life – to the issue. And that’s exactly what Jesus does in His telling of this parable. He imbues the steward with humanity: in his internal dialogue, in his audacity and ingenuity; in all his resourcefulness and sinfulness. Sadly, though, we miss it because we, like the rich man, too quickly and too easily get caught up in passing judgment on the steward – only then to be shocked that Jesus might suggest we consider the steward an example.

One thing Jesus never condoned during His life and ministry was people losing sight of other people’s humanity, especially for the sake of religious correctness. Lest we forget, the same Jesus holding up this steward as an example also held up a Samaritan as an example over a priest and a Levite. He touched lepers with His hands, and didn’t much care if His disciples washed theirs. He healed a crippled woman on the Sabbath, and shared the table with prostitutes as well as Pharisees. At just about every turn, Jesus pushed back against systems and structures that put procedure over people or that allowed labels and circumstances to define people’s worth and potential. We’re all children of God, made in God’s image, gifted with life – and all of us fall short. Nevertheless, while we were yet sinners, Jesus lived, died, and rose again that we all might have life more abundantly and even eternally. Let us never forget that.

Let us also not forget who Jesus was talking to here, before we joined the story. This parable is addressed to the disciples – those whom He has called and who have chosen to follow Him. And from what we know, this original band of believers weren’t standing at the pinnacle of the social order. They weren’t landowners and debt holders. They were fishermen, tax collectors – not at the bottom of the ladder by any means, but people who were economically dependent on the favour and good will of those at the top; people whose livelihoods could be jeopardised by the whims of nature or the impulses of the rich – just like the steward of this story. They were people most likely in debt to some degree, people who could empathise with the steward’s predicament, especially in a world where the concept of “the social safety net” didn’t exist. They were people from Galilee, a region both exploited and maligned; people who’d likely found themselves in a “situation” or two here and there.

We can’t know for sure what they would have heard in this story, but I think they would have heard hope. I think they would have heard one of their rank presented as more than a cog in the wheel and a prisoner of circumstance: someone who had the courage and the resourcefulness to act in the face of dehumanising powers and events beyond his control – and with Jesus’ blessing – disconcerting to us as it may be. It’s a blessing born of the prophetic fire of Amos’ warning: Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…. The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Surely I will never forget any of their deeds. It’s a reminder to them (and to us) that God doesn’t find fault with those doing what they have to do so much as God takes issue with those who put them in that position. 

In the end, perhaps the greatest gift of this parable is to confront us with a situation that refuses distillation into simple right or wrong, good or bad judments; a situation that we must allow to remain complex; a situation that confronts us with the humanity of a dishonest steward and an honest look at our own tendency toward inhumanity. The fickle power structure on display in Luke 16 has morphed but not changed all that much in 2,000 years. Perhaps this parable’s true blessing is to force us to give more than a passing glance at ourselves and our neighbours and the systems in which we live. Few things and few people in this world are simply this or that. All of us are bearers of light and prisoners of darkness. And, in God’s eyes, we’re all worth saving.

So may we remember God’s preferential option for the poor. May we remember the humanity and the divinity present in us all. And may we keep wondering and wrestling with the complexities of this life and this world, in Jesus’ name and for His sake. Because we, too, have heard Jesus’ call, and have set out to follow Him. Amen.

Prophetic Tasks: Telling the Truth in a Society That Lives in Illusion

All parents have certain stories they tell about their children. I certainly have stories I tell about mine. One of the stories my mom tells about me involves my first trip to Wendy’s. This would’ve been the early 1980s when the “Where’s the Beef?” campaign was all the rage. I thought those hamburgers looked so good on TV – much better than my usual Happy Meal burger. I really wanted to try one, so my mom took me to Wendy’s one evening. As she tells it,  I was giddy with excitement standing in line. I waited with great anticipation as they got our order ready. Then we found a seat at one of those tables that looked like they were covered in 150 year old newsprint. I tore open the wrapper as fast as I could and then I stopped – just froze. After staring at my hamburger for a second, I looked up at her with a look of bewilderment on my face and exclaimed, “That’s not what it looks like in the commercial!?!”  Life lesson learned.

But there’s good reason why that hamburger in my hand didn’t look as good as the one on TV. There’s no way it could have. Take a look:

Keep this video in mind the next time you find yourself drooling over the cover of a cooking magazine while standing in the checkout line. There’s probably nothing in that photo you could actually eat if you got your hands on it.

Remember it the next time you feel a sense of inadequacy glancing at the cover of a fashion or health magazine, too. The models and celebrities who make those covers are exceptionally beautiful people – that’s why they’re on the cover; but not even Selena Gomez or Idris Elba or Gigi Hadid or Hugh Jackman look that good in real life. They’ve been fictionalised with lights and filters and airbrushes and other editing techniques just like a certain hamburger.

This is the society in which we live: a culture of illusions if not fabrications and outright falsehoods. We cannot fully trust our eyes whenever we are looking at a screen (which is quite a bit of the time these days), and that is simultaneously amazing and unsettling. Amazing because what we can engineer is simply incredible. Unsettling because the line between what’s real and what’s digital is growing thinner by the year. I watched the first Pirates of the Carribean movie (2003) with my girls recently, and I was shocked at how crude the special effects seemed  by 2019 standards – because I could tell what was CGI and what wasn’t.

And not being able to tell is fine when we’re at the movies or watching TV, seeking by choice to be entertained, willingly suspending our belief to be immersed in a world of make believe. The trouble now is we don’t always have the choice. That special effects technology used to create the latest summer blockbuster is not confined to the movies or even to production studios. Simplified versions are available to pretty much anyone who can afford a laptop and the right software.

One of the more problematic developments of the last few years is the advent of the “deepfake.” Deepfake technology uses the same motion capture techniques used by Hollywood special effects artists to digitally transpose a person’s face onto another person’s body, or one person’s mouth onto another person’s face. The software then enables the creator to more or less seamlessly merge the images to make it appear that the person (usually a celebrity) is doing or saying whatever the creator desires. In the context of cinema, this technology opens up wide new horizons for creativity. On the political stage or in the social arena, however, it holds the potential for tremendous harm. Already videos showing politicians saying things they never actually said are circulating online. Thankfully, at the moment, many of these homemade deepfakes can be spotted fairly easily. But the day is fast approaching when distinguishing fact from fiction will require careful examination as the technology advances and deepfakers gain more experience.

[ WARNING: Langage Advisory ]

Yet, even now, knowing that pretty much anything we see could have been manipulated or altered in some way leaves us feeling unsettled and un-moored.  We’re not always sure what we can trust – especially online. And that mistrust may very well be spilling off the screen and off the page into other areas of life. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a correlation between the sophisticated evolution of our digital existence and the reactionary devolution of our politics. Put another way, as our society has become both increasingly visual and more skeptical about what we see, are we more suspicious of each other as a result?

Of course, we’re not the first generations to have to deal with artifice and deceit. There’s nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The difference for us is the scope and scale of the present challenge. Previous generations have not lived in an age where the appearance of reality can be manipulated with such ease and that manipulation can be distributed en masse with even greater ease, thanks to the internet.

This reality gives particularly urgency to Walter Brueggemann’s assertion that “telling the truth in a society that lives in illusion” is one of the prophetic tasks given to the church. Our world is in desperate need of truth-telling.

Before we can tell the truth, however, we have to seek the truth and be committed to the truth – even at personal expense. As Baptist disciples of Jesus, Scripture is where we turn first whenever we seek truth. There is a lot about truth contained in the Bible. But truth-telling as a prophetic task involves more than declaring that Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6); more than quoting any series of verses. I’m going to suggest that two of the most important scriptural anchor points for truth-telling actually don’t have anything overtly to do with truth.

The first is the Apostle Paul’s exhortation in 1 Thessalonians 5: test everything. The NIV’s rendering, “Do not treat prophecies with contempt, but test them all,” is far too limited in its focus. πάντα δὲ δοκιμάζετε means to test, probe, even taste all things. We need to test proclamations, interpretations; the directions and instructions given by our leaders; the convictions and motivations our own hearts and minds. My wife used to have a bumper sticker on her car that read, “Don’t believe everything you think.” And it’s true. Rene Descartes helped launch the modern age by stating, “I think therefore I am.” In our postmodern, post-fact age this idea has metastasized into “I think therefore I am right.” Truth is all of us are prone to accept false or misleading information based on our preconceptions and predilections. The waters of baptism don’t wash away our personal biases. We Christians might be more susceptible, in fact, to accepting without pause or critique assertions that reinforce what we already believe precisely because faith (conviction) plays such a significant role in our lives. And it’s oh so easy to hit that “share” button online. It’s oh so easy to pass conjecture and rumour down the pew when we’re at church. So we have to test everything – in relation to the larger culture and within our church fellowship.

We also have to make sure we pursue truth-telling in ways that are faithful to the gospel. Truth-telling can be painful and even harmful. It can be done in the wrong way, even done for the wrong reasons. Blackmail is a twisted form of truth-telling, after all. It’s using the threat of revealing the truth as a means of leverage or personal profit.

We should note that Paul’s instruction to “test everything” is not given in isolation. It’s one of many encouragements offered in this closing section of 1 Thessalonians 5. It’s an instruction that’s very much anchored and delivered in the context of a beloved community: of a church that as a family “encourages one another and seeks to build each other up” (verse 11). The church at Thessalonika has shown itself to be a community that prays and rejoices together, a place where people assist each other and are patient with one another; a fellowship where people want the best for each other, where they see every member of the body as loved, forgiven, and worthy of Christ’s redemption. There’s a difference between diligence and suspicion.

Paul and Brueggemann are both speaking of truth telling as an exercise in liberation, not accusation – and certainly not as an act of arrogance or self-righteousness: See – I’m right, you’re wrong. And this is where Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 come in. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world. Let your light shine. Faithful truth-telling shines a light of hope, it never casts a shadow of condemnation.

When I read Jesus words in Matthew 5, my mind also then leads me to Ephesians 5, where Paul elaborates on Jesus’ theme of living as bearers of light. For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. [Therefore] live as children of light (verse 8). Yes, part of living as children of light involves exposing the works of darkness (telling the truth); but the motivation here is not to exult or gloat over the darkness. Rather, it is to see the darkness transformed. For everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Think about that for a moment.  Everything that becomes visible is light! It’s an extraordinary claim – but one consistent with the life-giving, love-transforming gospel. There is a light that shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it (John 1), because the light Jesus brings, the light Jesus gives, converts the darkness into light. That’s what Jesus seeks.  It’s what faithful truth-telling seeks, too.

In recent history I can think of no better example of faithful, life-giving, light-bearing truth-telling than the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission – instigated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and other faithful leaders possessing great prophetic and pastoral qualities. The commission shepherded the exposure of the works of darkness in apartheid South Africa. But the goal of this exposure, the aim of this truth-telling in a national ( international) forum was never revenge or retribution. It was always forgiveness and absolution. It was confession in exchange for grace – which is what the Christian concept of confession is all about. And this choice – the choice to go after truth in this grace-filled way – served to set the fractures of a pummeled and concussed nation so that healing might begin.

South Africa’s commission served as the model for Canada’s own truth and reconciliation process in the 21st century as we seek confession and healing in our relationship with First Nations people on this soil – and well it should. But it should do more than that for those of us gathered in church on Sundays. It should serve as a model for our church and every church for how to conduct our life together when our pilgrimage becomes difficult. The only difference should be that, in the church, this work shouldn’t be the purview of a special commission; it should be the work, the task, the ongoing practice of all of us: truth-telling for the sake of transformation and absolution.

Not only is that what Christ calls us to; it’s what the world needs from us. Especially in this age of ubiquitous illusion, people are longing for something genuine and substantive to plant their feet on. And isn’t that what we have to offer?  The good news of the gospel, the story of Christ who is the Rock beneath our feet, the creator and liberator all creation. As Jesus Himself declared, if you build your house on this rock, it will not be moved, not matter how unpredictable the swirling sands of life become (Matthew 7:24-27).  That’s what we have been given; that’s what we have to offer.  The question is, “Is that what people find when they show up?  Is that what people see when they observe and experience our life together?”

May it be so, for the health of our congregation and the vitality of our witness to the world.  Amen.

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