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Proper 22, Year C

Sorry this is a little late, folks; I was traveling yesterday, and didn't get a chance to post.

Luke 17:5-10 - link to NRSV text

There's a lot that I appreciate a great deal about using a lectionary. It means that over the course of three years, congregations get at least some exposure to scripture from across the canon, and encourages preachers to deal with a variety of themes over time, rather than simply dwelling on one favorite topic.

Sometimes, though, I find the lectionary editing to be a little awkward, giving us small chunks of texts that, presented without context from the larger document, are difficult to appreciate fully. At times, I think that trying from the lectionary to instill appreciation for scripture is a little like trying to get someone hooked on Will and Grace by having them watch one 30-second segment from a different episode each week. It'd be hard to get to know the characters or find any kind of arc in the story. Heck, it'd be hard sometimes even to catch the jokes. And Luke is a lot more subtle than Will and Grace.

This Sunday's gospel is one of those slightly awkward points in the lectionary for me. Luke tends to group sayings thematically, but this is a pretty loose grouping -- I'd say that the section is roughly from Luke 17:1-21, and the theme is the broad one of "community relationships." Here's the progression I see:

The section starts with encouragement to forgive one another (vs. 1-4), continues with the saying on faith (vs. 5-6), moves on to address honor-seeking behavior with the saying about slaves (vs. 7-10), uses the healing of the lepers to look at what kinds of relationships and community Jesus creates (vs. 11-19 -- more on that next week), and climaxes with the saying that the community Jesus calls together IS God's kingdom (vs. 20-21), which becomes the jumping-off point for considering eschatology, what the climax of history will be like (17:22-18:9).

This week, we've got two units of tradition from that "community relationships" thematic cluster: the saying on faith and the saying about the slave.  One of the challenges posed for preachers here, I think, is that the looseness of the thematic grouping makes it hard to craft a cohesive sermon that addressed the whole text for this week.

On one hand, I'd be tempted to preach on the saying about the slave, and mostly because it strikes me as a difficult text. Read in isolation from its cultural context and without considering similar sayings, the exhortation not to come to the table and to think of oneself as "worthless" sounds like a recipe for neurosis. But the saying needs to be read in the context of Luke's theme of the great reversal -- the casting down of the mighty and raising up of the lowly. In keeping with Lucan eschatology, this reversal is both "now" and "not yet"; it is a guide for how Christians should behave in the community that is the inbreaking of God's kingdom now, and it is done now in anticipation that this great reversal will be consummated and made universal at the climax of history. I'd suggest reading Luke 14:7-11 alongside this Sunday's gospel to provide a little more context, as what's made clear repeatedly in Luke's gospel, from the Magnificat to Jesus' resurrection, but isn't explicit in this text is Luke's expectation that those who follow Jesus' exhortation to concentrate on serving and honoring others will be vindicated as Jesus, the Lord, honors them; the one who chooses the lowest seat (or no seat) will be brought to the highest one.

That'll preach, I'd say. But it's theme that's raised so frequently in Luke that I think I'd be inclined instead to concentrate on verses 5-6, the saying about faith, and specifically, I'd want to read it in the context of this thematic clump Luke places it in. It's a helpful corrective to our Western tendency to think of "faith" as an individual matter, and Christian faith as something that can be practiced apart from community.

That sort of view doesn't fit well with the meaning of pistis ("faith," in most translations into English). Ask for definitions of "faith" on the street, and I suspect most of us would hear things that boiled down to something like being willing to assent to some proposition -- to say that you believe a particular statement is true. Some people would add that it's willingness to say something is true even when there doesn't seem to be much evidence to support it, or even when the evidence seems to suggest that the opposite is true. Sometimes, I call this definition of faith "trying to talk yourself into thinking that you think it."

But that's not what Christian faith is. It's not about what goes on in your head. It's not even necessarily about "believing in your heart that it's true." It's not about what you feel.

Side note: lots of people say things to this effect, and base it on the Latin credo, "I believe," coming from the root cardia, or "heart." They say then that saying "I believe" is about what you feel and not what you think. Unfortunately for this argument, people had different views in the ancient world about which organ did what, and pretty much nobody thought that thinking went on in the brain. They thought that thinking went on in -- you guessed it -- the heart. The heart wasn't seen as the seat of emotions any more than the brain was seen as the seat of rational thought.

So if Christian faith isn't summed up by "I feel in my heart that this is true" any more than it is by "I think in my brain that this is true," what's it about?

I'd say it's about a different dimension to our word "true." It's about the kind of "true" we mean when we say, "he's true blue," or "she's true to her friends." It's about relationship. It's about relationship with integrity -- our willingness to put our resources and our very selves behind what we say is important -- or more accurately, WHOM we say is important to us. It's about fidelity, trust, allegiance.

And that's what Jesus asks of us as our Lord and gifts to us from his grace. Jesus calls us into a community in which we are each freed to give freely of everything we have to give, because we're ALL sharing with one another as if all of our resources -- money, power, time, and love -- were unlimited. It's the sort of vision that some shake their heads at and call impossible. But nothing is impossible, Jesus says, with faith. Nothing is impossible when we realign our relationships as Jesus calls us to do; we find the power we need from the community -- the communion -- we find with Jesus and the Body of Christ once we take the leap of faith to risk deeper relationship.

It's a truth that we don't necessarily think, or even feel; it's a truth we live into. So perhaps the connection between the saying about faith and the saying about the slave is stronger than it might first seem.  It might seem impossible that we find what we need -- honor and esteem as well as our material needs -- as we learn to give what we've got freely and to the benefit of others. And maybe it's helpful sometimes to let ourselves enter into humble service without Luke's certainty that Jesus will raise us up, because I don't think that most of us can muster up a sense of certainty for ourselves before we take that next tiny step forward, much as it feels like a huge leap of faith, to serve without thought of reward. But for each step forward we take on the journey into that truth, that integrity, that freedom, we find more to strengthen us for the journey. In the community to which Christ calls us, we've got what we need -- a mustard seed of faith, and companions who will lend us theirs when we can't find our own.

I hope that mulberry trees don't have a negative impact on the ecosystem of the ocean!

Thanks be to God.

September 28, 2004 in Faith, Luke, Ordinary Time, Year C | Permalink | Comments (0)


Dear All,

If you've popped over to my sermons site, you might either think that I haven't preached in many months or that I haven't been updating the site. It's the latter, and I haven't been updating the site because DSL became available where I live and I planned to migrate, meaning that I would have to rebuild the site.

And now all is accomplished -- I've got DSL at home! I will be discontinuing my EarthLink account, which means that my sermons site (which was hosted in free EarthLink webspace) will be going down for a bit. I plan to relaunch it as part of the new, improved, expanded SarahLaughed.net corner of cyberspace, and I'll let you know about that as soon as I, with my very limited design and coding skills, can get it going.

In the meantime, if you're curious about whether I preached on a passage and how the final version of the sermon turned out, feel free to email me, using the link on the sidebar to your right.

AND IF YOU'RE COMING TO THIS SITE VIA A LINK ON THE OLD (home.earthlink.net) ONE (there are still a few of you, I know), PLEASE UPDATE YOUR LINK/BOOKMARK!

Many thanks, and blessings!


September 25, 2004 in Administrivia | Permalink | Comments (0)

Proper 21, Year C

Luke 16:19-31 - link to NRSV text

Another hard text from Luke ... it must be Sunday!

This one's follows pretty logically from the Lucan Beatitudes and Woes. That was a pretty harsh text to preach on too, and for much the same reason. Luke's Beatitudes and Woes say, in a fairly straightforward fashion:

Honored are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God ...
Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.

I encourage you to stop by the Global Rich List as an initial impetus for reflection. It's a site where you can enter your annual income, in American or Canadian dollars, Euro, Yen, or Pounds, and then click a button to find out how many of the world's people are richer than you, and how many are poorer.

For example, my annual income of USD$36,000 per year puts me in the top 4.33% of the world's richest. That information sure puts me on the edge of my seat when I hear "Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation" (Luke 6:24). And it puts me on the edge of my seat for this Sunday's parable too, because much as Luke's "woes" don't say anything like, "woe to you who are rich and ungenerous"; they just say, "woe to you who are rich." As one of the world's richest people, that has to give me pause.

Like the Lucan "woes," the parable of Lazarus and the rich man is unique to Luke. And like the woes, it gives us rich folk some serious things to think about. Just as the woes don't say "woe to you ungenerous rich," verses 25 and 26 of this Sunday's gospel give as the sole explanation of the rich man's torment and Lazarus' being gathered to Abraham:

During your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus likewise received evil things. And now he is being comforted here, but you are suffering. And in all these things, there is a great divide set up between us and you people, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.

I'm following Luke Timothy Johnson in translating the beginning of verse 26 as "And in all these things, there is a great divide set up," rather than "Besides all this, there is a great divide set up," because I think there's something of Luke's eschatology -- and of God's prophetic word to us in this passage -- in the distinction.

The great divide between Lazarus and the rich man didn't spring up upon their deaths or after the last judgment; it was created by the rich man while both of them lived.

It's a financial divide between the haves and the have-nots, between those who feast and those who hunger. But there are other divides that follow from that and perpetuate it. You can get a solid and very brief description of conditions in the pre-industrial city that are relevant to this Sundays gospel from Bruce Malina's and Richard Rohrbaugh's notes on Luke 14:15-24 in their Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (a one-volume paperback that I recommend VERY highly, as I do John J. Pilch's "Cultural World" lectionary commentaries). Here's some of what comes to my mind:

The rich man not only controls resources like land and money, but also controls systems of taxation that perpetuate the "great divide" between him and Lazarus. Furthermore, the rich control the Temple and related institutions that place value on avoiding impurities that the rich could hire others to deal with, but the poor could not. These divides in arenas of wealth, civic power, and religious power (which is also political power!) are clearly visible as well in the physical layout of the city, as elites occupy the geographical center of the city as well as the center of power. The neighborhoods in which the elites lived alongside Temple and palace were often protected with fortifications, while poorer residents of the city lived in ethnic and occupational groups at the city's edge, and the poorest --- beggars, prostitutes, and those in marginalized occupations, lived completely outside the protection of the city walls. During the day, the poorer people in the community were let in through the walls to provide the goods and services the elites wanted; at night, they were locked out.

A lot of things are different for we who live in industrialized cities in wealthy countries like the U.S. Some things are remarkably (and disturbingly) similar, though. There is still a "great chasm" or "great divide" between the haves and the have-nots. In the neighborhood in Pasadena, California, where I used to live, the physical chasm was the one cut for the freeway. North of the freeway had the concentrations of poorer residents, and especially recent immigrant families whose primary language was Spanish. South of the freeway were the upscale shops and restaurants the northerners cooked for and cleaned, and south of that were palatial homes (again, with gardens tended and rooms cleaned by northerners). Baltimore has physical features like Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a street that can't in a single green light be crossed on foot from the poor neighborhoods of Sandtown and Pigtown to the wealthy neighborhoods around Johns Hopkins medical school. Anne Arundel County, where I work in Maryland, has divides of its own fixed between rich and poor. Even full-time professionals like teachers, police officers, and firefighters often can't afford to live anywhere near where they work, let alone the person who staffs the counter at Dunkin' Donuts or washes dishes at the upscale Woodfire Grill.

There's still a vast chasm, fixed and maintained by elites, between rich and poor, and as I pointed out in a recent sermon, that chasm is in many ways growing, even within U.S. cities. And then there's the rest of the world -- and this Sunday's gospel warns us in the sternest possible terms not to turn national borders into a chasm beyond which we neither look nor work for reconciliation and justice!

Looking hard at all of this will, one hopes, put the fear of God in us. But the difference, in my mind, between "the fear of God" and just plain FEAR is that while fear causes us to retreat or become paralyzed, the fear of God motivates us and empowers us to DO SOMETHING to live into the kingdom of God, God's justice, peace, and freedom.

In Anne Arundel County, people of faith are organizing around the principle, "If you're good enough to work here, you're good enough to live here." An initiative has been introduced in the county council to set aside a percentage of new housing for pricing affordable to teachers, police officers, and firefighters -- and, if we can garner enough support, another percentage will be set aside that's affordable for dishwashers, gardeners, and housecleaners. If it passes, the effects will include better schools, less pollution and traffic congestion, and improved quality of life for all (and if you're anywhere near the area, do come to the October 3 BRIDGE public meeting in Baltimore!). But there's another effect that the rich man in this Sunday's gospel implores us to consider:

Whenever we create or maintain an unbridgeable chasm between people, we automatically are on the wrong side of it.

So we are called to do what we can to "prepare the way of the Lord" by filling in the chasms, making the paths straight, tearing down the walls so that no one is let in for our convenience and shut out when we think we no longer have need of her. Indeed, just saying, with our lips or our lives, "I have no need of you" to a sister or brother is an insult to the Holy Spirit who makes us one (1 Cor. 12:21).

And there's something else Luke in particular enjoins us to do in response to this Sunday's gospel, and it's a point of stewardship. It's true that the rich in Luke's writings are in big trouble. But if you read carefully, you might notice that there are some people with substantial material resources who don't seem to be included in the woes. For starters, there's Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Suzanna (Luke 8:1), and there's Barnabas (Acts 4:36-37).

These are people who take seriously what the Holy Spirit says: that we are one family of sisters and brothers, and so we are called to have all things in common. Resources that legally might belong to one person rightfully belong to the whole, to be used to help any in need and to build up the whole community. These are people who take seriously that "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof" (Psalm 24:1).

These are not people donating to a cause. As much as I love National Public Radio, I don't think their pledge drives are any model for stewardship. We do not give our own resources to encourage the development of particular programs or to support what we agree with; we share what wasn't our own to begin with, and do it because we want to know Christ's compassion and the unity of the Body more deeply. We do it because of who we are in Christ.

And as we make use of possessions to live more deeply as a community into who we are in Christ, we will see not only how much we have used our power and resources to dig chasms, but how powerful Christ's love is to bring us to repentance and reconciliation to bridge them.

Thanks be to God!

September 20, 2004 in Best of 2004, Jesus' Hard Sayings, Justice, Luke, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (4)

for panicking children's homilists (Proper 20, Year C) ...

I've gotten a record number of hits this week, a record number of comments, and a record number of emails. Many of the emails have been last-minute inquiries from people giving children's homilies tomorrow. I definitely understand -- other than the "anyone who does not hate father and mother, spouse and children, cannot be my disciple" text a little while ago, I can hardly imagine a text further from what we usually want to use to exemplify piety for children than what we've got this week.

It's Saturday night, and I've got a sermon and an adult ed presentation of my own to finish preparing, so I can only afford to give a brief answer to people who have written over the last few hours asking for help with a children's homily. But here's a very brief recap of the children's chapel I did with this text:

I told the story using puppets, with one difference (not original to me). I said at the beginning that I meant to do a puppet show, but I'd forgotten the puppets, so I'd need some extra help. I think I chose about five or six volunteers -- one steward, and one landowner, and a couple or a few farmers. I explained to them that they are the puppets; when I press their back, they should drop their jaws, and when I release their back, they should close their mouths again. We practiced this a couple of times, which the kids in the pews seemed to enjoy. Then I told the story, with the same basic outline as what I gave in the blog, only inserting much more dialogue (giving me an opportunity to do a lot more back-pressing, which the kids loved):

There was a very, very rich man who had a huge farm, but he didn't like to work, so he got lots of other people to do all of the planting and growing and picking crops and such. He hardly let the farmers who did this work keep any of what they grew, though, so the farmers were hungry and angry. He hired a manager to make sure the farmers did their work, and to collect most of what they grew, and the farmers were very angry at the manager too.

But the manager wasn't very good at his job, and he wasted a lot of the landowner's money. The owner called the manager in, and told him he was fired (LOTS of opportunity to insert dialogue here!). And then the master went away to the city, where he liked to lie around and visit with his friends. So the manager did something very clever.

He called each of the farmers in, and he said, "how much did you owe my master?" One said, "a million dollars." Another said, "ten thousand dollars." Another said, "a thousand dollars." And the manager took out his eraser, and he erased a bunch of the zeroes on those bills. "Wow!" said the first farmer, "I only owe ten thousand dollars now." "I only owe a hundred now," said the second. "I only owe one dollar now," said the third. And the manager said, "See how generous the landowner is? Make sure to tell him how you feel when he comes back."

So a few weeks later, when the farmers heard that the landowner was coming back, they were prepared. They and all of their families were lined up all along the road to the farm, and they were waving balloons and signs and throwing confetti and cheering (lots of opportunity to run around pressing kids' backs here): "Hooray for the landowner!  Hooray for the landowner!  Hooray for the landowner!"

Well the landowner didn't quite know why they were all cheering, but he liked it a little too much to say anything right away. He didn't find out until he got back to his farmhouse, where he saw the manager. "What are YOU doing here?" he said, "I fired you!" But the manager told the landowner exactly what he'd done.

Did the manager want to go back out and tell all of those cheering farmers that they really owed him millions of dollars? No way! The landowner liked all of the farmers cheering for him. So the landowner gave the manager his job, and forgave the debts of those farmers.

So, if the landowner could forgive because he wanted everyone to think he was as cool as they said he was, and if the steward could forgive because he wanted to keep his job, don't we have much more reason to forgive. since we know how much God loves us and forgives us?

I hope that helps. It worked really well when I did it -- not only did I get the job (yes, I chose to do a children's chapel on this text as part of my audition for my current position), but I was told that kids were actually talking with their parents about it, and about that gospel passage, at least a week after the chapel service, which felt pretty good.

God's blessings upon all preachers and teachers for all age groups, and upon those who listen for God's voice in this story!

September 18, 2004 in Children's Homilies, Luke, Ordinary Time, Parables, Special Feature, Year C | Permalink | Comments (1)

Proper 20, Year C

Luke 16:1-13 - link to NRSV text

I'm tremendously excited, and don't tell me you're not excited too. It's a very special day coming this Sunday -- like a holiday that only that only comes once in every three years.

It's ... "Unjust Steward Sunday"!

OK, so maybe you're not that excited. But I am. I did my master's thesis on the parable, often called "The Parable of the Unjust Steward," in this coming Sunday's gospel. I spent the better part of a year or two thinking about these thirteen verses. And this Sunday will be the first time I've ever had a chance to preach on them (unless you count the children's chapel I did to audition for my current job, in which I did this parable in biblical storytelling, using a few of the kids gathered as human puppets -- a story I'll be happy to tell if you're interested. I really ought to get around to putting up some kind of 'About Me' page, for those who want to know who the heck I am).

So woo-hoo! Go Unjust Steward!

I said in a previous blog that I have a strange attraction to what are called the "hard sayings" of Jesus, and that's how I ended up pouring so much energy into the parable of Luke 16. I did it because I read in an article (I can't remember off-hand which one, and am too lazy at the moment to dig up my old thesis to look it up) that this parable posed problems that are "insoluble." With the considerable hubris that a nineteen-year-old can muster, I decided to tackle it. Here's what I came up with. It's summarizing about 60 pages of writing, so I hope you can take my word for it on a lot of things and overlook gaps.

The parable is not as obscure as it might seem; we just need to get over our resistance to the most obvious interpretation. The biggest questions that commentators seem to be ask about the parable is "who is 'the master' or 'the lord' (kurios in verse 8 could mean either): the steward's employer, or Jesus?" and "Why did this person commend the steward?"

First, a summary of the plot of the parable (told with some contemporary terms to make it more readily apprehended):

A very, very rich man lives in a big city (like Jerusalem), with a lifestyle of luxury made possible from the income of the estate he owns in the countryside. He's hired a manager (steward) to run it while he parties in Jerusalem, and all of the work of planting and harvesting is done by peasants whose grandparents might have owned the land but lost it in payment to a debt. Now the peasants work the land as tenant farmers, buying what they need from the company store (at prices far above what their grandparents paid for the same goods), with whatever is left over after the exorbitant rent is paid to the landowner. The harvest is never quite enough to pay the rent plus what the family needs, so the family is slipping further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what can't be paid. The immediate face of this system is that of the steward -- someone who might have come from the same families as the people who now suffer under his management, but who managed somehow to get the education needed to keep records and to lose the backbone needed to refuse to participate in something so clearly unjust.

The landowner fires the steward because of rumors that the steward was squandering the landowner's resources (and "squandering" isn't necessarily a bad word here -- the sower in another of Jesus' parables squanders seed by tossing it on roads and in bird-feeding zones, and the shepherd in last week's parable potentially squanders the ninety-nine by running after one lost sheep). So the steward is no longer authorized to do anything at all in the master's name. The farmers from whom he probably came aren't about to take him in either, given that up until now he's allied himself with the landowner by taking a job that involves collecting exorbitant rents, running the company store, and generally dealing unjustly with the farmers. That's why the steward is called "the steward of unrighteousness" in verse 8.

So what does the steward do? Something extraordinarily clever. He gathers all of the farmers who owe him money, and he declares that their debts have been reduced from the rough equivalent of "a million bazillion kajillion dollars" to something that maybe could be repaid, (maybe) freeing the family to make choices about next steps. With quirks of how records were kept, this involves a few subtle strokes of the (forger's) pen -- much like what students do in changing a handwritten 'D' to a 'B' on a report card.

The steward doesn't tell the farmers that he was fired any more than he tells them that the landowner didn't authorize any of this generosity. The result is that the farmers believe the landowner is more generous than just about anyone else in his position would be. The landowner is now a hero in the farmers' eyes -- and the steward is also, by extension.

The landowner comes for his customary visit to pick up the wealth the steward has collected for him, and he gets a surprise that is both exhilarating and challenging:

The streets for miles before he reaches the estate are lined by cheering farmers. They're shouting his name, telling him he's a hero.

He finds out (probably when he arrives at the estate house) what the steward has done in telling the farmers that the landowner forgave their debts. Now he has a choice to make.

The landowner can go outside to the assembled crowd -- the people shouting blessings upon him and all his family -- and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, that the steward's generosity was an act of crookedness (or unrighteousness, depending on your perspective) and won't hold water legally. The cheering will turn to boos, and I wouldn't want to be the landowner then.

Alternatively, the landowner can go outside and take in the cheering of the crowd. He can take credit for the steward's actions, in which case he'll continue to take in the acclaim of the farmers (who are honoring him -- you know how much I talk about how important honor is in the first-century Mediterranean world!), but he'll have to take the steward back. Mistreat the steward, who brought such good news of the lord's generous forgiveness (pun intended) in the future, and the crowd might turn on him. I don't doubt what a sane person in the landowner's situation would do in such circumstances, but either way, the steward goes from scab and scumbag to hero. When he retires, the farmers will gladly take him in, if the landowner won't.

Here's the big problem, for most commentators:

What the steward does is clearly dishonest. From a capitalist perspective, he's guilty of all charges, taking the landlord's property and squandering it -- even after he was fired, and therefore not authorized to do anything in the landowner's name.

Most commentators I read who were looking for the point of the parable came up with something like this:

"The steward is confronted with a crisis, and he acts decisively. Jesus is saying that the inbreaking of the kingdom of God calls upon us all to act decisively."

No offense to commentators, but that rings hollow for me. What's the crisis or decision? And what about the direction of the decisive decision is commendable? After all, if the story had gone something like, "There was a rich man who had a steward and fired him, so the steward decisively concluded that he should form a boy band and inaugurate a tour of Galilee and Judea," we probably wouldn't get quite the same point.

So here's the big question that I haven't seen commentators in print ask:

Q: What, precisely, is it that the steward does, albeit without authorization and with deception?

A: The steward forgives debts.

The steward forgives. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. But that's the decisive action that he undertakes to redeem himself from a position from which it seem he couldn't be reconciled, to the landowner any more than to the farmers.

So what's the moral of this story, one of the stories unique to Luke?

It's a moral of great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all.

Remember, this (Luke) is the guy whose version of the "Lord's Prayer" includes the helpful category confusion, "forgive us our sins as we forgive (the monetary debts of -- it's clear in the Greek) our debtors" (Luke 11:4). I could point to at least a dozen moments off the cuff at which Luke raises this point: the arrival of the kingdom of God is no occasion for score-keeping of any kind, whether monetary or moral.

Why forgive the debts of debtor nations? In America, we could forgive other nations their debts for the reason Bono cited in his appearance on the O'Reilly Factor: to raise or maintain the value of the American brand, letting the rest of the world associate "USA" with health and freedom. Or we could do it because of what Jesus said about forgiving debts. Or we could do it because we think the leprechauns will then lead us to the land of eternal youth. To paraphrase Nike in a manner more worthy of Adbusters, just do it.

Why forgive someone who's sinned against us, or against our sense of what is obviously right? We don't have to do it out of love for the other person, if we're not there yet. We could forgive the other person because of that whole business of what we pray in Jesus' name every Sunday morning, and because we know we'd like forgiveness ourselves. We could forgive because we've experienced what we're like as unforgiving people, and so we know that refusing to forgive because we don't want the other person to benefit is, as the saying goes, like eating rat poison hoping it will hurt the rat. We could forgive because we are, or we want to be, deeply in touch with a sense of Jesus' power to forgive and free sinners like us. Or we could forgive because we think it will improve our odds of winning the lottery.

It boils down to the same thing: deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena -- financial and moral -- can only put us more deeply in touch with God's grace.

I cannot escape the kind of awareness that an Anglican has while awaiting the report of the Lambeth Commission on Communion (AKA the Eames Commission), or an employee has while working in a congregation experiencing some serious conflict. What's a good reason to remain in fellowship (or "in communion," if you want a more technical term)? What's a good reason to be gracious toward those on the winning (or the losing) side of a political debate? What's a good reason to give up any and all scorekeeping?

Pick one of the above, or none, or all. It doesn't matter. If a guy who was a scab and a scalywag can forgive to save his job or give himself a safety net if his firing proves final, we have who experienced real grace -- we who believe that "the earth is the Lord's, and all that is in it" (Psalm 24:1), and therefore forgiving debts is simply telling someone else that scorekeeping is up to the only one to whom anything of value belongs -- have better reason to forgive. We've got more important things than scorekeeping to think about and act on: the work God has given us to do, to love and serve Him, with gladness and singleness of heart, through Christ our Lord.

Amen, and thanks be to God!

September 13, 2004 in Best of 2004, Forgiveness, Luke, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (24)

Proper 19, Year C

Luke 15:1-10 - link to NRSV text

I'm going to do something a little different this week ...

The Parable of the Ninety-Nine
(or why it's probably a good thing that sheep don't talk)

Once there was a shepherd who had a hundred sheep. One of them went astray. The shepherd's colleagues figured this was probably due to some carelessness on the shepherd's part -- after all, when the shepherd had been a farmer, he had repeatedly been seen tossing seed in the middle of paved parking lots and pigeon hangouts without much thought as to whether anything would actually grow there, so he had acquired a reputation for being a little loopy.

The ninety-nine sheep, wanting to be helpful, immediately sprang into action ... or discussion, anyway. One loudly announced that the Historic Flock had never included more than ninety-nine sheep, and therefore that the stray was probably a goat, or perhaps a marmoset, and should not be bothered with. If a wolf got it, that's what it deserved for straying from the flock, or for being a marmoset, or whatever its problem was.

Factions gathered in response to that announcement, some suggesting that perhaps a message could be sent to the stray that if she were to stop being a marmoset and instead become a sheep, or at least learn to bleat like one, or perhaps if she stopped making...what noise is it that marmosets make? (cries immediately went up for a subcommittee to study that issue) she could rejoin the flock. A website and glossy magazine ads were put in place to further this effort, as were a series of dialogues, in which each member of a panel of three sheep would present its view of what species the strays were, followed by discussion and concluding with a very nice and moving liturgy.

Another faction formed to try to win over the first group. They poured their resources into a public relations campaign in the flock to celebrate the contributions of all sheep, even the ones reputed to be marmosets or goats. Since their raison d'etre was to convince the Historic Flockers, though, it was very important not to engage in any precipitous action that might offend them. So when rumors arose that the stray sheep was being attacked by wolves and a voice in the flock suggested that perhaps something outght to be done, another of the ninety-nine sheep produced a marvelous-looking PowerPoint presentation documenting the decline in wolf attacks by well over 30% over the last fifteen years. "And there used to be 78 strays per year," she noted, "that we've got it down to one is most impressive!" The faction responded with a loud cheer and rumbled off to a celebratory ball and fundraiser to cover the cost of a digital camera to supply graphics for future presentations.

All of this "pro-stray" rhetoric greatly annoyed the planners of the campaign to convince the stray to return to sheephood, and the sheep who didn't want the stray back in the flock at all were furious, threatening to leave the flock. Much hubub ensued, and hours later, if you could somehow manage to listen beyond all of the loud bleating and blaring loudspeakers and committee deliberations and rousing choruses of "Bringing In the Sheep" and a new hymn, "Goading Out the Goats," you might have heard a few sheep quietly noting the shepherd's absence and wondering where the shepherd had gone, as one silhouetted figure made its way toward the horizon and the stray ... and some wolf howls echoed in the distance.

Three questions:

  1. Where is the shepherd?
  2. Where are the ninety-nine?
  3. If one sheep is with the shepherd and ninety-nine aren't, who's really the stray?

silvery marmoset

September 6, 2004 in Best of 2004, Inclusion, Luke, Ordinary Time, Parables, Year C | Permalink | Comments (11)