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Archive for September, 2007

Today’s Gospel contains that oft-quoted line, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” The key here is not the word mammon or money, but the word serve. If we let our concern for money or material goods overmaster us, we will be in trouble. Maybe not in the short term, maybe not in how we appear to others, but our eternal soul will be in peril. Someone, perhaps Benjamin Franklin, said, “Money is a good servant but a poor master.” Sir Francis Bacon said, “If money be not thy servant it will be thy master.” These quotes and others like them are commonplace, almost cliches, because there’s a deep truth to them.Sometimes when we hear Jesus’ parable, we get distracted by the fact that he seems to be praising the steward for what we might see as dishonest business practices. In fact, some commentators have suggested that the amount the steward was taking off the bill was the amount that would have been his self-determined commission. But if we focus too much on the business details, we miss Jesus’ point.

The steward seems to have realized that he has come to a point in his life when he needs to rely on the generosity, even the charity, of others. If he has been treating his business associates harshly in the past, he knows that he has no chance of getting another job. If he’s only been concerned about his proficts and doing well for himself, he will find himself alone and destitute. So he sacrifices his profits, uses his money to buy at least some sort of good feeling from others. While he’s probably as aware as any parent of a teenager that you can’t buy friends, he’s still at least on his way to a deeper truth, the awareness that he does need the good will of other people.

The prophet Amos reviles the people of his day who resent the sabbath for the way it interferes with their business, particularly as their business seems to involve not only commerce but a particularly vicious cheating that shows a complete disregard for others.

His words still hold a bite for us today. We pride ourselves on abolishing slavery, and yet when Amos says, “We will buy the lowly for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals,” we might recall images from the nightly news of children in developing countries being paid pennies a day for working in a sweatshop sixteen or seventeen hours a day making high-priced sneakers and brand-name clothing.

The underlying message throughout Scripture is that if we’re right with God, our only true master, we will be right with other people. If we put something in place of God, that misplaced desire will throw our other relationships out of whack. Money can never be more important than God. It can’t be more important than God’s creation, either—other human beings, the earth that supports us, the air that surrounds us.

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I hate losing things. Not big things.  Little, insignificant things: a favorite pen, a coupon I know I cut out of the Sunday paper, a receipt for a rebate, a book that I read long ago and suddenly thought of again, a particular item of clothing that I may or may not have given to Goodwill. I will tear the house apart looking for the lost item. I will obsess about it until I find it. More often than not I’ll find it after I stop looking. And in many cases I finally have to concede defeat and get on with life. Occasionally I’ll rely on that old prayer to St. Anthony: “Tony, Tony, turn around. Something’s lost that must be found.” But because deep down I don’t believe in that sort of almost-magic, it usually doesn’t work.

The interesting thing about this quirk of mine is that I can see a bit of it in the parables in today’s Gospel. The woman sweeping her house and going over every inch of it with a lamp for a small, insignificant coin probably wasted far more oil for her lamp than the coin was worth. Certainly what she spent on the party far outweighed the discovery.

Commentators often point out the absurdity of the shepherd exposing an entire flock of sheep to the dangers of the wilderness in order to search for one lost lamb that may already have become a meal for a wolf. The wastrel younger son in the longer story certainly seems like no real loss to a responsible and upstanding family.

The very insignificance of these lost things is what Jesus wants to emphasize. The Pharisees and scribes have criticized him for associating with sinners. For them, these people aren’t worth a second glance, let alone the time and attention Jesus gives them. They only have time for “important things.” We might say that they have their priorities straight. But we would be wrong, at least in God’s eyes. What Jesus seems to be telling us is that these people are important because of their relationship to God. And in fact this is usually what happens when I’m obsessing about something that I’ve lost. It’s something attached to a memory, to a friend, to something that matters to me but is only incidentally attached to a particular object.

This becomes even more clear if we look at the other readings that accompany the Gospel. In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he reminds us that that he was the worst of sinners, but that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” And even more than that, he says that the Lord “considered [him] trustworthy in appointing [him] to the ministry.” And in the reading from Exodus, the aftermath of the infamous golden calf episode, Moses reminds the Lord that these people who have strayed are nevertheless the heirs to the covenant God made with Abraham and renewed with Moses and the people at Sinai. Their value is not in their virtue, good behavior or status. It’s in the inherent worth they have as people created and redeemed by a loving and merciful God.

In the end, then, our lives are about our relationship with God and with one another. This is why when we’re lost, our God seeks us out. We are one and that unity is broken if any part is missing.

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Counting the Cost?

I have a magnet on my refrigerator with a quotation attributed to Goethe: “What you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.” It turns out that this isn’t exactly something the great German writer said, and it has its misty origins in Faust, the classic story of the man who sold his soul to the devil. Nevertheless, it has a lot to do with the way I approach the most significant choices in my life. It drives the more careful planners among my family and friends to distraction. They tend to be much more the ones who can identify with the examples Jesus gives in today’s Gospel.

He tells the great crowd gathered around him that they need to be willing to carry a heavy cross if they’re going to continue to follow him. He’s laying out the consequences for those who need to know the cost of something before they begin. The planners, the strategists, the cautious ones are the one who nod knowingly at the stories of the builder left with an unfinished tower or the commander facing impossible odds on the battlefield.

I can understand these examples, but I’m more likely to follow the Victorian architects who regularly designed “follies” on great estates: intentional ruins, unfinished structures, stairs going nowhere. Or the romantic stories of commanders like Henry V, taking on the French army with a ragtag band of loyal followers.

Jesus realistically reminds his followers that if they can’t bear the idea of the cross, they’ll never be able to bear the real thing. And bear it they must. He’s asking nothing less than everything. But at some point following Jesus is still a glorious leap of faith. I think that perhaps what Jesus was doing was less telling them to make a rational, calculated decision than simply warning them that the going was going to get a lot rougher than they imagined. He didn’t want them to follow him blindly, to delude themselves with dreams of easy victory and earthly triumph. It reminds me a bit of the times my parents would caution me about doing something reckless and then saying, “If you get hurt, don’t come crying to me.” I knew they were exasperated (often with good reason) but I also knew that they’d be there to pick me up.

Counting the cost isn’t always the best way to approach our lives. How often have you heard someone say, “If I had known what the outcome would be, I never would have started.” And yet they’re not sorry they did. When they look back, they see that somehow through God’s grace they found the strength to keep going, to see something through, to discover the new life on the other side of the abyss.

The goal of following Jesus is not a profitable corporation, a successful military campaign or a well-constructed building. The goal is the resurrection won by his victory over death, a victory that was far more of a high-stakes gamble that a well-oiled machine. The cost of following Jesus can’t be calculated in a spreadsheet and amortized over time. But the retirement plan is, as the bumper sticker says, “out of this world.”

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One of my all-time favorite authors passed away today and I’m struck by how sad I am, even knowing that she had a long, full, creative life. Madeleine L’Engle is known primarily for her children’s novels, particularly the Newberry Award winning A Wrinkle in Time. The first one I ever read was its sequel, A Wind in the Door. I was probably 10 or 11. I find myself remembering small bookstores where I found new books as they came out or discovered some that had been out for a number of years. Her adult novels are somewhat difficult to find, and I just taped the cover back on my mass market paperback of The Other Side of the Sun. A compulsive re-reader, I return to her books at different times of the year or different moods. Some I think I know almost by heart.

Her books explore the deep questions of life, of faith, of relationships. A lifelong Episcopalian, she never hesitated to take on the challenging aspects of religion and Christianity.  They also offer a fascinating look at the creative life, the struggle of artists to be true to their vision, but also the art and creativity that underlies the work of the best scientists.

Here are a couple of links: a story from St. Anthony Messenger and an interview with Newsweek that has some great insights into the Bible and Christianity.

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Today’s Gospel is one of Jesus’ most extended comments on the virtue of humility. The society of Jesus’ day depended a great deal on status and honor. People were in relationship to one another according to strict rules of class, occupation and conduct. And yet it seems there were social climbers even back then, people who tried to appear more important than they were.

The status rules in our society aren’t as formally strict as they are in other places and times, but at least in many social circles, they still exist. Oddly enough the other place that they exist is in the animal kingdom. I probably spend more time with my dogs than I do at high society functions. Because I have four dogs, I’ve had to learn how they function as a pack as well as their individual behavior, and the biggest problem I’ve had with them over the years has come from bringing in a new dog who’s a pack climber. In often subtle ways, she will work her way into a position closer to the top of the pack than she ought to be, and the other dogs are often aware of this before I am and put her in her place in no uncertain terms. A dog content to be at the bottom of the pack will lead a peaceful existence, interacting happily with me and the other dogs. And a dog who is securely the leader of the pack will not react inappropriately to challenges. My alpha dog is secure in his place with me and the other dogs and shows remarkable tolerance of the others.

This helps me understand a bit about what Jesus is saying in today’s parable. In the past it’s been used, perhaps abused, as a way of enforcing an existing hierarchy or social structure, a way to keep people lower down on the ladder in their place. Humility has been preached at length to people who already had no status—and as a result, no self-esteem—and it just made them feel worse about themselves and willing to let others push them around.

But this is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus is not talking to people who are genuinely working to develop their God-given talents. He’s talking to the climbers, the pushy ones, the people who are already abusing the little power they have in a bid to get even more status, more power. They’re the ones who don’t mind stepping over other people to get ahead. Even if we don’t recognize ourselves in this description, I’m willing to bet we recognize someone else from our daily lives.

What we need to remember in Jesus’ parable is that the giver of the banquet, the person with the highest status, is the one who is ordering the place of the others at the table. And in the big picture, this person is God. God alone knows who we are and what we can do and be. God has given us many gifts, many talents, for the good of all. It’s not about being paid back, it’s not about being rewarded. It’s about being ourselves. It’s about knowing who we are in God’s eyes and not worrying about how we might appear to others. It’s certainly not about comparing ourselves to others in some sort of competition with winners and losers.

True humility is not about letting others push us around. It’s not running ourselves down or being falsely modest about what we can do. It’s about realizing that who we are in relationship to one another depends solely on who we are in relationship to God.

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