An Attitude of Gratitude

Scripture: Luke 17:11-19

Preacher: Kelvin Mulembe

“…Was none found to return and give glory to God, except this foreigner?”

I was six years old when I first encountered a man with leprosy. We were living in Mansa in the northern region of Zambia, where it shares a border with the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire. We had just bought some mangoes at the market and were heading home, when, suddenly along the roadside, I heard a rusty old man’s voice asking for some mangoes. I did not hesitate to give one. However, as I was handing it to him, I panicked and got scared. The man had no fingers. His whole body was covered in disfiguring sores and had paralysis in one arm. He had a dirty bedsheet that wrapped around him.

Later, I learned from my mom that the man was suffering from leprosy. In addition, the common belief was that God was punishing him for his terrible past sin. Leprosy is an infectious disease that causes severe, disfiguring skin sores and nerve damage in the arms and legs. A patient can place their hand in fire and not know they are burning. People with leprosy often experience shunning and stigma rather than help. I also learned that there was a leper colony — a community of people suffering from leprosy, often-hopeless people, joined together by a bond of common misery.

Luke’s story of Jesus healing ten lepers takes me back to when I was six years. When I had that first encounter. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, the city where he would be finally revealed as the messiah, the master. Passing through the back roads on the border between Samaria and Galilee, perhaps avoiding detection from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, or maybe hiding from the Conservative Christians who would report him to the religious authorities.

As he entered a certain village, he wandered into a leper colony. A community of ten men banished from the rest of society because of their skin disease. As society had conditioned them to act, before Jesus and his disciples got closer, they announced themselves. We are here! Please do not come closer. We are unclean. – Once they get Jesus’ attention, they raise their voices in unison, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Somehow, they knew of Jesus and his prophetic and healing ministry. What an opportunity for them for Jesus to show up in their camp. Lepers were prohibited from places of worship or marketplaces, where Jesus frequently held his town-hall style meetings. They were required to live outside the village. This was their moment of salvation. Jesus represented one more shot at life, a possible reentry into society.

“Have mercy on us!” Jesus responds, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” This was a requirement in Jewish law. Anyone with a skin disease needed to clearance by a priest. Priests were trained public health experts, and thus served as physicians (Lev. 14). At once, they all responded in faith and headed towards the temple to have the priest examine them. If declared healed and clean, they would be welcomed into society.

I wonder what was on their minds and their conversations, seeing they still had leprosy at this point. Could it be that we must simply trust God’s Word and act in faith before we see any change in our lives? Does faith begin with simple obedience even if it does not logically make sense? After all, this could be a suicide mission. They could be stoned to death for violating Jewish law. Faith is often risky.

On their way to the priest, something peculiar happens. All the ten discover their skin disease is healed. They now have more confidence to go boldly before the priest. Surprisingly, one of them, after seeing his healing, begins to glorify God and returns to Jesus to tell him thank you. “Thank you for changing my life. Thank you for restoring my family. Thank you for showing me God’s mercy! I could have died. I was homeless, but not anymore because of God’s mercy.” The other nine never came back to thank Jesus; perhaps busy reuniting with their Jewish families. Visiting their favorite Kosha or Mediterranean restaurant. Cava, or maybe Chipotle, Ruby Tuesdays, or Olive Gardens. A very different reaction to a similar situation. How can only one out of ten healed men come back to say thank you lord?

The point of the story is not to praise the one who came back, but to rebuke the ungrateful. To address spiritual pride. Notice that Jesus did not directly speak to the one who came back. In fact, he seems disappointed. “Were not ten made clean? Where are the nine? Was none found to return and give glory to God, except this foreigner?” A Samaritan? Jews saw Samaritans as enemies, as violators of Jewish laws and customs. Second class citizens. People of mixed races or cultural backgrounds.

Luke’s gospel aims to demonstrate God’s mercy as boundary breaking. God’s mercy is not restricted to a particular group of people – race, gender, nationality, or cultural background. God’s mercy is for all. This can be seen in three perspectives of Jesus’ ministry: (a) His healings and miracles were restoring people to communion with others, (b) His gospel through table-fellowship and crossing religious and social barriers, and (c) His teaching on reaching out to one’s enemies.

The book I am currently reading by Pope Francis appropriately titled “The Name of God is Mercy” is an excellent little book In it, Pope Francis recognizes that everything that God does is motivated by mercy. Mercy, the pope says, is divine and has to do with judgment of sin. Mercy is what leads God to forgive us. Compassion, which is often confused with mercy, has a human face. It means to suffer with, non-indifferent to the pain and suffering of others. It is what Jesus saw when the huge crowds followed him like sheep without a shepherd. “The Christian message is transmitted by embracing those in difficulty.” Those often dismissed and closed out.

Leprosy in the bible often draws parallels to sin. Sin, like leprosy, causes separation. Our sin separates us from God, and one another. Sin makes us think of ourselves as better than others, or make us feel inferior. Sin brings isolation, and often causes us to seek other people’s approval. Sin diminishes our confidence to approach God. Sin is what leads to self-seeking and greed. Not caring about the health of everyone as long as you and your family are covered.

Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers exemplifies God’s model of healthcare. The whole hospital treated at once without health insurance. Ten lepers all healed at once and given a chance at life. Those of you who argue against the principle of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) must read this passage. Here we see an all-inclusive access to healthcare. Jesus does not ask for their immigration papers. Everyone is welcome. God cares about the sick, the broken, and the immigrant, those physically and spiritually wounded.

Instead, only one came back praising God and to say thank you. Moreover, because of it, Jesus declared that his faith made him well or saved. Here, the Greek word for “made well” is “Sozo,” which is used in reference to salvation or spiritual healing. It is the same word used when Jesus told Zacchaeus “today, sozo or salvation has come to your house.”  The other nine only received physical healing tharidzo – (to be made clean or healed of physical disease), but did not receive sozo. Same situation but completely different result. What made the difference?

Gratitude! His gratitude made the difference. Jesus recognized that the man appreciated not only the gift, but also the giver. His gratitude was shown in publicly praising God and coming back to bow before Jesus and tell him thank you. He was no ashamed to show his appreciation. Notice what Jesus says to him, “your faith has made you whole.” Other translations say your faith has saved you.

Personal faith plays a role in our salvation. Though salvation is God’s gift to us, we must receive it by faith. Our cooperation is necessary. Moreover, we show faith by our gratitude. Acknowledging our brokenness and being thankful for Christ’s work on the cross and in our lives.  All ten received healing, but the one who was grateful received far more than just physical healing. He also received salvation.

The more I reflected on this passage the more I am convinced that faith and gratitude are two sides of the same coin. By being grateful to God, we demonstrate faith. Mature faith is a combination of trust and gratitude. Faith alone leads to healing. Faith plus gratitude leads to salvation. I am even inclined to say that without gratitude there is no salvation. Mature faith enables us to acknowledge that life is a gift from God. That humanity is broken and in need of God’s help. Our attitudes must reflect our thankfulness to God.

Are you waiting on God to move in your life, while God is also waiting on you to move? I remember once praying, “God increase my faith so that I can do more for your ministry. I even fasted. Besides, the waiting was hard and frustrating. Later I learned that faith increases by doing what you have heard God say you should do, no matter how small or illogical, and being grateful that you have even heard from God in the first place. Being humble enough to say thank you is a demonstration of faith. It is by God’s grace that you and I have what we have and are where we are in life.

Ingratitude is a sin, and we all need to repent of it. Ingratitude is refusing or neglecting to be thankful. Is there someone you need to thank? Ingratitude shows itself in feelings of entitlement. You do not see the need to say thanks because you think you deserve it. Overlooking your own sin while demanding to hold others to a higher standard, thus closing church doors on those seeking an audience with God. Do you need to send a thank you letter or a postcard to someone? Even better, call them or meet them for coffee or lunch. Sometimes we find it easy to thank God, but hard to thank those we live with, those who have stood by us in difficult times. Being grateful to God and others brings wholeness. Therefore, let us cultivate an attitude of gratitude. As individuals and as a church. This week may you be grateful to God for the many gifts and blessings you have received. And, like the healed Samaritan, may we come back to God and say thank you Lord.

Amen.

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Stories Jesus Told: The Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids

Scripture: Matthew 25:1-13

Once upon a time, there was a wedding.

The bride got dressed up in her fanciest dress and had her makeup meticulously done and her hair beautifully styled.  The richest food and the most expensive wine her family could afford was bought and a feast was prepared.  The best musicians were hired to play joyful songs that the guests would dance to all night long, and the whole community gathered, eager for a celebration.

As the community gathered, ten bridesmaids put on the matching dresses that they would never wear again, did their own makeup, styled their own hair, and waited to join the wedding procession as the groom came to take his bride from her parents’ house to his own for the banquet.

Well, the truth is we don’t know a lot about first-century Palestinian weddings, and the details of how this one worked aren’t exactly clear.  But it is clear, in this story, that the bridesmaids waited for the groom to show up for the celebration to get underway – and they waited.  And they waited.

Our fairy tale wedding is beginning to look like the kind of sitcom or movie we are all well familiar with.  Where is the groom?  The violinist continues to play Pachelbel’s Canon while the guests begin to shift uncomfortably in their seats and look around.  Maybe a friend gets up to stall things with an awkward speech.  Where is he?  Is he late?  Is he stuck in Vegas after a wild bachelor party?  Did he get cold feet?  Is he coming at all?

Pachelbel keeps playing, and our bridesmaids keep waiting.  And waiting.

As they waited, each bridesmaid in her matching dress held onto a small oil lamp that she would carry in the procession once the groom arrived.  Each lamp was lit, and they were ready.  As they waited, though, the oil began to dwindle, and the flames began to die.  Soon it grew dark and the ten bridesmaids fell asleep.

The clock had just struck midnight when all of a sudden they were awakened by music and the clanging of noisemakers and shouting: “The groom is coming!”

Jolted awake, the ten bridesmaids jumped up and grabbed their oil lamps.  But as they looked down they saw that the oil was almost gone and their flames were barely a flicker.

“No problem,” thought five bridesmaids, reaching for the extra oil they had brought with them.  But the other five bridesmaids just stared at their lamps with a sinking feeling.  How could they have forgotten?  How could they have been so ill-prepared?  What now?

The shout came again: “The groom is coming!”

“Quick!” begged the five oil-less bridesmaids to their five well-prepared friends.  “Give us some of your oil!”

But the five wise bridesmaids shook their heads sadly, for they only had just enough for themselves.  It seems harsh, I know – but as I’ve learned from those candles on the altar, you need a certain amount of oil just to make them light at all, and perhaps if the wise bridesmaids shared their oil none of the ten lamps would stay lit for long.  Besides, in the end, other people can’t really be ready for you, can they?  “You’ll have to go buy some,” the wise bridesmaids said, and they re-lit their lamps and headed for the door.  The five foolish bridesmaids scrambled to put their shoes and coats on and ran out to find some shop that was by some chance still open.  But it was no use.  When they came back with their oil, the procession was gone, and when they ran to site of the wedding feast, the door was locked, and no one would let them in.

So far in retelling this parable I’ve cast it as a fairy tale and a lighthearted rom-com, and so I kind of want to add something at the end there to give it a feel-good ending.  But this is not the kind of story that ends with a happily ever after.

“Keep awake, therefore,” says Jesus, “for you know neither the day nor the hour.”  In Matthew’s gospel, he’s just been talking about the apocalypse and his own second coming, so when he tells us to keep awake, we have a pretty good idea for what.  We might point out to Jesus that even the five wise bridesmaids technically fell asleep, but we take his point.  Those who wait for the bridegroom had best not let their lamps go out.

As I’ve preached on Jesus’ parables over the past couple weeks I’ve generally made sure to emphasize that they aren’t just allegories where every one thing represents another thing and there is one true crystal clear meaning.  But it certainly seems to be the case in this story that some things stand for some other things: this is a story about the coming of the Kingdom of God, starring Jesus Christ as the bridegroom, and us, who purport to follow him, as the bridesmaids—some presumably wise, some foolish.

So here is the question, then: what is the oil?

Some, like Martin Luther, say the oil is faith.  Strong, unwavering faith is what will make us ready for the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Some say it is the Holy Spirit.  Some say it is good works, which Jesus hopes we won’t get tired of.  Tell me, which one of these things does Jesus want to see that we are not running out of when he comes back?  Or maybe the oil is what it takes to keep that lamp lit and our light shining – things like prayer, study, Sabbath, worship, good Christian community.

Or could it be that – again – the story is not so easily allegorized, and that the oil could be any or all of these things?  That Jesus’ point is when he comes back, and ushers in the Kingdom of God – is he going to find us ready and waiting, trusting in him despite his delay, doing our best to put our faith into action, letting the Holy Spirit work through us by loving and serving and welcoming and forgiving?  Basically – is Jesus going to find us in a state we want him to find us in?

I am not sure how Jesus’ original audience heard and understood this story, but I have an idea how Matthew’s audience did.  The Gospel of Matthew, which was written almost 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, was written for Christians who were already looking around awkwardly to the strains of Pachelbel’s canon wondering what was taking so long and if the groom was, in fact, coming at all.  They had expected him to be a little more punctual.  So they needed a reminder once in a while – that even though the groom might be running late, according to their own timetables, their job was to remain watchful, and vigilant, and to keep their lamps lit.

That’s how Matthew’s audience would have heard it, but things have changed a little bit since then, haven’t they?  Or maybe it’s better to say that things haven’t changed, and two thousand years later, the groom seems to still be taking his time.  I’m sure that some of us come from traditions – since we come from a lot of different traditions, here – that talk easily about the second coming of Christ and expect it imminently.  But for a lot of us, if we think about it at all, it is in very future sense.  I include myself in that group.   Though I can recite the words of the Apostles’ Creed which says “From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead,” though we proclaim the mystery of faith every time we have communion: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again, the “come again” part seems at the very least very far off, probably after my lifetime, maybe like when the sun explodes or something.

But when you think of something as very, very far off, it’s hard to feel like you really need to stay ready, isn’t it?  So  while Jesus’ second coming seems to me like something that is very far off, it’s a pretty good challenge to my faith to once in a while remind myself that it could in fact not be.  I might not have time to restock my oil in the morning – so if Jesus came back tonight, would he find my lamp lit?

Sometimes I think our faith could use that kind of urgency again.

If you knew Jesus was coming back tonight – or tomorrow, or the next day – is there anything you would do differently? (Anyone brave enough to answer that?)  What about us as a church – is there anything we would do differently?

I wonder.  Would I give away all my money and possessions?  Open my doors to anyone who needed a place to go?  Would I be out at more protests, or spending more time alone in prayer? What would change if we felt a little more of that urgency?

On the other hand, I don’t believe that you can truly live every day like it’s your last, and we as Christians probably can’t live every day as if we truly believed Jesus was coming back tomorrow – we’d use up all our oil, and our lamps would burn out.  This is a story that acknowledges that it might still be a while, and what we need is faith that has that urgent quality to it but that is also in it for the long haul.  We need to look ahead and keep that oil stocked.  As one commentary put it – “Being a peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being a peacemaker year after year when the hostility breaks out again and again.  Being merciful for an evening can be pleasant.  Being merciful for a lifetime…requires preparedness.” [1] (NIB)  Our lives of faith are not usually meant to be a blaze of glory, but a constant flame that may, of course, wax and wane over the course of the night, but doesn’t go out.

I read this week about Dylann Roof, the guy who killed nine people at Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston two summers ago, being sentenced to death recently, and the reaction of the black community in Charleston.  It is complex, of course.  Some people think he’ll be getting what he deserves, and some are ready to forgive him.  It is in fact many of the family members of the nine people killed who have led the way in expressing forgiveness for the young man who did this terrible thing.  And some, as we can imagine, are somewhere in between, as the article put it, “mulling over the question of whether compassion can, in fact, lead to grace and perhaps to meaningful change.”

But as one shop owner caught in this struggle said, “At the very least, the families of the Emmanuel Nine lit a lamp for us to follow.”[2]

I’d say you need a certain urgency to your faith to keep that lamp lit at the very moment it is tested, so that it becomes a light that others can see and follow.  And you also need a certain preparedness, a good stock of oil, that probably comes from a lifetime of prayer, thankfulness, being part of an accountable community, and practice forgiving the small things so you are able to forgive the big ones.

But I did tell you that there is rarely just one way to read a parable.  And as I was reading this one, I thought about the oil and I thought about being ready and I thought about the groom showing up, and I thought about how Jesus doesn’t just show up once, at the end of time, but every day, in lots of different ways, and how we have to keep our lamps lit for those appearances, too.

Jesus does talk about the Kingdom of God as an apocalyptic kind of future thing but he also says the Kingdom of God is among us.  And I think we have to be ready to see that, too.  I think we have to have our lamps lit for that, too.

Jon and I are in a Facebook group for our neighborhood civic association and we often have a good laugh at the rants that people post and about how everything devolves into an argument, usually about how the neighborhood has gone downhill or who is racist.  But there was a post not long ago that caught my eye.  It was from a woman I had never met who apparently lives several streets down from us, but according to her post she is a widow with several kids, disabled, trying to make ends meet.  It seemed she had a number of tools and other things outside in her yard and someone called the police, presumably because it looked dangerous.  She was clearly angry as she wrote that she had asked for help before but her neighbors would rather call and report her than ask her if everything was OK and how they could help.  Then I read on as several neighbors responded to her post, and they said things like “I’m sorry you don’t feel like you’ve been welcomed.  If you tell me where you live, I’d love to bring you dinner or cookies sometime.”

I thought about how easy the Kingdom of God can be to miss – whether it is in a neighbor we write off and put our guard up against instead of taking the risk of getting to know them, or witnessing the simple kind actions of someone who wants to make a small difference.

Sometimes, of course, the bridegroom might make himself known to us with music and shouting and noisemakers, but probably more often he is there in the unassuming faces of the refugee, the undocumented immigrant, the homeless person on the street, the ex-con looking for a job, the opioid addict, the neighbor whose yard is bringing down the property values, or the person with whom we most vehemently disagree.  And the truth is that’s easy to say – we all know the verses that say that – but it’s a little harder to see in complex reality, so we need to keep our oil stocked and our lamps lit, or we might miss it.

Keep awake, says Jesus.  I’m still coming, and you don’t know when.

And, in fact, I’m already here.

Either way, you don’t want to miss it.

 

[1] New Interpreter’s  Bible Vol. VIII, Matthew, p. 451
[2] Christian Century, 2/15/17, p. 14

Stories Jesus Told: The Shrewd Manager

Scripture: Luke 16:1-9

So, who can tell me what this parable means?

Often, when I do a sermon series, I pick scriptures for each week with at least a vague idea of what I’m going to say about them.  But this time is different because I picked this parable precisely because I have never had the slightest idea what it meant, and for me one of the most fun parts of preaching is taking a scripture I have absolutely no idea what to do with, and studying and reflecting and struggling with it until I can discern God saying something through it, even if it’s not one clear and satisfying answer.  I’ve always thought that when the Bible is really clear, it’s often boring to preach on.  So this week I studied and reflected and struggled with this text and tried to look at it from all different angles and, I’m going to be honest here, guys, I got nothing.  I’ve referred to Jesus’ parables and sayings as kind of Zen-like before and this was one of those cases where I kept feeling like I almost understood it, and as soon as I did, I was farther from understanding it.

That Jesus.

But I re-came across a quote I wrote down a couple years ago recently, and it went: “The Bible is meant to be a conversation starter, not a conversation ender.” [Rachel Held Evans]

I like that quote, and I believe it to be true, and I believe it to be especially true for Jesus’ parables, and I think I believe it to be even more especially true for this parable. So I thought maybe I would bring you all along with me as I walk through this parable, and at the end, I’m going to ask you again what you think it means.

For some context, Jesus tells this story to his disciples, but we find out just afterwards that the Pharisees, the religious leaders that Jesus thinks are super hypocritical, are listening too.

Once upon a time, it begins, there lived a rich man.  Can anyone tell me where we’ve heard this one before, recently?  How about the rich man and Lazarus, from a few weeks ago?  Part of what makes a parable like this so complicated is that when there is a master or father or landowner in a story Jesus tells, we are accustomed to assuming that person represents God – for example, in the parable of the Prodigal Son (God is the father forgiving us and welcoming us home) or the workers in the vineyard (God is the landowner treating all of us the same no matter how long we have been working for him.)  So my first inclination, at least, is to figure out how the master in this story is like God.  However, when Jesus starts out a story with Once there was a rich man, that rich man is not usually God-like in any way, shape or form – like the rich man who ignored poor Lazarus outside his gate, as we heard about a couple weeks ago, or like the rich fool who stocked up all his wealth for himself instead of sharing and then died the next day.  Luke, we might say, is the gospel of the poor, and Luke does not have much affection for rich men, even in stories.  So you can simply keep that question in mind as we go along – is this rich landowner God or not God?  Is he a good character, or a bad one, or neutral?

This rich man had a manager.  He was probably a property manager of sorts, for this investment property where the rich man did not live.  Tenants would farm his land and grow and harvest crops such as wheat and olives for oil, and they would return a portion of their product as their rent, and the manager was in charge of collecting their payment and keeping the books and probably fielding any complaints they had.  When I lived in Williamsburg I rented a condo through a property management company, and I paid my rent to them each month, and when my garbage disposal broke they were who I called – kind of like that.

The rich man got wind of the fact that the manager was squandering his property.  We don’t know exactly what this means.  Is he skimming a little too much off the top for himself?  Is he being too nice to the tenants – never saying, “Hey, it was your fault for sticking a fork in the garbage disposal, pay for it yourself?”  Or is he not very good at keeping track of their payments at all?  (After all, later in the story he does ask each person, “How much do you owe my master?”)  But then, we also don’t know if this allegation is true.  Innocent until proven guilty, right?  Well, not as far as his boss is concerned.  You couldn’t exactly sue someone for unlawful termination in the Ancient Near East.  To be fair, the rich man does ask his manager to see the books he’s been keeping, and this seems sufficiently worrying to the manager that he proceeds the way he does.

The manager said to himself, after maybe a few four-letter words, ‘What now?’  He doesn’t have the strength or the skills for blue-collar work, and he’s not about to go stand at the city gate holding a cardboard sign that says ‘Please Help.’  He has to figure out where he’s going to go and how he’s going to eat once he’s out of a job, whether it’s fair that he lost his or not.

All of a sudden, a lightbulb went off. 

One by one, he visited those tenants who owed his boss some back rent.  To the one who owed nine hundred gallons of olive oil, he said ‘Make it four-fifty.’  To the one who owed a thousand bushels of wheat, he said, ‘Make it eight hundred.’

 We can see where he is going with this, and it at least kind of makes sense, even though he isn’t exactly acting with integrity. He’s about to get canned, but the tenants don’t know that yet.  If he can reduce their debts, he’s made some friends for himself who will help him once he doesn’t have anywhere to go, just as he has helped them.  So far, I’m tracking, Jesus.  I’m not quite sure where you’re going, but I think I’m with you.

And then, says Jesus, the rich man commended his dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly – or depending on the translation, cleverly.  Or even wisely.  The same word is, in fact, often translated ‘wisely,’ even within the same version of the Bible. 

This is where I start scratching my head.

Why do you think the rich man would commend his manager for doing what he did?   [Real question, no right answer.]

Here are some of the possibilities I found: Maybe the manager made his boss look good by reducing the debts, making for some happy customers, which is good for business.  Yet I don’t know a lot of business owners who would be that happy about their employees slashing prices without asking, however happy it made the customer.  Or maybe it was usurious interest that the rich man was charging that his manager did away with, making the manager the good guy according to Jewish law.  Well that’s great, but we don’t have any indication that that was the case, and the amounts of debt he is canceling seem pretty variable; and again, I have no idea why the rich man would be happy about this if it was his idea to jack up the interest rates in the first place.  Or maybe it is the manager’s own commission he is slashing – sacrificing his own income to make a desperate investment in his future.  That’s a nice idea although I happen to think it makes it a little too easy on us as interpreters.

My working reading of it is that the rich man had to commend his manager almost in spite of himself.  He might not have liked it, but he had to admit that was a smart thing to do.  I picture him maybe shaking his head and laughing wryly as he looks at his books.

But then it gets even weirder, as Jesus adds: For the children of this age are more shrewd – or wiser! – than the children of the light. 

For the life of me I can’t tell if he means that as a good thing or not.  What do you think?  Are Christians sometimes too nice in a way that doesn’t end up benefiting ourselves or the Kingdom of God?  I feel like that’s not necessarily the stereotype I hear about us, but maybe it is true that we sometimes lack strategy and business sense.  Just recently Don Lassell and I had a conversation with the guy who owns the gas station downstairs, who is hoping to build a bigger convenience store in some of the empty space.  Someone told us, “If he does, you need to negotiate for more rent.”  We both said, “oh, is that really necessary…”.is Jesus talking to us, Don?  Of course, this story is about slashing debt, not increasing it.

Or – is Jesus saying that the manager acted according to a value system that we aren’t supposed to be a part of, cheating people to save ourselves?  Is Jesus saying that the world will admire us for that sort of shrewdness, just like the rich man does – but that’s not the upside-down, self-sacrificial wisdom of the cross?

But then he caps it off: Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth – or, according to the KJV, the ‘mammon of unrighteousness’ so that when it is gone, they will welcome you into the eternal homes.

In one sentence, what do you make of this?  What does Jesus mean by this parable?

Well, here is where most of the commentaries seem to go with this story, and it’s about the closest I can get to a satisfactory takeaway, too:

This is a story about money and wealth and what we do with it.  It’s unclear to me whether he is actually talking about ill-gotten gains.  Maybe ‘mammon of unrighteousness’ – which is actually a more literal translation – doesn’t mean money gotten unrighteously, but simply refers to money as the currency of our unrighteous world.  The CEB does, in fact, translate this phrase as “worldly wealth.” And to be honest, because we live in a broken and sinful world, probably most of whatever wealth we may have amassed is not completely pure.  That’s just the way it is, but we still have to decide what we do with it.

The manager in the parable, for his part, knows you use the resources at your disposal to invest in your future.  In his case that is his own, jobless future.  But what future are we investing in?

Hopefully, suggests Jesus, an eternal one.

And how do you use money, which is just about the most earthly, worldly thing there is, to invest in an eternal future?

Well, you cancel debts and you give it away.

This story doesn’t necessarily tell us to simply get rid of everything we have so that we can live unencumbered by the ways money and possessions tie us down.  There are stories that come closer to telling us that, and they are in Luke’s Gospel, but they’re not this one.  Instead, this story suggests, you use what you have wisely, even shrewdly.  You give it away in a way that makes you a friend – a friend of the kind of people who are Jesus’ friends, which is to say, the poor, the sick, the stranger, the outcast, the “other.”  Those are the people who will welcome you into the Kingdom of God, because those kind of relationships are exactly what the Kingdom of God is made of.  It is, actually, a strange kind of wisdom.  But it is wisdom nonetheless.

So maybe this parable is best left with a couple of rhetorical questions:

What debts are you going to slash today?

With the resources at your disposal, who are you being a friend to?

And, ultimately, what future are you investing in?

To good investments, upside-down wisdom, and stories we can only understand together – let’s all say, amen.

 

 

Stories Jesus Told: The Friend Who Knocked at Midnight

Scripture: Luke 11:5-10

“Lord,” said the disciples one day as Jesus was praying, “Teach us to pray.”

Jesus – to his credit, I think – didn’t answer as they might have expected.  He didn’t tell them that prayer was easy, nothing to it.  He didn’t tell them that prayer was just talking to God like you would talk to your best friend.  He didn’t tell them that there was no wrong way to pray.  Prayer might be all of those things, but that was not what Jesus told the disciples that day.

Instead, he said, “OK.  Pray like this.”

“Father,” he began.  Luke’s words vary slightly from Matthew’s, which is the form most of us are used to.  Still, we can hear the resonances: “Hallowed be thy name.  Your Kingdom come.  Give us each day our daily bread.  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.  And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

Jesus waited a moment for those short-and-to-the-point words to sink in.  Then, he told them a story.

This story did not begin “Once upon a time.”  This story was less a tale and more of a little thought exercise.  “Imagine,” he said, “you have a friend, and late one night you run down the street to this friend’s house and you bang on his door.  Another friend has just stopped in on a long journey, you see, and dinner has been eaten and the dishes put away and there isn’t any food left to offer him.”

The disciples nodded, knowing how shameful it would be to not provide hospitality for a friend on a journey.

“Imagine,” continued Jesus, “that you bang on his door, and when you don’t immediately get an answer, you call out, ‘It’s me!  I need to borrow three loaves of bread!  I have company!’”

The disciples nodded again.  Surely this friend would understand the seriousness of the situation, and surely he would be willing to help.  What are friends for, after all?

“Now imagine,” said Jesus, “that your friend has had a very long day, and he has to be up early tomorrow, and they’ve just gotten the baby to sleep.  So when he gets up, blinks a couple times, and recognizes you at the door, he doesn’t say ‘Please, help yourself to some bread.’  Instead, he says: ‘Do you know what time it is?  Get lost.’”

Oh, thought the disciples, so he is that kind of friend.

“Now imagine,” said Jesus, “that you don’t get lost.  You know it’s late.  But you also know that you need that bread.  So you stand there, and you knock.  And you knock.  And you knock again.  Until finally, your friend opens the door, angrily shoves three loaves of bread into your arms, and slams it shut.  He may not have given you the bread out of the goodness of his heart, but shamelessness does count for something.”

An interesting conclusion – not exactly Aesop’s Fables, here.  But then the stories Jesus tells are rarely as cut-and-dry as the ones Aesop does.

In this story, we the listeners are supposed to understand ourselves as the knocker.  And here I have to pause for a confession of my own: when I first decided to preach on this story, I conflated it in my head with another story, the story of the widow and the unjust judge, which Jesus tells later in Luke.  In that story, a poor widow who is denied legal justice by a corrupt judge, but she keeps doggedly appealing her case until the judge gets so sick of her he gives her what she wants.  Luke tells us that this is a parable about “the need to pray always and not get discouraged,” and in my head, that’s what this one was, too.  But that’s not quite right, which is why it’s important to actually read the text and not just think we know what it says – a trap I fall into once in a while.  This story of the friend who knocked at midnight is also a story meant to teach us something about how to pray.  But, I realized, the guy only goes to his friend’s house once.  It does seem that he doesn’t simply go home when the friend tells him to get lost.  But the word we heard translated as persistence – even if the friend didn’t give him the bread out of friendship, he gave it to him because of his persistence – is also translated boldness or shamelessness, depending on which version we are reading.

Maybe the friend knows that he won’t get to sleep until he gives his friend the bread and the knocking stops.  Maybe he’s also afraid of the rest of the street waking up and knowing that he was too grumpy to help a friend in need.  Either way, if it is a story that teaches us something about how to pray, it makes a good case for both boldness and persistence.

But if we, the listener, are the knocker, does that make God the rudely awakened friend?  Does God begrudgingly answer our prayers if we pray them loudly or often enough, like God is our senator and it’s our goal to overwhelm his staff and fill his voicemail with our opinions?  Can God be shamed into answering out boldest prayers so that God doesn’t look bad to all the people in the world who claim that prayer doesn’t work – or to all the people who believe it does?  Is that really what Jesus meant to teach?

Well – no.  We the listener may be the knocker, but this is not the kind of story where everything neatly represents something else – Jesus’ stories rarely are.  The story does not begin, “The kingdom of heaven is like a guy who knocked on his friend’s door in the middle of the night…”  Instead, it invites us to realize that if this guy got what he needed even from a very grumpy and begrudging friend, how much more will God – who is neither grumpy nor begrudging – give us.  When we ask, God gives.  When we seek, God helps us to find.  When we knock, God opens the door – and not just to tell us to get lost.

That makes me feel a little better, but I do still have some questions, and I’m sure the disciples must have too.  Did they take it at face value when Jesus implied that this is the way prayer works?  Surely some of them had asked God for a thing or two in their lives.  Maybe they had even done so loudly and persistently.  Maybe they had been bold in their asking, demanding what they needed from God – for an abundance of fish.  For an illness to be healed.  For a loved one to live.  Surely the disciples had been knocking on heaven’s door for their whole lives, and sometimes God answered with a smile and an armful of bread, to be sure – and other times, nothing.  Don’t you know what time it is?  Get lost.

Does it ever feel that way?

“Jesus,” they might have said, “here are all of our examples.  Here are the times we have asked but not received.  Here are the times we have sought but not found.  Here are the times we have knocked only for the door to remain shut.”

“Ah,” Jesus might have responded, “but remember what I taught you to pray for.”

Thy kingdom come.

Bread, just enough for today.  Forgiveness.  To keep us far from the things that would cause us to stumble.

Could it be that those are the prayers we are meant to pray boldly, over and over?

Imagine: that God had a house and you went to that house and you stood outside pounding on the door and shouting, Thy kingdom come!  Let us see your kingdom here on earth!  Let us see it! We demand to see it!

Imagine pounding on God’s door and shouting, Give me just enough!  I’ll be back again tomorrow!

Imagine shouting, Forgive me! I demand that my debts be canceled, since I’ve canceled all the debts owed to me!

Does that sound like the way you pray?

It’s beautiful, though, isn’t it – the image of a God who answers the door readily, arms full of freshly baked bread, ready to give us everything we need.  This is a prayer that prayed boldly over and over gives us the confidence to live fully relying on God.

But remember, Jesus’ parables are rarely cut-and-dry, and so I wonder if we might hear the story again, a little differently, this time.   After all, there are two knockers in this story, and there are two people who open the door.

“Imagine,” said Jesus, “that you have a friend.  And this friend has been on a long journey, and she’s sent word to you that she plans to stay with you on the way back.  Only you don’t know exactly when that is – it’s not like she can text when she’s thirty minutes out, or anything like that – and late one night, after dinner has been eaten and all the dishes have been put away, there she is knocking at your door.  And she’s hungry from all her traveling, and you don’t have anything to give her to eat.

“So you go down the street to your friend’s house.  It’s late and you know he’s kind of a crotchety guy, anyway, but you need some food to give your first friend.  So you bang on his door and he’s pretty unhappy about it, but because of your boldness and persistence in asking, you come home with what you need – to show hospitality to your friend.”

“How much more,” said Jesus, “will God, who is neither grumpy nor begrudging, give you what you need – to do God’s work in this world.”

What happens when see ourselves in this story not first as the knocker, but as the knock-ee?

What if it is not just our job as Christians to knock on God’s door, but to open ours, knowing that God will give us what we need to welcome the person on the other side?

What if we are the answer to someone else’s prayers, even as we boldly pray our own?

I like what Pope Francis once said.  Pope Francis, teach us to pray.  “First you pray for the hungry, then you feed them.  That’s how prayer works.”

So, fellow knock-ees: who is knocking?  On whose behalf are you going to bang on God’s door?

My friend Amy from college, who now lives in Chicago, recently joined with some other people in a local moms’ group on Facebook to sponsor a refugee family being resettled in the city.  Together, this group of moms who had been strangers up to this point raised $8500 for the family’s basic living expenses.  They sought donations of furniture to furnish the family’s new apartment.  Some in the group agreed to be mentors to the family to help them navigate life in the United States and learn English.  Some volunteered to stock their pantry with groceries until their SNAP application went through.  Together, Amy’s group did all these things to get ready to follow Jesus’ call to welcome the stranger.

Later they learned a little about the family they would be sponsoring.  It was a father and mother who had fled Aleppo and their baby daughter who was born in their refugee camp in Turkey.  The father was an accountant; the mother had studied literature.  They had family already in Chicago, and in fact would have been resettled with them earlier except for an administrative delay.  The resettlement agency found an apartment in the same building as the other family members.  They were scheduled to arrive on Monday, January 30.

Together Amy’s moms’ group got the apartment ready for this family to arrive.  They moved furniture, stocked the kitchen, set up the nursery.  They placed in the crib a bunny toy that was a gift from the five-year-old neighbor of one of the people in the group, who had heard about this family’s pending arrival and was worried the baby wouldn’t have a toy to hold.  Through the family in the same building, Amy and some of the others got to FaceTime with the family that would be coming.

Last Friday, as Amy and the others were making welcome signs and buying groceries and preparing to meet this family at the airport on Monday night, the executive order was signed banning refugees from coming into the country for 90 days – and, for Syrian refugees, indefinitely.  That night they learned officially that the family they had prepared for was barred from coming to the US.

Amy learned that the family had left the refugee camp at that point.  They had sold or given away all of their possessions, made the 18-hour bus trip to Istanbul, and gotten a hotel room where they waited to leave.  After the executive order was signed, they were given $250 and told to go home.  But, as Amy put it, “they have no home.  They are not permitted to return to the refugee camp.  They cannot afford to stay in Istanbul.  They are not legally permitted to work in Turkey.  At this point, they still do not know what they are going to do, or where they will go.”  As of last night, they were waiting to see whether some of the recent court challenges to the order would allow this family to come.

Knock, knock, knock.

Like many of you, I don’t know exactly how to open the door to this refugee family or any of the many families with similar stories that we have undoubtedly heard in the past week.  Maybe it means standing up and advocating for families like this one; maybe it means sponsoring or otherwise helping a family who is able to come to the US; maybe it means something else.  I do believe God wants us to hear them knocking, and then I think God wants us to knock on God’s door and say, “Give us what we need to help.”

I believe that when we pray and ask, our God who is neither begrudging nor grumpy is ready to give us good things: like courage.  And community.  Bread to share.  Bigger hearts.  And peace, even if it’s not yet on a global scale.

Imagine pounding on God’s door in the middle of the night and saying, “Open up!  My friends are here, and I need something to give them!”

And as we can trust God to do, God answers the door, and our prayer.