Monday, September 19, 2016

A sermon about making friends with someone else's wealth

I wrote and delivered this sermon in my preaching class in seminary nine years ago. It's a lot more focused on exegesis than I might do today, but I still think it stands up to the test of time. 

Our Gospel reading from Luke today is one of the more vexing parables in the New Testament. It goes by several different names – is it the unjust steward, the dishonest manager, or the prudent middleman? – and some interpretations of it are questionable or downright bizarre – is Jesus praising dishonesty? Is it about justice rather than money? Does this parable tell us to use worldly wealth so as to secure our own futures? Or is it all just completely ironic? 

In my career as a theology student, both formally here at Candler and informally in my previous life as a recovering Baptist, I have come across plenteous articles, footnotes, and commentary essays about this story. And I can say with some confidence that the problem with many writers of articles and commentaries is that they were not English majors. 

Because if they had been English majors, they would be looking first to the whole Gospel of Luke for themes and key concepts and then looking within this parable to see how those themes and concepts play out. Further, they would be looking at the stories surrounding this one to see why this parable is situated at this particular place in Luke. 

In Luke, the rich do not fare well. Right off the bat, Mary sings in the Magnificat that the rich are going to be sent away empty. And Jesus directs a woe at them during his sermon on the plain: woe to you rich for you have received your consolation. In the Lukan stories - both parables and personal encounters - we meet the rich fool, who stores all his stuff in a barn and then in a bigger barn and then dies, having stored his treasure for himself instead of using it for God. There’s the rich young man who goes away sadly from Jesus because he cannot bring himself to sell all he has and give the money to the poor. There’s the other rich man who wears purple and eats gourmet meals and ends up in the flames because he did not use his wealth to help poor, sick, hungry Lazarus at his gate.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus says. Get the picture? The rich have difficulty parting with their wealth, and this is a big problem for them in terms of their salvation. Not because rich people cannot be saved – rich Zacchaeus will be saved over in Chapter 19 – but because they are not willing to be generous with their wealth. They don’t get it that their wealth is to be used to bridge the gap between rich and poor – to address the needs of others. And in fact, this is how Zacchaeus is going to be saved, by volunteering to give away his money to the poor. Because, as Jesus emphatically tells us, you cannot serve both God and Mammon.

Now, notice that today’s story comes at the heels of the parable of the prodigal son, who squanders his father’s property in dissolute living and suffers the consequences. When he hits bottom, he decides on a course of action by which to secure a future for himself: he will return to his father and do penance, seeking his protection. So goes home, where his father welcomes him with open arms. 

Compare now our story. A rich man discovers that his manager has been squandering (there’s that word again) his property. The manager, like the prodigal son, has hit bottom: he is about to be sacked, so he sits down to decide on a course of action by which to secure a future for himself, because he must protect himself. 

But his way of protecting himself is to be generous: to take this last chance to offer generosity to the rich man’s debtors while he still can. He does not repent of his squandering ways, he keeps on squandering, believing that his generosity will lead to his salvation - being welcomed into the eternal home. 

And then the story after ours is the parable I mentioned before about a rich man who spent his wealth on himself while the hungry beggar Lazarus lay outside his gate, covered with sores. And lo, the rich man found himself burning in the eternal flames – because he was not prudent with his Mammon – he used it for himself instead of for others.

So, while that rich man kept his wealth to himself, our friend the manager used his position to be generous with the wealth of his boss. The manager has served God (through openhandedness toward others) rather than serving the rich man’s monetary interests. And for this reason he is called dishonest, or shrewd. In fact, Jesus says, he has been faithful by giving the boss’s Mammon away.

Well. It’s probably not all that profitable to talk about Mammon with this crowd, seeing as how many of us are living on the largesse of Emory’s endowment made possible by Coca Cola stock dividends. 

And actually, what I find remarkable about this story is that the manager’s way of protecting himself is to be generous.

Now I don’t know about you, but for me, about this time every semester, I start worrying. I look at my assignments stretching ahead of me, all those pages, those papers, those hours spent at my field placement, not to mention the needs of my family, and I start to feel anxious. I’m already overloaded and I start to wonder how I’m ever going to do it all. 

And then pretty soon I start to doubt my abilities – why did I think I could do this? Who am I to write a sermon to turn in to Tom Long? AND a paper, AND read hundreds of pages, AND go to the grocery store and do the laundry and plan a service for Sunday and ….

And so about this time every semester, I start feeling as if I do not have enough. Not enough time, not enough intelligence, not enough energy, not enough anything. And my impulse is to pull in and protect myself. To ward off things that might take more time or require energy or creativity. Even things that might be fun. Even things that might help others. 

I want go into “Two Year Old Child Automatic No” mode – will you serve at Chapel? No. Will you go to the concert? No. Will you take notes for someone in class who has a disability? No. Will you have lunch with me so I can tell you how overwhelmed I feel right now? No. I don’t have time, I don’t have energy, I have to study, I have to run errands, I have to do something that makes me feel productive. If the phone rings, I am tempted to answer it by saying “What do YOU want?!?” Because I’m in crisis mode and I need to protect myself.

This is why I admire the manager. When HE gets in crisis mode and sits down to think of what he will do to protect himself, HE decides to be generous. He decides that helping others reduce their own loads is the best response to his anxiety. And Jesus calls this behavior faithful.

This makes my automatic no mode look like what it truly is – an attempt to make my life manageable by treating it like the proverbial pie. As in, if I give you any pie, there may not be enough for me, because there’s just only so much, you know. But I am not a pie. We are not pies. 

We all may be under pressure, but we are still called to be faithful. And in fact, we are stewards of all kinds of riches that we did not earn - but yet we have the power to give away.

There’s way bigger stuff out there than books and papers and laundry and errands. There are people who need someone to help them out. Who need a hand with planning a worship service or need help with a newsletter article. Who need advice and encouragement from a more seasoned student. Who need a friend with whom to eat lunch. Who need your expertise in something you have a talent for. Who need a shoulder or a sympathetic ear. Who have their own anxieties.

There are people out there who are looking to you and me, my friends. And we can live out our call to be faithful by giving away whatever kind of wealth we have access to – friendship, smiles, wisdom, talent, even time. 

These are anxious times. Let’s be generous. 


Penny Nash
Candler School of Theology

September 19, 2007

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Lost and Found

All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. 
And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, 
"This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."
So he told them this parable: "Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, 
does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? 
When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. 
And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, 
`Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.' Just so, I tell you, 
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons
 who need no repentance.
"Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, 
does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? 
When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, 
`Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.' Just so, I tell you, 
there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

Luke 15:1-10

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Friday, September 9, 2016

Friday Music: Heat Wave

It's really hot today. Reminded me of this favorite from my school days.

Stay cool.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

What is the Cost?

There are little minions that live inside my Facebook page who dredge up my posts and photos from the past to present to me as memories I might want to share. A kind of “this day in history” feature, but one with much less gravitas than such a feature on tv or the radio about D-Day or the invention of the steam engine or the quest for women’s suffrage. My days in history might feature a video of a cat riding a Roomba or a photo of our (now deceased) pet bunny. Sometimes I am amused, and sometimes I am distressed, by what I was doing two or four or seven years ago today.

Not of all my memories are of the lighter variety. I know I will be confronted soon by a post from the September day when Tom and I moved out of our home of 25 years in Atlanta. Despite the joy of my life here now, moving out of the home where we raised our children was tough. It was even tougher on Tom, who stayed behind for four more years after I came to Virginia.

Still, Tom told me that something interesting happened when the movers took away all the furniture. He said that he stood there in the completely empty house and felt almost weightless and ridiculously free. No stuff. No clutter. Nothing that needed his attention. No attachments. Free.

Of course, that didn’t last long. Our stuff was successfully relocated and we live among it all again. But that was a telling moment, I think. Can you think of a time yourself when you felt ridiculously free? Even if just for a little while?

The things Jesus says in the Gospel today are hard to hear. What does he mean, hate your family? Take up your cross? Sell everything you own, or you can’t be his disciple? No wonder his followers began to desert him. No wonder people wanted to push him off a cliff. God is love and Jesus embodies that love, but this is definitely tough love. If you just read this passage by itself, you might wonder why you would even want to be his disciple.

But if we can get past our initial shock or distaste, Jesus’ admonitions are of vital importance. Not because if we don’t do them we won’t get into heaven. Jesus is never about earning salvation - that is a gift already given. They are vitally important because following Jesus is about having abundant life and we often are not able to have abundant life because we are too busy and burdened and our life is too cluttered and obligated elsewhere to experience it.

Jesus is saying, look, there is a cost to discipleship, and it is a high cost, so think hard about it, really think it through. 

But this is not a dire warning; it is more a loving reminder.

We know that life can be hard. Suffering is real. Stuff is going to happen that leaves us devastated. And when it does, being surrounded by possessions that demand all our attention will not save us. Withdrawing from the world and circling our family wagon diminishes us. A determination to avoid suffering only leads to suffering, as Thomas Merton said, and a life held captive to fear.

Perhaps another way to look at it, then, is not “what is the cost of discipleship” but “what is the cost of not being a disciple?” Of asking “what is the cost of  surrounding myself with possessions I have to serve and tend?” Am I to be tamed and domesticated by things? And “what is the cost of making an idol of family so that I have no energy or room for others or to be open to God’s call on me?” “What is the cost - to us as individuals and as a society - of only looking out for ourselves and spending too much of our time on simple distractions and amusements?”

And here’s a big one: “what is the cost of trying to avoid pain and suffering?” I believe that cost is a life of numbness and alienation, of doing everything we can to only live on the surface. 

Just living on the surface is not abundant life. Jesus, as we see through his own example, asks us to look outside ourselves and care for our world and for God’s people. And Jesus also asks us to look inside ourselves and recognize our need for authentic connection and our hunger for meaning. Jesus asks us to live large in the world, instead of living small, and to be ready to follow even to places we never knew existed and experience what we never imagined.

It is only Jesus who says, I can give you real life, not just life on the surface. I can give you unconditional love and acceptance. I can give you heaven. And my life - all of my life, including my suffering and also my resurrection - will prove it. I am the way to real life. So love me more than things. Love me more than you love even your family. Accept and embrace suffering - your own, your friends’ and family’s, the world’s - and you will find transformation. 

And this is why Jesus’ words are a loving reminder. Because if you can’t let go, if you can’t embrace suffering, if you make idols of your family, you will never be really and truly free to follow where God is calling you or to be love in the world or to see where that love is needed to be put into action. You will not be free of that which drags you down and uses up your precious time. You will never be free to change the world.

In a similar story in the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, Moses gathers the people together to say to them, look, God has brought you safely out of Egypt, out of captivity. Yeah, you whined a lot about it, too, wishing you had better food and comfy beds. But you have been given your freedom by the God who loves you despite the whining. Now God is about to lead you into the promised land. And God has given you some laws to follow, and some of them are pretty tough. But they are given in order that you - individually and as the people of God - might have life. Not killing other people is going to give you life. Not coveting what others have, not being eaten up by jealousy and envy, is going to give you life. Observing the Sabbath is not a deprivation but something to give you life. So, Moses said, choose this day what it’s going to be. And I hope you will choose life.

Sometimes we don't even know that we are being held captive by our attachments. We’re just going along, perhaps with a vague feeling that our energies are misplaced, that we might be watching too many cats on Roombas, a feeling that we have so often that it seems normal. The experience my husband had in the empty house made us realize how rare it is to feel ridiculously free. He knew he was going to have furniture again. He knew he wasn’t about to become destitute. But even though his favorite sofa was gone, it felt really good to feel free.

Today Jesus is asking us to choose what is life-giving, to let go of what discourages us from engaging fully in the abundance of God. By asking us to focus on the divine life, he is offering to set us free - and not just free FROM stuff, but FREE TO live a bigger, deeper, richer, more meaningful life and to be what we were made to be: examples of life-giving love in a world that needs nothing more, and nothing more desperately.


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