Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Making Friends and Influencing People

SJF • Proper 20c • Tobias Haller BSG
The steward said, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.”

Today’s gospel contains one of those difficult passages: a parable that doesn’t seem at first to make much sense. Jesus seems to praise a dishonest steward for his dishonesty, and more than that, appears to counsel his disciples to do the same, to “make friends by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” A hard text, it’s true; but if I’ve learned anything from wrestling with the Scripture, it’s that the hard parts provide the richest reward in understanding if you take the time to study them with care. Like Jacob, if we hang onto and wrestle with God’s word — all night if we have to — though we may feel a little out of joint by morning, we will also receive God’s blessing, and a glimpse of God’s wisdom.

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So let’s look at this difficult parable of the rich man and his shifty servant, and the even more difficult conclusion that Jesus draws from it. The main problem with the parable itself isn’t the behavior of the dishonest servant; after all, servants are often dishonest, and this man isn’t the first to have squandered a master’s property, and get the boot because of it. So he sets himself to make friends in the town — because he’s too weak to work by the sweat of his brow and too proud to beg — in order to assure his future. He offers a cut-rate discount to all the people in debt to his master, in the hopes that when he’s out of a job they’ll remember his generosity and take him in.

So far, so bad, we might say! But then comes the surprise: the master, finding out about the dishonest servant’s debt-forgiveness program, far from saying, “You’ve cheated me out of half of what was owed me!” instead praises this man for acting shrewdly!

Now, I have to confess I have wrestled with that part of the text for a long time, but then recently I had an experience that reminded me of how this works in the real world. A few weeks ago I bought a new TV set at a sale price, after a good bit of shopping around. I got it for half price, which to me seemed like a very good deal. I didn’t realize how good until I saw, in another so-called discount store, the same model listed at full price, but then “marked down” by only a third — so still costing more than the same one I bought at another store! And, get this, the “bargain” price at this discount store was for a floor display model, while the one I got for so much less at the other store was new in the box!

And I realize now, of course, in light of this Gospel, that even the price I paid was probably more than the store paid the manufacturer — so that even if they weren’t making a big profit, they were actually making more than the store that kept the same TV set unsold on their shelves because people knew they could get it cheaper elsewhere.

If you look at the gospel’s rich man and his shrewd manager in that light, we can probably guess that the amount the customers owed to him may well have been twice the actual value of the debts — so that even at the discount price of 50 or 20 percent off, the rich man was still probably making a profit — or at least breaking even — and getting the wheat and oil in hand that he could sell elsewhere for even more! Unsold goods on the racks and shelves — and uncollected debts — aren’t money in the bank. So while it looks like our rich man and Circuit City are taking a loss, discount business-people are shrewdly keeping their cash flowing, using the money from what they sell at a discount to buy what they can sell at greater profit. Truly, the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light!

So it is that the shrewd servant in our gospel is not only making friends with those to whom he offers a discount, but earns his master’s praise for bringing in real commodities instead of just accumulating accounts receivable and a pile of unpaid bills.

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Now, of course, Jesus was not interested in offering his disciples an MBA degree from Harvard Business School. This is a parable, remember: a story that stands for something about the life — not of the business world — but of the kingdom of God. And where, in God’s kingdom, do we hear about forgiving others their debts? Where do we hear of the authority and commandment that Jesus committed to his church to offer forgiveness of sins to those who repent and seek to live a new life? Aren’t we assured in the prayer we pray every day, the prayer that he himself taught us, that God will forgive us our sins only when — and to the same extent that — we forgive those who sin against us? Isn’t this the way we are called to “make friends” by means of the shrewd wealth of forgiveness, the forgiveness that seems to give away (for that is what for-give means: because once we’ve forgiven something we can’t hold on to it any longer)? Because we’ve given up control over what was owed to us, we have stored up a wealth of gratitude for this forgiveness of debts, so that we can be welcomed in by those whom we have forgiven.

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None of us, after all, can ever pay God back for all we owe — not only for all we’ve been given, but for all the debt we’ve incurred by the wrong we’ve done. We all need that “discount” of forgiveness that God has committed to his franchise holders here on earth, the leaders and members of the church, to whom God through Christ has committed the mark-down ministry of the forgiveness of sins. This is the only commerce in which the church is called to engage: the shrewd discount sale that spreads the good news of the kingdom, that God in his great generosity is setting aside the cost of sin — which is death — and has nailed it to the cross in Christ Jesus, the one mediator, who gave himself as a ransom for all, that all might be saved. He paid the full price, after all, and the only thing he saved was us.

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The problem is that some church leaders and members don’t always act so generously with the forgiveness committed to them. They hold back on God’s grace; they set conditions and limits on how much forgiveness they will dole out, and are choosey about those to whom they will give it. They will lavish forgiveness on their own sins, thinking them trifles, while holding others to — and judging others by — a standard they themselves are unable to attain.

We see this kind of behavior prefigured in the wicked and deceitful merchants whom the prophet Amos cursed, who use false balances, who make their measuring cups small and put their thumbs on the scales. Far from forgiving debt, far from holding to a square deal, these thieves steal even from the widows and orphans, from the poor and needy.

These are those who not only do not forgive, but who try to hold others to a higher standard than they live by themselves. They reckon their own sins light, but when another of whom they disapprove comes before them, they put their thumb on the scale and shake their heads. “Oh, you couldn’t possibly afford this; you’ll have to make do with a cheaper cut!” So say those who tilt the scales of justice unfairly; and the Lord assures us he will never forget any of their deeds.

The truth is, my friends, Jesus, the friend of sinners, calls us to be friends of sinners too — and that’s good news, for it would be a very lonely world if we could only associate with people who were free from sin. That would be a club with no members, like the one Groucho Marx referred to when he said, “I would never belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member!” Fortunately, we are assured, all of us having sinned and yet been forgiven, that God does welcome us into the fellowship of the church — on the sole condition that we welcome each other as well, forgiving those who trespass against us, as we have been forgiven our trespasses, setting aside the debts of sin, marking-down the cost at a super discount: for Jesus paid the price long ago, on lay-away, once and for all, and it is up to us simply to pass along the savings.

You know the option, my friends; we have no excuse, and we know what will happen if we don’t forgive. This is a fire sale I’m talking about. The world is passing away, and we are called to live each day with the going-out-of-business sale mentality. Do you want to save — and be saved? Well come to God’s great end-of-the-world sale, where he’s slashed the price of sin — put death out of business! — and rejoice in God’s abundant discount, as we forgive each other and so assure that we will be forgiven. So it is we will find at the last that we are welcomed into the eternal homes, where we will forever praise our only mediator and advocate, the friend of sinners and the ransom of the world, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Decisions Decisions

SJF • Proper 18c • Tobias Haller BSG
Moses said to all Israel, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.”

Human life is full of decisions, some trivial and some important. Some of the decisions that we face day by day, and the choices we make, will have little impact on our lives. Other choices will have consequences so serious that we can even find ourselves paralyzed and unable to choose out of our fear of making the wrong choice.

And, let’s face it, even simple decisions can sometimes be hard to make. There is an old story of the Queen of England attending tea at an English lord’s manor. The butler in attendance was understandably a bit nervous, as it was his first time serving a royal. He asked, “Will you take tea, Ma’am?” The Queen answered, “Yes, thank you.” “India or China, Ma’am?” “India, please.” “Darjeeling, Assam or Nilgiri, Ma’am?” “Darjeeling, I think.” “Yes, Ma’am. Milk or lemon, Ma’am?” “Milk, please.” As the butler paused to turn away, he had one last thought. “The milk, Ma’am... Hereford, Guernsey, or Jersey?”

It is easy to see how having too many choices can make it difficult to make a decision even over such trivial matters. Part of me dreads going to the KFC, because I often find myself transfixed and overcome by what has become an entire wall of menu choices. It used to be so easy — just one piece, two or three! But now there are so many things to choose from. Perhaps that’s why they added that new dish — the bowl that contains layers of everything piled one on top of the other — a perfect solution when you can’t make up your mind. Believe me, there are times I am grateful that there’s a long line so that I can sort out what it is I want to order before I have to do so!

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Yes, many of the choices in life are trivial — and if even these can sometimes cause us to pause, with how much greater fear and trembling ought we approach the kinds of questions set before us in today’s readings from Scripture.

Even the choice that Saint Paul offers Philemon must have been difficult for him to decide upon — and it is a little frustrating that we only have Saint Paul’s side of the story, and so have no final word of how this story ends. Paul sends the runaway slave Onesimus back to Philemon. He asks the slave owner to receive him back, and not only not to punish him for having run away, but to accept him back as a brother in Christ — as an equal.

As I say, we don’t know if Philemon followed Saint Paul’s urging. The fact that Philemon preserved this letter (so that it could later be included in the Scripture) suggests that he did — after all, if he had rejected Saint Paul’s urging he would be unlikely to advertise that fact! We also know, from the writings of Saint Ignatius, that the bishop of Ephesus was named Onesimus — so it is possible that this former slave not only became a beloved brother to Philemon, but a bishop of the church.

Choices have consequences; and Paul’s choice to make this appeal and Philemon’s choice to hear it — as we hope he did — are remembered to this day.

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As are the choices made by the people of Israel as they approach the promised land. And here the choices are even more momentous than one person’s freedom. Moses offers the Israelites a literal life and death choice — the decision to follow the commandments of the Lord their God, walking in his ways — or to abandon the Lord who has delivered them, and follow other gods.

Now, you might say, this is a no-brainer! Who would choose death and destruction rather than life and prosperity? And yet, as we know, even though the people say they will choose life, and hold fast to God and follow in his way all the days of their lives, it isn’t too long after they cross the Jordan and enter the promised land that they begin to stray, setting up pillars and posts of wood and stone, bowing down to gods made by their own hands. And the consequences soon follow.

The reason they make this choice, strange as it may seem, is actually quite understandable when you consider human nature. Human beings have an amazing capacity for wishful thinking, for thinking they can live a life without consequences, for the freedom to choose what they want when they want it, even when they are told what their choices will lead to.

I don’t know if anyone here has ever been in the position of needing an organ transplant, but I’m sure you know that there are waiting lists and significant costs involved. But I am sorry to say, I once knew a man whose heavy drinking destroyed his liver, and who was lucky enough to get a liver transplant — but then drank his way through that liver too, and was dead within five years. And I’ll tell you, even many members of his family, as well as many of the doctors and nurses, were furious, and even said, “He didn’t deserve to get that liver; it could have gone to someone else who respected the gift of life they were offered.”

So it is for the Israelites — delivered from bondage in a land with many gods by the mighty acts of the one true God — they find it easier to slip back into their old pagan ways, than to follow the ordinances and commandments that could bring them a blessing instead of a curse.

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In our gospel today, Jesus doesn’t make things much easier for us. He tells those who followed him that if they want to choose him it will mean giving up all kinds of other attachments. He even uses the word hate — and he applies it to things we have always been told we should love: parents and spouses and children and siblings — and yes, even life itself. Jesus tells us to crucify all of these things, to give up all of our attachments to seek only him, taking up the cross to follow him.

This is a hard saying; hard to receive and even harder to put into action. How much easier simply to honor Jesus with our lips, rather than devoting our lives to his service. But he assures us that such halfway measures will not do. As I said in my sermon last week, simply acknowledging him as Lord or even inviting him to your home for dinner, even coming here one day a week to gather at his table, will not be enough. Jesus wants all of you, all the time, not just on Sunday morning but 24/7: just as God said to the Israelites, God wants “all your heart and soul and mind and strength.” Just as with air travel, getting out halfway there won’t do.

And so, Jesus is up-front and tells us to count the cost, lest we end up like a foolish man who tried to build a tower but didn’t have the resources to complete it; or a king who takes account of the number of his troops and the strength of his adversary before he dares to commit those troops to a war he cannot win.

This is not a decision about what kind of tea to drink, or whether to have original recipe or extra crispy. This is a decision that will affect the rest of my life — the rest of your life — the rest of many lives — not just in this life but in the life of the world to come. This is a matter of life and death, eternal life or eternal death.

Decisions have consequences; choices have outcomes. Directions taken lead to destinations reached. Not just for us but for all with whom we come in contact — our families, friends, and neighbors; those who serve us and those whom we serve — or refuse to serve. Hear the voice of God to all who truly turn to him: love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength; and your neighbor as yourself — your whole self, all of you, 24/7. Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him. Choose wisely, by taking up the cross of Christ, by which alone we can overcome the world. By it we are delivered from slavery to freedom, and made part of a family and given a heritage to outlast any merely earthly tribe or people. Thanks be to God for the opportunity to choose him and to follow in his way.+

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Below the Salt

Saint James Fordham • Proper 17c • Tobias Haller BSG
When you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, Friend, move up higher.

When I was a child, I was intrigued by the title of a book on my grandmothers bookshelf. It was Thomas Costain’s Below the Salt. To my childish mind it conjured up images that I would later learn had nothing to do with the meaning of that phrase.

My grandmother explained that in the Middle Ages — the time period in which the novel took place — salt was a expensive luxury in England, where it was hard to make salt from seawater, and it had to be mined. At dinners in the Lord’s manor, salt was reserved to the high table, where the Lord and Lady and other honored guests could reach it. The less favored guests sat at the lower tables — below the salt. So this odd turn of phrase came to describe people of a more humble class than the higher nobility.

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Just about every human society has some way of marking the high and the low — and everything in between. Even in a democracy such as ours many hotels will have a presidential suite; and at the Kennedy Center Opera House, there is still a presidential box — one of the best seats in the house. Yankee Stadium and Madison Square Garden have their special seats as well that separate the Who’s Who crowd from the rest of us who belong in the “who cares” crowd.

And even at weddings — such as the one we celebrated so joyously here yesterday — there are special seats assigned to certain participants and honored guests, and “general admission” for other guests.

And there are few things more embarrassing than discovering that you’ve sat in the wrong seat! This has been true from long before the time when Jesus used it as an example for having a proper sense of who you are — how important or unimportant in the scheme of things; and how it is better to take a lower place and be asked to come up higher, than pridefully to assume a higher place, and then be embarrassed by having to move down — perhaps below the salt!

Sometimes, as Joshua ben Sira, the author of Ecclesiasticus, notes, the put-down can from other people or even from the hand of God — and it can be dramatic and tragic, not just humbling. However much they try to avoid it, powerful tyrants eventually come to a lowly end, toppled from their thrones, plucked up and cast aside, destroyed to the foundations of the earth, even the memory of them erased. It’s a bit like the old cartoons of a little fish being eaten by a bigger fish, and that one by a bigger one, and on and on — and in one version I recall the biggest fish is followed by a whole school of little fish with hungry open mouths!

No doubt when he wrote Ecclesiasticus Joshua Ben Sira wasn’t thinking about fish, but about the humiliation of Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon. The Babylonian king raised himself too high, then lost his mind and lost his throne, and wandered like a beast of the fields, watered with the dew of heaven.

We have a more recent example in a former ruler of modern Babylon — which today goes by the name Iraq — who was rousted from his palace with the gold-plated bathtubs to end up hiding like a frightened animal in a spider-hole and finally dangle ignominiously on the gallows.

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The truth behind all of this is in our Gospel: those who exalt themselves will be humiliated, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. Jesus makes this teaching clear in his description of a dinner party: how embarrassing to have to be taken down a peg when you’ve sat too high up. And what an honor to be invited to take a better seat when you’ve taken a humble one.

There is, after all, a world of difference between humiliation and humility. Humiliation is a punishment that happens to you; humility is a virtue that comes from within you. There is a world of difference between the two, and it is a difference that Jesus lived to the fullest, for he knew both.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is speaking to a rich man, a Pharisee, one accustomed to sitting on the platform at dinner parties, the front row in the synagogue, the best seat at the town meeting. But Jesus was not such a one as this: he came to us as a humble servant, came to serve and not to be served, came to give his life as a ransom for many. He took the lowest seat, below the salt, the seat of humility.

But that humility was just what angered the proud whom he confronted. His humility wasn’t enough for those who took offense at him. Sometimes no matter how humble you are you will not be able to satisfy the proud. The humble place that Jesus took, assuming the likeness of a slave, was not low enough to satisfy the hearts of cruel and jealous men, and they connived to push him down lower, even into the grave, down below the level of the humble, to the depths of the humiliated.

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No, sometimes you just can’t be humble enough to please the proud. Sometimes, even though you take a lowly seat, someone will come by and try to make you move down even lower. I know that the name of the late Rosa Parks is one with which everyone here is familiar, but her story is well worth repeating in the context of today’s Gospel. Her refusal to give up her seat led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott, a major step in the slow battle towards civil rights in these United States of America — a battle I regret to say is far from over.

The reason her story resonates with today’s Gospel is the fact that she had not exalted herself. She was not sitting defiantly in the “whites only” portion of that segregated bus. She was humbly sitting in the first row of seats in the back of the bus reserved for people like her, in what they called “the colored section” — going home after long day of work as a seamstress. As she herself would later write, “When I sat down on the bus that day, I had no idea history was being made — I was only thinking of getting home.”

But as the whites-only section of the bus filled up, another white man boarded. So the driver told Mrs. Parks to move, to give up her already humble seat and move further back in the bus, which was already full. Well, she didn’t. The sheer unfairness of it all, the wrongness of it, filled her up to overflowing with the anger of righteous indignation — not pride, but true righteous humility that shines most brightly when it faces unrighteous pride. She was filled with the spirit of justice and courage, and remained humbly sitting where she was, not over-reaching, not proudly standing in defiance but humbly seated where she had every right to be. As she would later say with some humor, “Somebody had to take a stand — or, in my case — take a seat!” Now, you know her decision got her in trouble, and in the short run the proud unrighteous segregationists appeared to have won. But as all the little people, all the truly humble “below the salt” people, all the seamstresses and housekeepers and porters and janitors and taxi drivers and clerks and waitresses began to boycott the busses, to forgo even those humble seats in the back, and to walk or car pool or to offer free taxi rides so people could get to work, all those little fish finally swam on along and gobbled up that big fish after all, and working together the righteous humble brought down the proud mighty from their seat, and the laws were changed, and the busses desegregated.

As the truly wise man Joshua Ben Sira said so well, “Sovereignty passes from nation to nation on account of injustice and insolence.” In Montgomery Alabama, the nation of the humble triumphed over the nation of the unjust and the insolent and the proud.

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But not without trouble and pain first. Jesus’ refusal to do what the leaders told him got him in trouble, too. He too was accused of being too proud — when all the while he was simply being a dutiful Son of his heavenly Father, doing only what God had sent him to do for the good of the people. But the proud ones — the ones “watching him” to catch him up in today’s gospel — would not have it, and they sought his death, conspiring to bring him down even though he hadn’t climbed up high. And the Son of God was arrested, tried, and convicted, treated as a criminal, and crucified, died, and was buried. The same Son of God who came down from the highest seat of all, from his Father’s throne, through the humility of his humble birth and his humble life, went down into the lowest place of all, the humiliation of the grave, below the salt, below the earth, to the pit of death from which none return.

Or so it seemed to those who crucified him. This was to be the end of the problem for them. But we know it was just the beginning. For it was from the grave, from as far below the salt as you can go, from that lowest of all possible points, from the humiliation of death itself, that God exalted Christ and raised him up, and gave him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should humbly bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth[Phi 2:10] — the whole range of seats in the great stadium of creation, from the highest to the lowest, from the bleachers to the skyboxes, above, upon, and beneath the earth, suddenly all rising to their feet and then falling to their knees! And that, my friends, is the greatest stadium “wave” of all!

This is the victory of humility, the victory of justice and of truth, the victory of the one who took the lowest seat of all.

There is all the difference in the world between humility and humiliation. Our Lord suffered humiliation for our sakes, and we can exercise humility for his, falling at his feet and bending the knee, living our lives in humble service to those he came to serve. So that when he comes in power and great glory to judge and rule the earth, he may find us sitting in the humblest seats, kneeling to wash the feet of the ones we serve, and say to us each and every one, “Friend, come up higher.”+