Saturday, September 22, 2007

Give An Accounting of Your Stewardship

23 September 2007 – Proper 20C: Amos 8:4-7, I Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, MD

(With thanks and apologies to Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke [Pilgrim Press, Cleveland, 2006])

Hear This!

Rabbis and preachers often convey moral truths by way of subtle and clever stories. Which is exactly what Jesus has done – he tells a clever story. Unfortunately, natural instincts have led the church to misinterpret the story, looking for a character to emulate, and even worse, has changed the translation to make sense of the misunderstanding. Ooops!

One attempt to make sense of this story has been to suggest that the steward is not dishonest and not “stealing” from the rich man’s investments, but only deducting his commission. If that is the case, wouldn’t anyone who works on a commission basis want his job? If this is his commission, it is 50% in one case and 20% in the next! Only loan sharks and drug dealers work with such margins. It’s almost better to think he is simply dishonest.

Then there is the translation problem. The Greek text does not suggest “charges” being brought against the manager, but rather that he has been slandered – which suggests that the charges are false. And not that he “squandered” the rich man’s property, but rather he was “spreading it around” – what we would call “diversifying his portfolio.” Which sounds like good fiscal policy in today’s world of free-market capitalism.

So, on the basis of gossip and false charges the rich man fires the steward, suggesting that perhaps he doesn’t want to “spread his money around.” After all, the next thing you know people will be expecting him to invest in their venture projects, or even worse, ask him to donate to charities. This kind of thing needs be nipped in the bud, so he fires the steward.

This would explain the steward’s reaction, which is in fact to cheat the rich man. He has caught on to how the business game is played. If he can be cheated on the basis of gossip and innuendo, he can take revenge. This in turn might explain the rich man’s response, which is, in effect, “Congratulations, now you are learning how the game is played. You may have a future in this after all. Let me put you to work in a new company I am starting up – let’s call it “Enron.”

So we have a disloyal master, and a cheating, revengeful manager who thinks he can do well in the future by demonstrating he can cheat. Which is what the merchants in Amos are salivating to do – cheat. They wish to break the Sabbath laws and sell sell sell 24/7, put a heavy finger on the scales, shrink the size and weight of a pound of olives, so that they can fill their closets with the newest shoes – Crocs, Uggs, Jimmy Choo, Nina Ricci, Prada Sport Sneakers, Cole Haan, Brunomagli, and the like!

In a hilarious send up of Raymond Chandler mysteries and Episcopal liturgical customs, Mark Schweizer in his book, The Alto Wore Tweed (St. James Music Press, 2002) sums it all up in the libretto of an Epiphany Pageant featuring not the three Kings, but their wives, Leona, Imelda and Hilary:

I’m Imelda, jolly and quaint

Rather large, a face like a saint,

My shoes I can carry on one dromedary,

If I show real restraint. Ohhhhh

Star of wonder, star most fair,

I’m wandering without footwear.

It may seem callous, but at my palace

I have around three thousand pair!

Clearly we are not to emulate the merchants in Amos, nor the rich man or his manager in the Gospel. These people all represent the children of this age. These are the people who serve wealth/mammon, not God.

The key phrases in here would have to be, “You cannot serve God and mammon/wealth,” and, “Give me an accounting of your stewardship,” and of course, “Hear this…surely I will never forget any of their/your deeds.”

So what the scriptures before us mean to ask is, given that we all have resources that we manage, i.e. we are stewards of all that God has given to us, do we marshal these resources on behalf of God and those God loves, the poor and the needy? Or, do we all have closets full of shoes? Shoes, of course, is simply a metaphor, a space-holder for whatever else it is we find ourselves collecting or addicted to: clothes, cars, matchbox racers, fine wine, fine food, stamps, baseball cards, Thomas Kinkaid knick-knacks, guitars, coins, and everything else the Home Shopping Network and its minions offer as “true collectables.”

Be certain that there is no suggestion that money and resources are bad. Rather, the assertion is that there is a true need for money and resources in the Kingdom of God. Either you are on the bus or off of the bus, the Kingdom of God being the bus. Either we are serving God with all that we are and all that we have, or we are not.

And the only thing we need to know is true about the Gospel story (other than its description of the world of commerce looking pretty much the same before and after the birth of free-market capitalism) is that one day we will all hear a voice asking, “Give me an accounting of your stewardship.”

As William Burrill, retired Bishop of the Diocese of Rochester has long maintained, a quick glance at the register in our checkbooks, or now our online internet statements, will give a balanced and true picture of where our commitments lie – with God or with mammon. Or, as the late Bishop Bennett Sims once put it, “Of all the money I spent on myself, I would love to get most of it back. Of all the money I gave away, I don’t care to see it ever again.”

Is it any wonder that we are anxious about earthly things, as our collect asserts? Jesus, claims the Letter of Paul to Timothy, gave himself as a ransom for all that we might choose to become children of light, that we might choose to “lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity,” that we might choose to hold fast to those things that shall endure. In the weeks ahead we will be asked to make such choices – choices we face everyday. Jesus trusts those of us who know him to make such choices on behalf of his Father’s kingdom. There exists an entire world that hopes his faith in us is well founded. Amen.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

God's Choices, Our Choices, New Choices

9 September 2007 – Proper 18C * Jeremiah 18:1-11 – Luke 14: 25-33

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, MD

God’s Choices, Our Choices, New Choices

Too often we feel as if we have no control over our future. There are numerous other forces at work beyond our control. Worse still, we find it all too convenient to blame someone or something else for how things are turning out. Common targets of such blame are parents, genes, society, diet, music, peers, the Church, multi-national corporations, congress, the White House, the judiciary, the media – the list can go on and on and on.

Against such a fatalistic world view, Jeremiah the prophet was given a metaphor by God in an attempt to establish a more responsible world-view. The people of Judah faced a crisis that would cost them their political independence and lead the people into a generation of slavery in Babylon.

Pottery, clay, was as common to manufacturing in Jeremiah’s time some six centuries before Christ as something like steel or plastic is for us today. Such things as bricks, lamps, toys, ovens, roof tiles, figurines, tableware, storage jars, cooking pots, even jewelry were all made of clay.

The Lord God of Israel says to Jeremiah, “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” This would be a familiar image.

This is an invitation for all of us to come, go, see and hear what the Lord has to say. And what we see is the Lord sitting at a potter’s wheel “throwing” a vessel of clay. It is spoiled, somehow not what the Lord has in mind, so the potter reworks the vessel until it seems “good to him.” God starts over – God begins again – God begins anew.

The initial lesson is perhaps obvious: God can choose to deal with us – individuals and nations – as God chooses. God has the freedom and the power to shape us and re-shape us. God can simply destroy us or start over with us as God pleases.

What is revolutionary in Jeremiah’s portrayal of this scene is the suggestion further on that the clay, the vessel, we, also makes choices: we can choose to be good or to be evil, we can choose to listen to God’s word or not. Clay cannot choose, but we, individuals and nations, as clay in God’s hands, can and do make choices every day – choices that either reflect God’s will or not. We can choose to repent and return to the Lord’s way, or not.

According to the choices we make –as individuals and as nations – God says, “I will change my mind about the good I had intended to do.” God as potter wants to do good for us, but when we stray from becoming a vessel that “looks good” to the potter, the potter can and has and will destroy one vessel to fashion a new one.

The choices we make matter. How we choose effects our future. We are responsible for what happens – we have a moral responsibility for creating the world in which we live.

Jesus makes a similar point to those who would be his disciples. All his talk about hating family, counting the costs and giving up all our possessions takes the importance of God’s choices and Our choices to a whole new place.

Jeremiah calls people to return to traditional moral norms and values – Jesus calls us to go beyond such traditional norms. What Jesus asserts is that living in accord with traditional moral choices is not enough to respond to God’s new movement in their lives. It will involve making choices that seem to make no sense at the time, but will lead the people to shape their future by making such radical new choices in the present.

Our calendar of Feasts and Fasts in the Book of Common Prayer celebrates the lives of individuals who have made such bold choices in an attempt to reshape the future of the church, the nation and the world.

Last Tuesday, we remembered one such individual: Bishop Paul Jones, born in 1880 in the rectory of St. Stephen’s Church, Wilkes-Barre, PA. In 1914 he was elected bishop of the Missionary District of Utah, at the outbreak of World War I.

Bishop Jones spoke openly of his opposition to the war, expressing his belief that “war is unchristian,” a position for which he was attacked in the headlines of the Utah press. As a result of his position, a Commission of the House of Bishops investigated Bishop Jones, and in a commission report concluded, “The underlying contention of the Bishop of Utah seems to be that war is unchristian. With this general statement the Commission cannot agree.” Leave it to the Church to come up with a committee that would make such a conclusion!

The report called for his resignation, and in the spring of 1918 Bishop Jones resigned as Bishop of Utah. For the next 23 years, however, until his death in 1941, he continued a ministry within the church and society dedicated to peace and conscience, speaking always with a conviction rooted in the Gospel.

“Where I serve the church is of small importance, so long as I can make my life count in the cause of Christ,” he said in his farewell to the Missionary District of Utah.

We all pray for a world without war, without violence, without the kinds of hatred and thirst for power that leads us into one conflict after another. God keeps sending us one voice after another with names like Gandhi, King, Berrigan, McCalister and Jones. We sing, “You are the potter, we are the clay, the work of your hands…." Forgetting, perhaps, that we have the choice to be molded by God's hands, or not. "Or not" leads to war, global warming, poverty, etc.

God’s choices, our choices, new choices – Jesus challenges us to shape our future by the choices we make in the present. Jeremiah and Jesus both offer a hopeful view of the future by saying the choices we make in the present will shape our future. It is up to no one else but us – one choice at a time – to join with God in creating the world God wants this to be.

“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” May we come, go down and listen. Amen.

Please join me in singing:

Come, go down to the Potter’s House

And listen to my word

Come, go down to the Potter’s House

And listen to my word

Just like clay in the Potter’s hands

So you are in mine (repeats in each verse)

Come, go down to the Potter’s House

And listen to my word

Turn back from your evil ways

And all the things you do

Turn back from your evil ways

And all the things you do

Just like clay in the Potter’s hands

So you are in mine (repeats in each verse)

Turn back from your evil ways

And all the things you do

Before you go to wage a war

Measure all the costs

No matter where you serve the Church

You count in the cause of Christ

My word is love, my word is peace

How will you make it yours

The choice you make is the chance you take

To serve the Lord our God

Copyright Sounds Divine

Kirk A Kubicek

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Labor Sunday

Labor Sunday – September 2, 2007

Sirach 10: 12-18 * Luke 14:1,7-14

The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

Labor Sunday

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and , as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. (BCP 261)

Our first reading from Sirach warns, “The beginning of human pride is to forsake the Lord; the heart has withdrawn from its Maker … The Lord overthrows the thrones of rulers, and enthrones the lowly … plucks up the roots of the nations and plants the humble in their places … erases the memory of them from the earth … Pride was not created for human beings…”

And we find Jesus echoing these themes as he urges us to rethink just who we ought to be inviting to the dinner table, which is and always has been the Lord’s own table – he points his host in the direction of common people, workers and those in special need. That is why we say grace a mealtimes at home – to remember from whence our bounty comes, and that it is the Lord’s table not ours. That is why we join in the Great Thanksgiving as we lift up our offerings every time we approach the Altar of the Lord’s supper, Holy Communion – the Holy Eucharist. Just who do we invite to gather around this table?

In 1882, Tuesday, September the 5th, the Knights of Labor organized the original Labor Day celebration and parade in New York City. It was initiated to create a day off for the “working man and woman,” and to exhibit to the public “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations” of the community. In 1884 came a second parade, followed by a general strike in 1886 which eventually won the eight-hour work day in the United States – an idea that would still look pretty good to most of us who work!

In 1887 President Grover Cleveland established the September date as the ongoing and official day for Americans to celebrate Labor Day. Still later, by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor in1909, the Sunday preceding Labor Day was adopted as Labor Sunday, dedicated to the spiritual and educational aspects of the labor movement.

Recognizing the centrality of labor in the life of the human community, The Book of Common Prayer, our primary worship book, calls us to pray for those who do work for the common good every day.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the Book of Common Prayer had a vision for Anglican and what eventually became Episcopal daily life: it was to be grounded in regular daily prayers in the morning, at noon, in the evening and at bed-time. The prayers are not common so much in the sense that we say them together, but rather that we all be saying our prayers wherever we are, and praying for the same concerns. We may say them with others, or by our selves, but they will still be prayers we hold in common.

Every night before bed-time the prayer office of Compline is outlined in our Prayer Book. Compline may be said with others or by oneself. Near the end of the office, one has the choice of two prayers on page 134:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for you love’s sake. Amen

or this

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Our common life depends on each other’s toil. One must wonder just how the great political debates of our age might be reshaped were we to actually pray these prayers every night or every day? How might we look, for instance, at immigrant and migrant workers differently?

I find myself often reflecting on just how many individuals it takes to produce and deliver the loaf of bread I buy at the market – seed manufacturers, farmers, farm hands, mill workers, truckers, bakers, delivery people, store managers, buyers, shelf-stockers and the person at the check-out line. And I have probably left some out. It is all a part of God’s economy for our common good. Today we are called to reflect on the spiritual dimensions of labor.

To help us with this, here is a poem by Carl Sandberg, one of America’s most famous poets. Often his poems were populated by factory workers, washerwomen, hobos, crooked politicians, and people of the great Midwestern prairie.

I Am the People, the Mob

By Carl Sandberg

I am the people – the mob – the crowd – the mass.

Do you know that all the great work of the world is done

through me?

I am the workman, the inventor, the maker of the

world’s food and clothes.

I am the audience that witnesses history. The Napoleons

come from me and the Lincolns. They die. And then

I send forth more Napoleons and Lincolns.

I am the seed ground. I am a prairie that will stand for

much plowing. Terrible storms pass over me.

I forget. The best of me is sucked out and wasted.

I forget. Everything but Death comes to me and makes

me work and give up what I have. And I forget.

Sometimes I growl, shake myself and spatter a few red

drops for history to remember. Then – I forget.

When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the

People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer

forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a

fool – then there will be no speaker in all the world

say the name: “The People,” with any fleck of a

sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision.

The mob – the crowd – the mass – will arrive then.