Sunday, September 18, 2016

Tales of the Bizarro World

Luke 16:1-13

All over the world this morning there are priests who will be preaching on the Epistle. Why? Because this morning’s gospel lesson, what is sometimes called “the parable of the unrighteous steward,” is a real head-scratcher! I studied this passage earlier this week with some local clergy, all of them very capable interpreters of scripture, but honestly we all really struggled with this one.

It may be helpful to first understand the setting of the story. It involves a rich man who owns a substantial piece of property that he rents to tenants probably for agricultural purposes. It was common in those days for people to rent and work farmland, orchards, and vineyards, and in return give the owner an agreed upon amount of the proceeds. It was also common for the owner to appoint a steward to oversee and manage this arrangement.

The “hero” in this story is the steward. His character is established from the beginning. He is untrustworthy and only interested in himself. Reports come to the owner of the property that his steward is squandering his property and he is called to account and fired on the spot. In order to get in good with the locals and cover his back, the sneaky steward goes behind the owner’s back and collects on the all the accounts, lowering the amount owed in order to ingratiate himself with the people.

This puts the owner in a bind. No doubt he was being celebrated all over the land as a most generous manager.  If he were to renege on the steward’s settlements and punish the steward he would lose the people’s goodwill and instead appear harsh and unforgiving. The master can only commend the steward for his shrewdness. We are not told whether he was given his job back, but it seems to be implied.

 The problem is that this irresponsible, self-serving, dishonest, and conniving individual is held up by Jesus to be admired and emulated! He says, “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of 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.”

A Roman Emperor who rejected Christianity, Julian the Apostate, used this very story as evidence that Christians were liars, thieves, and con-artists who were not to be trusted! He said that this parable proves that Jesus was a mere man and not a particularly worthy man either! 

Is Jesus encouraging us to be the type of person who only looks out for himself? Far from it! We have to remember that Jesus is a storyteller. When we read a novel or watch a film about a charming criminal who pulls off an ingenious heist we might smile in admiration and slap our knee to watch him get away with it even though we would never approve or endorse such behavior in real life. We suspend our judgment. We understand that—at least for the sake of the story—we are entering the world and the values of the characters which may be very different than our own.

We should resist the urge to read Jesus’ parables as pious or moralistic illustrations, and instead approach them more like stories. When we tell stories we may playfully take on a persona of a character with values opposite our own in an ironic way. For instance, would you call Mark Twain racist because of the opinions expressed by characters in his novel, Huck Finn? No of course not, he was being satirical!
Jesus often uses unsavory characters in his stories. This isn’t the only example. He uses surprising and paradoxical comparisons. He has a keen sense of wit and irony. Like other satirical storytellers, his purpose is to critique the status quo and create a new awareness in his listeners. He wants to turn our assumptions on their heads.

Do you know what the Bizarro World is? (At this point I’m going to reveal what a complete geek your rector is.) Bizarro is a villain from Superman. He is a kind of evil doppelganger of Superman. He comes from a world where everything is the opposite of how it is in this world, the Bizarro world. So for instance the “S’ on Bizarro’s uniform is backwards as it would be in a mirror. He says ‘Goodbye’ when he comes and ‘Hello’ when he leaves. In Bizarro world, up is down and down is up and people love ugliness and hate beauty. The sitcom Seinfield spoofed the idea in one of their episodes and since then in popular culture "Bizarro World" has come to mean a situation or setting which is strangely inverted or opposite of normal expectations.

But what if it us who live in the Bizarro World? In our reading today Jesus sets up a series of opposites that mirror one another. There is this world and there is the world to come, the Kingdom of God. There are the people that belong to this age that is passing away and there are the Children of Light, those who belong to the Kingdom. There is God and there is Mammon.

Who is Mammon? Some scholars identify Mammon with the Chaldean god of riches and wealth, similar to the Greek god Plutus. He is a personification of wealth and worldly gain, but is also associated with general excess and selfishness, with lust, power, gluttony, and pride. Mammon is the opposite of the self-sacrificing God of love revealed in Jesus Christ. In Bizarro World people worship Mammon instead of God.

In the Kingdom of God everything is reversed. Those who humble themselves are exalted, the way to freedom is service to God and neighbor, the first is last and the last is first, the way to greater life is to take up one’s cross, and the way to store up riches for oneself is to give away all that you have in the service of others. This feels backwards to us, but only because we live in the Bizarro world!

In this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story that takes place in the Bizarro world, but it is really about the Kingdom. He does this in order that we can understand, like an adult who stoops down and baby-talks to a toddler. Even though this steward lives in the Bizarro world, he is shrewder than the children of light. See how ingeniously he serves his god Mammon? He knows how to work the system and get just what he wants. Also even though he is acting in the service of Mammon, of greed and self-interest, he ironically does the right thing for the wrong motives. He is generous to the debtors and has mercy on them while at the same time bringing honor to their master.

In the Bizarro world, the shrewd steward uses deeds of righteousness—or  the forgiveness of debt—for his own worldly advantage. What does that look like if we turn it the right side up? It is using worldly gain for the sake of righteousness! This is what Jesus means when he says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” The command is literally translated as, “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon.” It refers to the riches of this world which are polluted by human sin and liable to be a snare to us. 

Jesus is teaching us the proper use of wealth in this world. A person cannot serve God and Mammon. We must never allow ourselves to be captured by worldly wealth, but the shrewd child of light will find ways to use the things that she has in this life for the sake of the next. If you have riches in this life, don’t hoard them for yourself, but give them away in the service of the Kingdom. That way you will store up true treasures in heaven. If the rich are generous to the poor in this life, they will be blessed when the last become first and first become last. They will be welcomed into their eternal homes. 

Amazing Grace

Today marks fifteen years since the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001.  Where were you that day when you first heard the news? For myself I can vividly recall turning on the television to see images of smoke pouring out of the world trade center. The news anchors were speculating that perhaps, a small passenger plane flying too low had accidently crashed into the tower. They seemed very perplexed. I remember puzzling over it myself with my cousin who was visiting that morning, when suddenly right before our eyes the second plane hit. The horror of the following events unfolded before us as we watched in disbelief. The third plane went down over Pennsylvania. Perhaps most shocking of all, was the collapse of the massive towers.  I remember wondering if the attacks would continue throughout the day.

I was a young college student at the time. For myself and for others my age, it was the defining moment of our generation. Emerging as we were into the world of adulthood and responsibility, it was a painful and sobering confrontation with human nature and the desperate realities of the world. Nothing would ever be the same again. Our consciousness was forever altered.

Those events caused me to reflect, in a more serious way than ever before, on the seeming intractability of moral and social evil. How could I be a part of the healing of our broken world? Where was genuine hope to be found? The years ahead would involve me in a spiritual and intellectual search. I delved into works of psychology, philosophy, politics, and religion. It was a dizzying experience, and one that—at least initially stirred up more questions than answers. 

These periods of questioning and instability, however, have the potential to be turning points in our spiritual journey. I found that the experience brought me to a much deeper engagement with my Christian faith and a greater confidence in its truthfulness. I found in the gospel good news for the brokenness of the world and for the darkness in my own heart that I found nowhere else. It was a message that shifted my focus from programs for self-improvement and agendas for political revolution—who’s hope rested on the power and initiative of human beings—and  centered my hope on the more sturdy foundation of God. At the heart of the gospel is the beautiful and transformative proclamation of God’s grace.

What is grace anyway? It is usually defined as, “unmerited favor.” That is a good place to start. If we want to understand grace we first need to get our heads around the idea that it is a completely undeserved gift. If I give you something in exchange for a service rendered me, that is compensation. If a man sends flowers to a woman who’s beauty he admires, that is appreciation. But if I show mercy to someone who has wronged me, that is grace. It is a free choice of the giver of the gift, unconditioned by anything about the recipient.

Grace is perhaps better conveyed than defined. Its power is beautifully extolled with astonished wonder in a much loved hymn penned by John Newton,

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me....
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.

Newton was a former slave trader turned abolitionist. He was converted to Christ after being spared during a horrible storm at sea. The lyrics of the hymn capture his amazment at having received God’s grace in his unworthiness. They describe the change that understanding and receiving God’s grace produced in his life. 

In a similar way, in our Epistle reading this morning, Saint Paul recounts his own dramatic transformation. He was a, “blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” yet God showed grace to him and called him to be an apostle of the Gospel. He goes so far as to say that God chose him, the chief of sinners, in order to make him an example of his amazing grace.

It was this grace that became the constant theme of his preaching. Saint Paul writes in his Epistle to the Romans,

“Christ died for the ungodly. It is rare indeed for anyone to die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God proves His love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.…”

How is it that this message of God’s grace can change the world?

First, God’s grace means that there is hope for the future. God has not rejected us or treated us according to our sins, but instead he has reconciled the world to himself through his Son Jesus Christ. The Gospel is his declaration of peace with the human race. The whole reason Jesus came into the world was not to condemn the world, but to seek and save lost sinners, rebels who had spurned his father’s love and wandered far from him. In Christ, God has paid the moral debt amassed against us and has borne the penalty for our sin. He has declared us free and forgiven. More than that, to those who believe in him, he has promised to give the power to live righteously, to live transformed lives. 

Those who have heard and believed the message of God’s grace and mercy in Jesus Christ, have often spoken of being “born again.” They testify to being a new creation, a whole new person. They have a new meaning and a purpose for life. Changed hearts and lives mean a changed world.

Secondly, God’s grace makes us children of God through Christ. God is our loving Father who loves us all unconditionally. If God is our Father it means that—whether they are a believer or not, whether they are from the same country as us or another, whether they agree with us politically or not, whether or not that they live their lives in a way that we approve—every human being is our brother or sister.

 We cannot be indifferent to them because they are our own flesh and blood. God has equal love for all his children, and we cannot claim to have a place superior to our brothers and sisters. We all stand shoulder to shoulder as recipients of God’s grace, as those for whom Christ died, as rebels who have been made sons and daughters.  If we accept the Gospel, we know that to love God we also must love of neighbor.

Finally, God’s grace to us moves us to show mercy and compassion to others. Perhaps the most revolutionary of Jesus’ ethical demands is the call to love our enemies. This teaching is the natural consequence of God’s grace. If God has shown us such mercy in forgiving us and laying down his life for us, we should endeavor to show the same grace to our own enemies. Grace breaks the never ending spiral of violence. It does more than vanquish our enemies, rather through the appeal of love it has the power to make them our allies in the Kingdom of God.

It seems like every week we hear of some terrible new tragedy, the latest terrorist attack or natural disaster. Each heart rending event only confirms to us more, we need God’s Grace. We need his forgiveness for our unforgiveness and for the terrible things we do to one another. We need his hope amidst the despair we sometimes feel. We need his strength and guidance as we seek to mend our wounded world. Thankfully, God’s grace is abundant. It is a never ending stream of goodness poured out on us his wandering children. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Runaway Slave

Philemon 1-21

Frederick Douglas was a runaway slave. From those humble beginnings he went on to become one of the most influential statesman, orators, authors, and social reformers of his generation, all this during a time in our country when African-Americans were still not free. He was a remarkable man, and his story is powerfully laid out for us in his gripping autobiography, The Narrative and Life of Frederick Douglas, An American Slave  as well as his second book, My Bondage and My Freedom.

Frederick Douglas was also a Christian. He was converted at an evangelical revival. He was captivated by the vision of freedom and liberation contained in the pages of Holy Scripture, and in the person and radical teaching of Christ the savior of the human race. Douglas had every reason to reject the Christian faith. He saw more than most the cruelty and hypocrisy of those who profess to be Christians. He writes,

I have seen my master tie up a lame young woman and whip her upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip. And in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of Scripture. "He that knoweth his master's will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes."

He breathed out prophetic fire against such wicked distortions of the gospel,
“between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.”

Douglas was at the center of a growing movement among Christians to abolish the practice of slavery in the United States.  The controversy stirred by “abolistionist”—as  they were called—divided many of the protestant churches in two. The fault lines tended to run between the north and south of the country. The issue was more than just an ecclesiastical squabble, but a deep cultural divide. Both sides had passionate commitments to the Christian faith and both sides insisted that the Bible championed their cause. At the heart of the debate was tiny Epistle of Philemon, which at a mere 335 words is among the shortest books in Holy Scripture. Indeed our Epistle reading today contains the book in nearly its entirety.

The letter concerns a man named Onesimus, who like Frederick Douglas, was an escaped slave. He has run away from his master Philemon, a wealthy Christian of Paul’s acquaintance, who hosts a congregation of Christians in his home. This Onesimus, had not only run from Philemon’s service but it is also implied that he robbed him.

The runaway ended up in prison where he came under the teaching and the influence of Saint Paul, and was converted to the faith. Paul is writing his letter from prison and he means that it should accompany Onesimus on his return to Philemon as a kind of recommendation. He asks that Philemon would not punish Onesimus for his treachery but that he receive him, “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother.”

Interpreters have differed widely on how Paul’s letter should be understood.
One defender of slavery, Augustus Longstreet wrote, 
It appears plain to me why this epistle has been preserved. It is that men may see that it is possible to hold slaves and go to heaven.” 

Another, Theodore Clapp, said,

“[Saint Paul] entreats Philemon not to punish Onesimus with severity, but to treat him in the future as a reformed and faithful slave…Paul did not suggest to Philemon the duty  of emancipating Onesimus, but encouraged him to restore the slave to his former condition, with the hope that, acting under the holy principles of Christianity, he would in future serve his master, ‘not with eye service,’ as formerly, ‘but in singleness of heart, fearing God.”

It must be said that even for Paul merely to suggest that Philemon forgive Onesimus and not punish him was a radical suggestion that undermined the cultural institution of slavery. In Roman culture, a runaway slave was entirely subhuman. To desert one’s household was unforgivable and worthly of death by crucifixion or at the very least severe beating and branding. Paul not only instructs Philemon not to punish him but suggest instead that he be embraced as a brother and as if he were Saint Paul’s very own son.

Abolistionist readers of this text insisted that it needed to read in light of the freedom and equality of all the saints in Christ. We must not forget Paul’s words from Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It is true that Paul, elsewhere instructs slaves to submit to their masters, “as to Christ” (Ephesians 6:5-9). He gives the same instruction to women in regards to their husbands that they should submit to them, “as to the Lord.” In both cases however, the more surprising instruction of Paul to husbands to lay down their lives for their wives and to masters to regard those under their authority as their equal, is too often ignored.

Regardless of where our rank in society is, we are to mutually “submit to one another in love.” There is all the difference in the world between the loving submission of equals and tyranny of the powerful over the weak. Masters are to relinquish any thought of superiority over their slaves and to, “give up threatening, knowing that both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him.”

There can be no coercion between brothers and equals. Paul models for Philemon a leadership that makes its appeal through love, “Accordingly, though I am bold enough in Christ to command you to do what is required, yet for love’s sake I prefer to appeal to you” (1:8-9).

Apologist for slavery often pointed out how Paul makes no command that Philemon free his slave, and this is true. Instead on the basis of the love that he knows Philemon has for him and, “for all the Saints,” he appeals to him to do what he knows is right. He is confident that Philemon, “will do even more than I say.” He even not so subtly lays a guilt trip on him, “I say nothing about your owing me even your own self.”

What is it that Paul is beating around the bush, suggesting that Philemon do? He says, “I wanted to keep him [Onesimus] with me, so that he might be of service to me in your place during my imprisonment for the gospel; but I preferred to do nothing without your consent, in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.”

His implication is clear, Onesimus should be set at liberty so he can return to serve Paul, not as a runaway slave and fugitive, but as a free man at the blessing of his master!

What became of Onesimus? We know that Saint Paul made him with Tychicus, the bearer of his Epistle to the Colossians (Col. 4:7-9) which suggests that Philemon did set him free. Ignatius, writing around the year 110AD, refers to a Bishop in Ephesus of the same name. Saint Jerome and other Church Fathers suggest that he was the same man as the former slave of Philemon. Bishop Onesimus suffered Martyrdom for the faith. 

Perhaps you are thinking that Paul should have been more direct with Philemon? It is easy for us to see—from where we are today—with the moral clarity on slavery that progress brings, but we stand on the shoulders of these small beginnings.  Although Paul does not directly condemn the institution of slavery, he pulled the pin on a grenade and set it rolling.

In Jesus’ time the disciples were impatient for change and asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” They imagined the immediate overthrow of the powers that be, a revolutionary regime change in which Ceasar would be deposed and Christ enthroned as King, but Jesus’ Kingdom revolution was of a different sort. It was a revolution of hearts and minds.  It is a revolution that makes its appeal through love rather than coercion. He said it was leaven working invisibly, gradually, and subtly through a lump of dough.

The Gospel sowed the seeds for the abolition of slavery, it sowed the seeds also for the liberation of women, which eventually grew into the movements of freedom and liberation of the modern world.  Some victories are slower than others. Indeed we have only scratched the surface in understanding the full implications of the Gospel. The cost of discipleship has always been too high. G.K. Chesterton said, 

“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried.” 
Between our halting attempts, and the Christianity of Christ, there is yet the widest possible difference.