Saturday, October 22, 2016

There By The Grace Of God Am I

How We Pray

How many times have we all said, “There but by the Grace of God am I”? It’s as American as apple pie. We hear it and we say it and we convince ourselves that this “prayer” is what religion, or worse, Christianity, is all about. Nothing could be further from the kind of faith Jesus proclaims.

Then there is the kind of prayer that says, “Please God, make sure there is no traffic between here and there so I will be on time!” Or, “Please God, find me a parking space!” And of course the related, “Thank you, Lord, for clearing out all the traffic AND finding me a parking space!”
I know about these kinds of prayer, I said them last night trying to get to Bethesda from Havre de Grace in time to set up and play!

Jesus appears to have anticipated all of this and stops along the way on his journey to Jerusalem and the Cross to do some teaching on prayer. First, the lesson on persistence with the widow seeking justice from a judge who has no regard for God or for others. This judge does not get the essence of the Great Commandment: to Love God and to Love your Neighbor as yourself. He is completely stuck on loving himself and himself only. Others be damned!

Then comes an episode featuring a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. It is a lesson on how to and how not to pray for oneself so that you may have regard for both God and others – all others, even the seemingly most unlikely others imaginable.

The Pharisee essentially prays the “There but by the grace of God am I!” He prays this in the extreme: I am so good. I follow all the commandments. I go even further than commanded. I am exemplary in my living in God’s way. Not like this wretched Tax Collector who collaborates with our oppressors and defrauds our own people day in and day out! Thank God I am not like him!” One notes that Jesus does not commend this sort of prayer.

We may as well admit it. In this highly politicized and polarized campaign season this is about all we hear from all sides. It’s as if we try to convince ourselves that our way is the only way, all others need not apply. Yet, the story recognizes that the Pharisee is not a bad man. His chosen way of life is in fact admirable. He suffers from just one blind spot: he sees the world as being about him without having any regard for all others, especially those who, like the Tax Collector, seem to be the worst of the worst. The problem, the sin, is in the assumption that we know better and are better than anyone else. We begin to be unjust judges like the one in the previous episode.

The Tax Collector, on the other hand, cannot even lift his head in prayer. He beats his breast. He is anguished as he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He knows he could be better. He knows what others think of him as he props up the very regime that oppresses his people. But he needs to put food on the table. He has a family to care for like the others. He did not ask for this life, he was recruited by the minions of Caesar, and in Rome, Caesar is God. His plea is one of a humble request for mercy. All he wants is mercy even though he cannot bring himself to believe he deserves it.

“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted,” concludes Jesus. [Luke 18:9-14] Once again, as with the widow, it is about justice in this world, not the next. We used to talk about Jesus turning the world upside down. His people, the Jewish people, however, have a saying about this: tikkun olam – repairing the world, or turning the world right side up!

We are to notice that this is how the Good News of Jesus according to Luke begins with the Song of Mary, Theotokos, the Mother of God: “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…” [Luke 1:39-56]

One day while standing at Paul’s Place, our diocesan soup kitchen, with the Reverend Bill Rich, as we looked out upon that large room with street people, poor people, lonely people, hobos and all sorts and conditions of men and women, Bill said, “There by the Grace of God am I.” It was a moment of clarity for me. This is what Jesus is talking about. Loving our neighbor begins with breaking down the walls, assumptions and misunderstandings that separate us and acknowledging our common human conditions. We are all in this together and need to acknowledge this. I am the homeless person. I am the hobo. I am hungry.

Prayer, then, is about approaching God in complete humility acknowledging our short comings and calling upon God’s mercy rather than needing to put down others to feel justified. For it is God who justifies, not we ourselves by what we do or say – God can deal with all of us or none of us. We are called to reorient ourselves to the way of God’s inbreaking kingdom, not to assert the ways of this world, our world, my world, as the only way.

Perhaps one of the earliest prayers in Christendom, coming from the desert fathers around the fifth century is The Jesus Prayer. It is the prayer of the Tax Collector.

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

There are those who spend a lifetime praying this prayer with the persistence of the widow in our other story. Standing in line at the bank or the supermarket checkout, one can say this to oneself over and over again. Instead of praying for a parking space or less traffic, just say this simple prayer that seems to exemplify just what Jesus commends about the Tax Collector and his prayer. Notice that Jesus does not commend his actions or his lifestyle, but rather his attitude in prayer that is totally self-deprecating. Oddly this is a way of loving ourselves, our true selves, and makes it possible to love our neighbor – any and all neighbors.

There by the Grace of God am I. It’s that simple. Seeing ourselves in the other is the beginning of wisdom, and wisdom is the root of Love. With Love Tikkun Olam becomes a reality – we participate in the repair of the world. A world in desperate need of repair. It begins with us, and How we pray makes all the difference.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Violence Against Women - None Of Us Are Free

Violence Against Women - None Of Us Are Free
If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot Jeremiah 20:9 (NRSV).

It feels as if we have collectively, at least many of us, reached this point as regards violence against women, sexual assault, harassment and overall disrespect. There have been numerous cases on college campuses, in the workplace and in the home. I find myself as if suddenly awakened to something I have in fact long known about, but for all kinds of reasons I and society in general have been uncomfortable or ashamed to talk about in the open. Suddenly the opportunity presents itself. How curious that The Revised Common Lectionary presents us with Luke 18:1-8 at precisely this moment in time. Although Jesus says the parable is about persistence in prayer, and we seriously need to pray on this, his parable is about so very much more.

Jesus tells a parable about a widow and a judge. Widows in the Bible represent a larger class of persons: people without resources, without power and often without identity in the larger society. Widows are often mentioned with orphans and resident aliens. That’s right, the Bible all the way back in Torah, the first five books, expresses a special affection for and concern for widows, orphans and resident aliens. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus calls us to care for them.

In some way we are not told, the widow, a woman, has been maligned, or at least the victim of some sort of injustice. With no husband to support or defend her she is easy prey. People, one can imagine principally men, can easily take advantage of her. Her deceased husband’s estate would revert to his family, not to her. She is one of the “least of these, my sisters and brothers,” that Jesus talks about, especially in Matthew 25.

She takes her plea for justice quite naturally to a judge. We are told that this judge, “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” All he seems to care about is himself. Today we might say he was ego-centric or even narcissistic. Unconcerned with the needs of people in general, and in this particular instance little or no regard for the trials of the poor and oppressed. He is deaf to the widow’s plea for justice.

His disinterest to get involved with her ‘case’ may be tied to money in some way: either he is in the habit of taking bribes to settle cases in which case this woman as widow would have none; or, perhaps he has an ‘arrangement’ with her wealthy opponent who would stand to lose should she succeed in prosecuting her complaint. In any event, we have a picture of an arrogant, unjust, self-absorbed and powerful man facing down one of the weakest members of society – this woman, a widow.

She does not give up. She cries out for justice day and night waiting for someone to take her claims seriously. Jesus commends her persistence. That is, those who mean to follow in His Way are to persist in obtaining a just solution – some kind of just reconciliation.

The unjust judge grows weary of listening to her and finally gives in. That is, he agrees to listen to her. This listening is the beginning of justice. The widow, like women today, just want to be heard, first and foremost. Listening is the beginning of being taken seriously – you count as someone worthy of attention. That’s all she is asking for. That’s all anyone is asking for.

Listening to this story in the context of an ongoing unfolding of episodes calling our collective attention to issues around violence against women, one would need to be as deaf as the unjust judge not to ‘hear’ the resonances with our current situation – which any woman will tell you is not current or new at all. As I seek more understanding around all of this I am being told that from an early age, pre-teen, young women in our society begin to find themselves in uncomfortable, non-consensual situations with boys and often older men.

And after not being taken seriously a few times, or told “it is nothing, that’s just….Uncle Joe…boys will be boys”, a combination of fear and shame causes them to de-escalate – retreat to holding it all inside where most likely more damage continues to be done. It becomes like a fire shut up in their bones. They grow weary holding it all in.

This is why the story of this widow is so incredibly empowering. It urges a persistence in telling the stories of violence and assault against women. Kelly Oxford, a writer and social media personality, posted a tweet about a sexual assault she suffered on a bus and invited other women to chime in. Suddenly she had 9.7 million responses. That’s seven figures: 9,700,000 responses of women telling similar stories. And that is only the women who felt free to respond. That’s 9.7 million women asking us, we the judge, to hear their case and provide some sort of justice.

Which I presume begins with each one of us taking this seriously. I am on record on social media saying that until we take issues around violence and assault of women, as well as the need for education for women everywhere seriously – and in many places in our culture and around the world this is a serious issue – we will have little chance of solving other pressing issues like climate change, the economy, jobs, education and endless warfare because we need women involved in forging those solutions. We need their wisdom.

The Jesus I know takes the plight of this widow seriously. He holds her up as an example. We are to be the widow. We are to take the case of justice for women to anyone and everyone who will listen. When they turn a deaf ear like the judge we are to persist until we wear them out!

Jesus also reminds us that if the hearts of men like the judge can be moved by persistence, how much more his Father in Heaven hears the cries of his people and gives us the strength to persist in our search for justice and dignity for women – all women, all the time. It is a parable of hope.

There was another rabbi at the time of Jesus, Rabbi Hillel, who is recorded to have said: If I am not for myself, then who is for me? If I am for myself alone, who am I? And if not now, when?

Jesus says the time is now. All women, like this widow, are to receive a respectful and dignified hearing. Justice, says Jesus, must prevail for all of us, or else none of us are free. None of us are free. As long as one of us is chained none of us are free. Amen.

Solomon Burke: None Of Us Are Free    by Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, and Brenda Russell

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Inside Out-Outside In

Inside Out – Outside In    [Luke 17: 11-19]
A fundamental promise made at Baptism is that we will follow and obey Christ. As odd as it seems, following often is much more challenging than obeying. Consider where he goes in this little episode from Luke – he is on the way to Jerusalem between the regions of Galilee and Samaria - a kind of no man’s land, a kind of wilderness that is meant to remind us of the 40-years-experience after the Exodus. It is also meant to remind us of exiles such as Jeremiah writes about. Exile is a new kind of wilderness. Both exile and wilderness connote a place with no power, no resources, and, perhaps most importantly, a place where we are not at home.

In this borderland between Jesus’ homeland, Galilee, and Samaria, a place his family and ancestors consider a foreign and unclean territory inhabited by what were considered half-breeds – commoners not carried off to Babylon in the exile who intermarried with pagans and other remnants, and who considered Samaria, not Jerusalem, the center of the world and religious ritual – Jesus comes across 10 exiles who approach him and call out for mercy.

We are told they are lepers, which is an unfortunate translation of a word that simply means they have imperfect skin – psoriasis, flaky skin, or patchy skin like vitiligo; like I have. Hansen’s Disease, or Leprosy, did not exist in first-century Israel. For the imperfection or even coloration of their skin they were ostracized from the boundaries of any town being considered unclean. Jesus has been raised not to associate with such people, and likely rarely sees them since they are not allowed to live in either the Galilean or Samaritan towns.

They are an exile community, similar to those Jeremiah and others of the prophets address. As we will see, even this exile community is itself not homogeneous. The mercy they seek is a release from exile so they may return home. To be in exile is to be homeless.

One notes that unlike other healing stories, Jesus himself does not touch them. He does not mix up spittle and mud to smear on them, nor does he lay hands on them. He simply speaks, just as God spoke creation into being in the beginning. Perhaps this is the same voice that once said, “Light!” And there was light.

He sends them to “the priests,” those priests in Jerusalem who control the boarders of the community with the powers to declare a person clean or unclean, inside or outside the community. As they run off they are healed.

One of the ten suddenly stops running. He realizes he is not like the rest. He turns back, and approaching Jesus praises God with a loud voice while falling to the ground at Jesus’ feet. He thanks Jesus. The text simply says, “And he was a Samaritan.” That is, he was a quintessential outsider. He was not one of the nine to begin with. Jerusalem for him and his people is just another town of no special significance. That city’s priests have no significance for him, and, more importantly, they have no use for him. In fact, he would not be allowed inside the gates of Jerusalem. He would continue to be an exile. He would continue to be homeless had he continued with the rest. So it makes sense that he would stop and say to himself, “Why am I running to Jerusalem only to be rejected again? Look! I have been made well. I can go home to Samaria. But first let me stop and thank this man whoever he is.”

It seems Jesus did not know this, or else why send him with the rest to begin with? As Richard Swanson observes in his commentary [Provoking the Gospel of Luke], it would be like sending a person with a skin disease to an auto mechanic. The mechanic might sympathize with you, or know others with a similar condition, but unless you need a new water pump or radiator there’s not much to be done there.

Which makes it strange that Jesus appears to chastise the others for not coming back with the Samaritan, for after all, they are doing just what he told them to do. And the Samaritan is not really a glowing example of thankfulness since he is just doing what he and his people have always done – stay away from Jerusalem and have nothing to do with its priests.

We must remember that it is Luke, not Jesus, telling this story, and telling it for a purpose. Which purpose is to explain the impact Jesus has on the world about him. What is significant is that against all cultural norms and practices he has anything at all to do with these unclean exiles in the wilderness between two worlds. He simply gives God’s power of love and acceptance to any and all that he comes across. He ignores the borderlines and normative boundaries of “the community.” What is truly healing is that Jesus says, “You can go home now – you are no longer in exile, you are no longer homeless.”

One needs to remember that Luke, more than any other gospel, champions the notion of accepting “the other” – which in this case means both people with disturbing irregularities of skin, and persons from a foreign and considered unclean or dangerous culture. I can recall how frightened I was when my skin first showed signs of vitiligo. Patches of white where there was no longer any pigment began to first appear on my hands. My first thought was cancer. I was scared to even go to a doctor, but finally found a dermatologist who told me, “What you have is a biblical disorder, one of the earliest recorded skin conditions, and for which we have no known ‘cure,’ but you can be assured it poses no known health threat.”

That was the equivalent of Jesus’, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” Or, you are OK the way you are so go home and live life fully and with no fear.

So faith has something, perhaps everything, to do with accepting and approaching “the other.” Faith, that is, has nothing to do with creating and maintaining boundaries; nothing to do with insiders and outsiders; nothing to do with building borders and walls to keep others out; nothing to do with seeing some people as clean or unclean, acceptable or unacceptable. Faith has everything to do with breaking down all such barriers and ideas that keep some people out; certain people, any people, out. Faith has everything to do with responding to the call of the exiles, the outsiders, the perceived to be unclean, and giving them the dignity of a response.

And faith, as Jesus examples it in this story, has everything to do with allowing others to return or remain in their own faith traditions. Faith, as it turns out, is God’s love and acceptance in action. As Neil Young once wrote, and Nicolette Larson once sang, “It's gonna take a lotta love/
To change the way things are. It's gonna take a lotta love/Or we won't get too far.”

Or, as another New Testament writer once observed, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” It’s time that such things be seen. Amen.  

Saturday, October 1, 2016


The Mustard Seed [Luke 17: (1-4),5-10]

“The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" The Lord replied, "If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, `Be uprooted and planted in the sea,' and it would obey you.”

“Increase our faith!” they cry. As if more is good; as if more is necessary. We live in a culture that craves more of everything. Yet, often we don’t know why we have such cravings. I suspect it is learned behavior, learned covetousness.

Side bar: the Tenth Commandment against coveting is the only commandment repeated twice. “Thou shalt not covet….thou shalt not covet.” Yet, we are told that our economy, our culture, our so-called “way of life” depends on coveting more and more stuff until we fill our houses, every room, every floor, until we need to pay for more storage space. We buy into the mythology of advertising that our very identity depends on having more stuff and just the right stuff. And look what happens when we have too much stuff: we put it in Self Storage – a place to store our excess self!

Now this story of the mustard seed would make a little more sense if the first four verses of this section of Luke had not been omitted – cut out – for some reason censored. Perhaps because they have to do with community or church discipline and behavior? All together this is about how to be the Body of Christ – how to be the church – how to live in community with others walking in the way of Jesus.

So Jesus first tells his disciples and apostles that they are responsible for the life of the community. Further, they are not to cause others to stumble in the way. The Greek word for stumble is skandalon, from which we get scandal. We are not to cause a scandal.We are to hold one another accountable for the life of the community, and when we fail at this we are to repent – say I am sorry – and everyone else’s job is to forgive so we can all continue to walk in the way of Jesus.

So we may deduce that the apostles ask for more faith because they are being tasked with a particularly difficult job – to maintain and nurture and be good examples by word and deed of what it means to be the Body of Christ. And who can blame them? After all back in chapter 12 and all over the four gospels Jesus is forever crying out in total exasperation, “O ye of little faith…you have such little faith…it’s because you have such little faith!” They have heard this over and over again. So they ask for more.

This is where it gets both funny and serious all at once. It is like the movie This Is Spinal Tap where the guitarist is pointing out that for most amplifiers the top volume is 10, but his goes to 11. “That’s one more,” he says. Of course this is ludicrous. It is hysterically funny for those of us who play music because the top volume is the top volume no matter what you call it. Call it 10, 11, 12 or 100, it is still just as far as the knob will turn and the volume will go.

After chiding them for such little faith suddenly Jesus ups the ante: You don’t need more faith. If you have just the teeny, tiniest bit of faith no bigger than a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, you can do tremendous, miraculous things!

Seems there is no such thing as more or less faith. There is faith. Faith is all you need. You don’t need much to do the things Jesus does and calls us to do. He even says later [John 14] that after he is gone we will do the things he does and greater things than he ever did while walking amongst us! He turns the knob to 11 and leaves it there!

So we are to hold one another accountable in all of this. What else are we to be doing? Thank goodness for the Book of Common Prayer. Page 855 has some answers for us. It says our mission is to restore all people to unity with God and each other. It says we are to represent Christ and his Church – we are to be ambassadors for Christ. We are to bear witness to him wherever we may be. And according to the gifts given to us, we are to carry on his work of reconciliation in the world. After all of that, in our spare time, we are to take our place in the life, worship and governance of the Church. And finally, to work, pray and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.

We can see why the apostles might ask for more faith. But Jesus assures us, we have to do no more than according to the gifts we have been given. This ought to be freeing, for it says we have all been given gifts – and St. Paul is clear in saying that we all are given different gifts all of which are necessary for the life of God’s kingdom. As it usually turns out I have gifts that you need, and you have gifts that I need. The giving and sharing of these gifts is what life is all about.

The really good news is that no one is expected to do any more than she or he has already been gifted to do. I am sure that this also means we are expected to do no less than what we have been gifted to do. And evidently we are all given enough faith since all we need is a mustard seed’s worth of faith to do mighty things like pulling up Mulberry Trees and planting them in the sea. Not sure why one would want to do that, so I assume it is a bit of hyperbole and metaphor all rolled into one suggesting that with all this giving and sharing of gifts there is just nothing we cannot do since we are those people who will do greater things than Jesus!

Just thinking about that makes it tempting to ask for more faith. But the kingdom is not about more, not about coveting. It is about cooperation. It is about interdependence. It is about loving God and loving neighbor as we love ourselves. The faith volume is set at 11 no matter how small or tiny it feels. If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can take trees and plant them in the sea. If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, the lame will walk and the blind will see. If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, wars will cease with the end of greed. If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, as you follow Christ you will begin to lead. If you only have faith as small as a mustard seed. As small as a mustard seed.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

You Must Remember This...

‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ - Luke 16:19-31

A nameless “rich man” in Hades sees the poor man Lazarus whose needs he ignored in this life sitting beside Father Abraham and begs Abraham to send Lazarus from the angelic realm to warn his five brothers not to do what he had done – ignore the plight of those without resources. Abraham’s reply in essence is: all they need to know has already been said by Moses and the prophets – if they continue to ignore them, sending someone back from the dead will be of no use.

That is, we already have enough information on what we are expected to do in this life. It appears that all things necessary for salvation can be found in Moses/Torah and the Prophets. No need to send more messengers to do what? Repeat the same message? Yet, that is exactly what happens with Jesus Christ the Son of God. Our God is a God of second, third and even fourth chances: in the immortal words of Jonah, the man who became fish food, “…I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

I sometimes find myself wondering just what makes a Moses or a Jeremiah or a Paul or Timothy take the time and the risk to devote their lives to deliver the message: Love God; Love Others, all others; and begin by Loving yourself as I Love you.

At the end of the day it boils down to two things. First, God in Christ says to us, to all, to all the “others” in this world, “You are my Beloved; I am well pleased with you.” As I have written countless times, this is the Good News. When we are in our deepest moments of self-doubt, despair, loneliness, misunderstood, unloved, disrespected or any other place in which we find it increasingly difficult to put one foot in front of the other, remembering this can make a difference, the difference – all the difference in the world as we used to say.

This is in all accounts how the Gospels, the Good News of God in Christ, begins. As Jesus aligns himself with all of humanity, a humanity in need of washing away all the old stuff so as to begin again to live a life that respects the dignity of every human being, he comes up out of the water of the River Jordan and an off-stage voice declares, “You are my beloved; with you I am well pleased.” From that moment on Jesus carries this message to all people: rich and powerful people, the poorest of the poor, the neediest of the needy, the lost and abandoned and all who live lives of self-doubt, loneliness and despair.

When he is asked to share with them the meaning of life he tells stories that are meant to remind them of what has already been said over and over again by people like Moses and the Prophets. His mission is one of recollection, a mission of re-membering; remembering all the things we forget when life and the world around us comes crashing in on us leaving us paralyzed – emotionally if not mentally and physically. You are Beloved; there is a God who is well pleased with you. Remember this and love yourself so you can get back to loving others.

Then there is the summary of all this given to me by my spiritual guide and colleague, The Reverend Pierre Wolff: We come from Love; We return to Love; and Love is all around. Science today has confirmed – we all come from the same place. There is no such thing as race. There is no real substantive difference between people, nor between people and all other creatures. We share some 90+% of DNA with earth worms for God’s sake! All the elements that make up the world about us and the universe in which our Earth, this fragile island home, spins around a star come from just one place, just one moment in time, a “singularity” as some call it. Some call it Big Bang. Some call it God. Some just call it Love. And science confirms it will be as the Bible says – eventually we all return to that place from whence we came. We might as well call it Home for that is, after all is said and done, where we spend whatever it is we call “eternity.”

Meanwhile, we live in between – here and now. What the great spiritual wisdom of all ages and all kinds strive to say is that even while we are here and now, in between, that same Love surrounds us on all sides – if only we will stop doing whatever it is we are doing long enough to see this, to feel this, to know this, to remember this, to re-member this.

And the great Good News is that we can choose to participate in the Love that is all around. Clearly some choose not to participate. Others forget to participate. We tend to live, as another of my spiritual guides once put it, in a state of amnesia. We sleepwalk through life. We need something to break us open, to wake us up, to re-connect us to the Love that is all around; to live lives of re-connecting others, all others, to the Love that is all around, the love from whence we come to which we will eventually return.

We can all be like Moses, Jeremiah, Paul, Timothy and the countless numbers of those who came to believe: You are God’s Beloved; God is well pleased with you. We come from Love; We return to Love; and Love Is all around. We must remember this. The consequences of forgetting are too costly. And truly unnecessary. You are Beloved. You are of Love. Take a moment every day to remember this, and as the Anchoress and Mystic Julian of Norwich once put it, “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of thing shall be well.” Amen.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Managers of Injustice

A week ago I was returning from St. Stephen’s, Crownsville and decided to pick up a pizza on the way home to watch the Ravens’ opening game with the Buffalo Bills. I phoned in my order to Ellicott City, and on the way through town stopped to pick it up. The man behind the counter said, “You are Kirk?” Yes, I said. “Kirk Douglas! Do you know Kirk Douglas?” Yes, the actor, I have seen a number of his films.” He went to get my pizza saying, “Michael Douglas! He is a good actor too, yes!” Yes, I said. As he was bringing my pizza back he said with a smile on his face, “Greed is good! Right? Gordon Gekko, Wall Street! Great film!” That’s right. Greed is good. It’s the American Way, and off I went with my pizza.

The parable, and accompanying sayings, in Luke (16:1-13) is often called The Parable of the Dishonest Manager, or the Shrewd Manager, or the Rogue Manager. This has been a puzzling story for interpreters almost from the day Jesus spoke it. The sayings at the end seem to be attempts to make sense of it. Jesus often features disreputable characters in these tales, but this one takes the cake – and still, after seemingly ripping off his master is praised by the master for his “shrewdness” in handling the people of “this generation.”

A clue comes in the first saying in verses 10 and 11 in the words “dishonest wealth.” Then it all concludes with the immortal words: You cannot serve God and Wealth – or as the Greek text has it, the personification of wealth, Mammon.

Sharon Ringe in her commentary, Luke [Louisville, KY, Westminster John Knox: 1995] suggests that instead of the Master calling him the “dishonest manager,” the Greek text reads “manager of injustice.” And when the master commends making friends with “dishonest wealth” the text ought to read “wealth of injustice.” Let’s go with this. [p.213-14]

What is being talked about is managing tenant farmers and sharecroppers. The master is an absentee land owner. The manager collects what is the master’s due from the tenants and sharecroppers, which is usually an onerous percent of the harvest. The manager does not receive a salary. Rather, he adds on a commission to be paid by the farmers and sharecroppers and passes on to the master what he is his by arrangement with the tenants. The owner has heard “charges,” rumors, that the manager is squandering his property so serves him notice and orders the him to settle all accounts. The manager cannot see himself digging ditches or begging, so he calls farmers in one at a time and reduces their accounts figuring that by doing this they might invite him in for a meal now and again. The tenants are happy, and so it seems is the master! This is surprising, but the “manager of injustice” has managed what was typically an unjust arrangement in the first place masterfully (no pun intended)!

“Make friends for yourself with wealth of injustice,” says the master, “so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” And just like that the story is about being welcome in the household of God’s eternal Love! Furthermore, “If you have not been faithful with dishonest wealth, who will entrust you with true riches? ...You cannot serve God and Mammon/Wealth!” A saying so important that it also appears in Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount.

The Manager of Injustice in all likelihood deducted his own commission from the accounts. That is, he sacrificed what was in fact his due, his only source of income, on behalf of the tenants who were already being taxed to the max. He not only makes an attempt to make life more just for them, but does so by sacrificing his own money. His commendation begins to make more sense in the context of first century tenant farming.

The story then becomes, however, one in a nearly endless series of such tales, actions and sayings by Jesus about what it means to follow him in God’s Way as opposed to the ways of “this present generation,” which are forever portrayed as unjust for most people at the hands of a few who own all the land rights.

In Friday’s Baltimore Sun was a commentary piece [Deplorable, American and redeemable-Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editorial Page Editor, 9/16] that featured the results of a Pew Research Center survey of 16 countries including the U.S. Although 65% of Americans surveyed said they saw us as tolerant, many of the outsiders, Canada, 4 Asia Pacific and 10 European countries, did not agree. We also saw ourselves as optimistic and hardworking, as did the other countries, but they also viewed us as “arrogant, and a good many see us as greedy and violent to boot.”  There is our “friend” Gordon Gekko once again.

Despite many of us being raised not to talk to others about religion, politics or money, Jesus, it seems, did not get the memo. Those are the things he talks about most, with his views on money outweighing everything else he talks about including the Kingdom of God. In fact, and most especially in Luke’s gospel, he appears to say over and over that our participation in God’s Kingdom is directly related to how we handle our money and resolve issues around “wealth of injustice.”

So the story means to ask us: are we willing to cooperate with the kinds of economic inequities of the present age? Or, like the manager of injustice, are we willing to make the kinds of decisions with our individual and corporate wealth that reflect our participation in the “new economy” of God’s Kingdom which Jesus proclaims and commends?

Taken together, this story and the sayings at the end appear to presuppose that the wealth we handle, great or small, is not our own but is wealth God wishes all the world to share. Being good stewards it seems entails becoming managers of injustice in the cause of economic justice for all people. There are people taking this seriously: JK Rowling just fell off the world list of billionaires because she has given away so much of her money. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates are busy doing the same while urging others to follow their lead.

Will it be Gordon Gekko’s, “Greed is good!”? Or, do we take the Good News of God in Christ’s declaration that we cannot serve both God and Wealth seriously? Will we too become managers of injustice?

How we answer these questions makes all the difference in the world – the world for which Jesus was born, crucified and raised from the dead. “Make friends for yourself with wealth of injustice,” says the master, “so that when it is gone they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Amen. 

Saturday, September 10, 2016


We sometimes think of the life of faith as a journey in which we are searching for God, Allah, the Tao, the Great Creator Spirit, a Higher Power, or simply the meaning of life. The Gospels take a different approach and portray whatever your idea of a Higher Power might be becomes one of us and comes searching for us. It is, says Jesus, like the shepherd searching for the one lost sheep, or the woman searching for the one lost coin. There are other sheep and other coins, just as there are other women and men, but the God Jesus addresses as Abba, Father, is searching far and wide for every one of us.

As difficult as it may be for us to accept this, it is true. The life of faith is realizing this is true. We might say, ‘Why does God, Allah, Abba, search for me?’ One answer can be found on page 298 in the Book of Common Prayer: Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body….” It occurred to me one day after many baptisms that if that is true, and I believe it is, than when we come through the waters of baptism the voice Jesus heard at his baptism by John says to us, “You are my beloved….I am well pleased with you.” And so I now believe that at every baptism there are seraphim and cherubim flying around one’s head, singing into your ears, “You are God’s Beloved….God is well pleased with you!” This is who we are. To be imago Dei, created in the image of God is to be God’s Beloved. This is precisely why it is God who is forever searching for us. This is precisely why John Newton, a former slave trader who saw the sinfulness of his life and worked to end the slave trade in Great Britain wrote the immortal words, “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound/That saved a wretch like me/I once was lost and now am found/Was blind but now I see!” Somehow aboard a ship with a cargo-hold crowded with human beings created in the image of God, God found John Newton and the world was changed. Newton learned that not only was he God’s Beloved, but that every single person and creature on Earth is God’s Beloved as well.

For me it happened one day at the first baptism I ever officiated. I was the curate at Christ Church, Winnetka, IL. It happened that a four year-old girl named Eleanor was being baptized and her mother Frances was also being baptized. It was one of those moments that just screamed “precious,” but as the day would unfold it became more theologically important because afterwards we were all invited back to Eleanor and Frances’ home for brunch. That’s where God found me – I, just fresh spanking new out of seminary and quite sure I knew everything there was to know about things like baptism and communion. That would change very soon. As I was standing and having a conversation with someone while eating a piece of quiche and enjoying a glass of wine – so very very Episcopalian – I suddenly felt a tug on the back of my pants leg. I turned and there was Eleanor with an excited and eager expression on her face as she asked, “Can you still see the cross on my forehead?”

She meant, of course, the cross traced with oil blessed by our bishop, The Right Reverend James Winchester Montgomery, marking her and sealing her as Christ’s own forever – fully incorporating her into the Body of Christ and into God’s Beloved community. The cross that also was a sign of her answer to five very basic questions: Will you continue in the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? To which Eleanor had replied with the rest of the congregation, “I will with God’s help.” Will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will everything you say and do  proclaim the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all people – not some people, not a lot or most people, but all people – loving your neighbor as yourself? And perhaps most demanding of all, “Will you strive for justice and peace among all people – not some people, not most people, but all people – and respect the dignity of every human being? To all of which she had replied, “I will with God’s help.”

All this flashed through my mind as Eleanor waited eagerly for an answer to her question. “Yes,” I said, “We can still see the cross on your forehead!” And we could as off she skipped with a big smile on her excited four -year-old face! And I thought to myself, what a great question for all of us. Can others see the cross on my forehead?  But then I went back to eating quiche, drinking wine and talking with others. By the next day I had forgotten what was perhaps God’s most important question for me. Fortunately, like the shepherd and the woman in the stories about the lost sheep and lost coin, God was not through with me yet. Enter the proverbial 2x4!

The next Sunday, a week later, there was a tug on my alb as I was vesting for church. It was Eleanor again, asking, a week later, if we could still see the cross on her forehead! That’s when I got it. The gospel that day was the one that says that anyone who wishes to be a disciple of mine must pick up their cross and follow me. After 12 years of Sunday School, four years undergraduate studies in Religion, three years of Seminary, nine canonical exams in the Diocese of Rhode Island, vocational testing, and a week of General Ordination Exams I had labored under the misconception that Jesus was talking about all the difficult, lonely and disappointing things that happen to us in this life. We say, “She has had this cross to bear for so long.” Or, “He has had so many crosses to bear!” And I labored under the accompanying misconception that at the end of a life carrying all these crosses of mine and trying to keep up with Jesus who is always moving forward at a rapid clip to reach out to those in deepest need, I would lay down all my crosses and say, “Here they are, Jesus. I have carried them the whole way and am exhausted and cannot go on.”

It took a four year-old girl named Eleanor to help me to see that at best Jesus would laugh and say, “Kirk, I have carried all those for you since the moment you were incorporated into my Body! This cross on your forehead, the one that goes before you wherever you go, is the one I want you to carry. It says you are mine and I am yours. It says that we can join with Miriam and the sisters who danced and sang their way out of bondage in Egypt into the freedom of a new land. It says nothing can separate you from my Love. It says you are my Beloved and I am well pleased with you. It says you will join with me in striving for justice and peace for all people and respect the dignity of every human being. Everything you say and everything you do will proclaim my Good News for all people that they too are my Beloved and that I am well pleased with them, and people will see the cross on your forehead.”

I tell this story wherever I go. Because it is the story God searched me out and gave me to tell. Sure, he had to hit me over the head with the proverbial 2x4, but after all our God is a God of second chances. Telling this always reminds me of just who I am and whose I am. And reminds me that to follow in the Way of Jesus is a journey that never ends as we strive for Justice and Peace for all people – not some people, not most people, but all people. And so I can let Eleanor know that there is a whole new part of Christ’s Body, the Church, that has heard her story and are now asking themselves and others, “Can you see the cross on my forehead?” Amen.