Sunday, September 19, 2010

Homily: The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost [September 19, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

Two Sundays ago we had a very difficult Gospel: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” [Matthew 14.25] Luckily for me, Joyce was the preacher that day, and so I dodged a bullet. Today we just heard Beth read the parable of the dishonest manager, [Luke 16.1-13] but even I am not mean enough to ask her to address this impossible story on her first Sunday here. So I guess one learning today is: the rector can run but he cannot hide. Jesus says a lot of strange things in the Gospels, and sometimes the preacher just has to “suck it up and deal” as a faculty colleague of mine once said.
This Gospel—the parable of the dishonest manager —has only been in our Sunday lectionary since the 1970s. Prior to that it was deemed too difficult and so left out. And it’s easy to see why. Jesus tells the story of a dishonest manager who learns he will lose his job. He decides to make friends for himself by cutting deals with those who owe money to his boss. If you owe a hundred jugs of oil, we’ll make it fifty. If you owe a hundred measures of wheat we’ll make it eighty. The shocking moment in the story comes when the master praises the manager for his shrewd, if dishonest, behavior. And then Jesus concludes with this puzzling statement: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” How on earth do we make sense of this?
One way to make sense of it is to remember the way money worked for Jews and Christians in Bible times. In Jesus’s day, lending money at interest was forbidden by Jewish law. One way they got around that law was to lend commodities—oil and wheat, for example—and to demand inflated amounts in return. So instead of lending money, a landowner could lend 50 jugs of oil and demand 100 jugs as payment of the debt; or he could lend 80 measures of wheat and require 100 measures in return. This was not technically usury, because no money changed hands. But it was a usurious practice. As my father once said when he heard this Gospel, the real thief here wasn’t the manager; the real thief was the boss, who had been lending commodities at usurious rates. When confronted with his own survival, the unjust manager chose to blow the whistle on the master and so save himself. When it is all over, the master cannot help but admire the manager’s shrewdness. He has saved himself from destitution by cutting deals with those who were being cheated by the landowner.
So one way—perhaps the only way—to understand this story is to see it as a story about honesty, about truth-telling. The impending crisis in the manager’s life provokes a moment of truth when everyone has to stop deluding themselves and face in to what is actually happening. Jesus praises the manager not because he is dishonest but because he breaks the collusion and denial and forces a community to tell the truth to itself and each other. And isn’t our desire for truth our deepest desire? “Be it life or death, we crave only reality,” as Henry Thoreau said.
In this month’s issue of Poetry magazine, the poet Tony Hoagland has an essay [“Recognition, Vertigo, and Passionate Worldliness: The tribes of contemporary poetry”] in which he asserts, “We have communication sickness.” As he said in an interview when asked about “communication sickness”:
We are terribly, terribly weary of untrustworthy speech--the ways in which we feel helpless and hopeless about our public discourse and about our situation in a very commercial society. [“Poetry Magazine Podcast”, September 1, 2010]

According to Tony Hoagland, this communication sickness is exacerbated by “the corruption of commercial and political speech.” He describes this disease as “our resulting collective dizziness” and identifies it as “a fundamental symptom of modern life.”
Communication Sickness. If you are anything like me, the minute you heard this you knew what Tony Hoagland was talking about. We are all “terribly weary of untrustworthy speech”—from our leaders, from those who want to be our leaders, from those who comment on our leaders. We suffer untrustworthy speech from those who want to manipulate us into thinking or buying or voting or behaving in a certain way. We are made collectively dizzy by our inability to latch onto words that make simple, trustworthy sense.
And it’s not only that speech is untrustworthy. It’s also that we’re surrounded by so much of it. In an interview published last month, the late writer David Foster Wallace described what it is like to suffer the continued onslaught of communications messages:

I received five hundred thousand discrete bits of information today, of which maybe twenty-five are important. And how am I going to sort those out, you know? --David Foster Wallace quoted in "Smarter than You Think", Wyatt Mason, New York Review of Books, 7/15/10.

Emails, sound bites, advertising, infomercials, blogs, tweets, Facebook postings: How am I going to sort those out? What is being said to me that I can trust, that I really need to hear.
Again, as Thoreau said, “Be it life or death, we crave only reality.” John Lennon put it this way, “All I want is the truth. Just gimme some truth.” If we want to understand what Jesus is saying to us in an admittedly confusing and difficult parable, the best place to start is with our craving for reality, our demand for truth. We all have communication sickness. Who can we trust, and how?
In this morning’s Gospel, the dishonest manager has provoked a moment when another group of people suffering communication sickness were suddenly empowered to face into the truth of their situation. Only when faced with a question of survival did the manager have the ingenuity to call his master’s bluff. The situation we find ourselves in may not be quite so dramatic. But it does require courageous and decisive action.
I believe we all have communication sickness, frankly, because we are too plugged-in. According to recent studies, the average American spends 8.5 hours per day looking at a screen—a TV screen, a computer screen, a smart phone, a video game. We take in three times the information we consumed in 1960. We look at an average of 40 websites a day. We have all signed on to a vision of connectedness that holds that the important messages come to us from outside ourselves. We do not trust the depth and quality of our own interior lives. And so we seek to bring words and ideas from outside into ourselves as a way of filling what we think is a void. Hence our addiction to perpetual connectedness.
Now don’t get me wrong. I believe, as a Christian and as a human being, that there is much I need to take in from outside myself, that I am made complete only in my relations with others and with God. But believing that is not the same thing as being alienated from my own interior life. So I would say, along with the great majority of writers about spirituality in the Christian tradition, that the way into trustworthy speech, the way out of communication sickness, the way to sort out the true from the false messages—that way is the journey within. It is the journey into solitude, into silence. It is the journey into self-knowledge and self-acceptance. It is the journey into prayerful disconnectedness. If I cannot spend the day alone I certainly cannot spend it with you. And if I cannot be present to you I cannot be present to God. We have communication sickness because we have overdosed on noise. And we overdose on noise because we are ignorant or afraid of what we might hear coming from within once the distraction stops.
Christian spirituality has always lived in this dialogue between community and solitude. The world Jesus describes, like our world, is a culture given over to “untrustworthy speech”, to those “five hundred thousand discrete bits of information today, of which maybe twenty-five are important.” And Jesus’s point this morning in the parable is that there is a place we can go for trustworthy, important speech. And that is into the place of silence. God is doing something inside you. If that weren’t true, you wouldn’t be here. How are you going to attend to what God is doing unless you tune out the distractions and listen?
In his new book "Hamlet’s Blackberry", William Powers suggests that everyone take a regular weekly “Internet Sabbath”. Because we are biologically wired to pay attention to new stimuli, disconnecting from all external messages on a regular basis may be as difficult as quitting smoking or saying no to that bacon cheeseburger. But regular disconnection from screens in all their forms will allow us to process our thoughts and feelings, to hear ourselves feel and think, and enable us maybe even to talk to each other. And it’s in that internal/external dialogue—not in cyberspace-- that we actually encounter God.
We don’t know what happened after the dishonest manager blew the whistle on his master. But we do know that the master praised him for his clarity and shrewdness. I don’t know precisely what you will hear when you step away from the screen, turn off the noise, and attend to what God is saying to and within you. But I do know that God is saying something unique through you that only you can hear, and I know that I and the church and the world will be the less if you do not attend to and act on it. We owe it to each other to make the space to listen to what God is up to in our several interior lives. We may not always be praised for the truths we bring back. They may be hard truths. But those truths will be our truths. They will be trustworthy. And they will bind us to one another and the reality we so deeply crave. Amen.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Homily: The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost [September 12, 2010] Christ Church Cranbrook

Whenever we are able to spend some time together, my son Oliver and I try to go to a rock concert that bridges our generational interests. Last month in Los Angeles we drove out to Ontario, California to hear Bob Dylan and John Mellencamp. My hearing should be returning shortly. Several years ago, we made a longer trip to Nashville and Memphis to see some of the sacred spaces of American popular music. In Memphis we visited Sun Records and Graceland. In Nashville we went to hear a concert by the great George Jones at the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Old Opry.
George Jones humbly bills himself as “the greatest country singer of all time”. In order to prepare for the experience of basking in his august presence, Oliver had bought the CD George Jones 16 Biggest Hits and we listened to it a couple of times on our long drive south from Philadelphia to Nashville. George Jones did a long and wonderful show the night we saw him, but for me the high point was a song from early in his career which was not on the CD. It was a song called “Sinners and Saints,” and when he announced it the crowd went wild. I understood why when I heard the refrain:
The only thing different in sinners and saints:
One is forgiven, the other one ain’t.

Now “Sinners and Saints”, like all George Jones songs, is a sad tale of a guy who cheated on his woman (who of course then left him), so he now is left to sit alone in a honky tonk drinking wine, but with this difference: whereas in most country songs like that, the singer merely laments his new unhappy life, in this song the singer gestures back at those who would point at him the finger of self-righteousness. “I know I’ve messed up my life. I’m not sure you do.”
The only thing different in sinners and saints:
One is forgiven, the other one ain’t.
The song “Sinners and Saints” reminded me of the definition I once heard of a martyr: a martyr, they say, is someone who is married to a saint. Is there anything worse than someone who revels in their own sanctity? The audience at the Ryman didn’t think so, and neither do I. We all stomped and cheered every time George Jones let loose with his refrain.
The only thing different in sinners and saints:
One is forgiven, the other one ain’t.
This morning’s Gospel [Luke 15:1-10] presents us with two of Jesus’s most familiar yet troubling parables: the stories of the lost sheep and the lost coin. He tells these stories because, as Luke tells us, some were complaining, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." By way of answering his critics, Jesus tells us of a shepherd who leaves his 99 safe sheep to go look for the one that was lost and carries it back to rejoin the flock. “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” He also tells us of a woman who has ten silver coins and, losing one, turns the house upside down and searches until she finds it. In both cases, the message is clear: “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” “Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."
These stories are well-known and so familiar. But they are also troubling. Do those ratios make sense to you: 99 safe sheep to one lost? Nine secure coins to one missing? Jesus talks of a God who is willing to act rashly on behalf of those who are lost, a God who seems to take for granted those who are found. If you’re listening closely, these stories might make you angry. That’s fine for the shepherd and the woman, but what about rest of us? Is Jesus really saying that one lost person is more important to God than 99 of us who have gotten up early on Sunday mornings week in and week out to be here?
The only thing different in sinners and saints:
One is forgiven, the other one ain’t.
One of the ways I get at the parables of Jesus is to ask myself this question: Who in this story is Jesus asking me to identify with? Remember that Jesus told these stories in the first place because a group of Pharisees were complaining , "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them." So he tells a story about those who would call themselves “insiders” and those whom the insiders would call “outsiders”. And for Jesus to tell a story in which the shepherd or the woman abandons a large group of insiders to search for one lonely, lost outsider would really make you angry—IF you identified with the so-called insiders. “Here I am, one of the 99. Who does this shepherd think he is to leave me helpless while he seeks for one lost, lonely sheep?” Of course this story will make us angry if, like the Pharisees, we have defined ourselves as people who are worthier of attention than is someone else.
But what if you shift your perspective for a moment and think of yourself primarily as an outsider? In the terms of Jesus’s world, that would mean you’re neither part of the Roman or Jewish elite. You’re a simple, probably poor and hungry, Palestinian Jewish peasant. Because of economic and social conditions you might find yourself doing something disreputable for a living. You inhabit a culture and a world that tells you you’re not worth very much at all.
And then you hear Jesus telling you that he’s willing to sit at a table with you because, like God, he is one who cares for the lost, the lonely, the alienated, the outcast. And he makes the outlandish claim that one of you is more important to him than 99 of the so-called respectable people. Sure, a statement like that would make the respectable people angry. But wouldn’t it make you feel pretty good?
There are all kinds of ways you and I get ourselves into spiritual trouble. But the number one way, in my estimation, is our tendency to rely on our qualifications as a guarantee of our status. The Pharisees weren’t really bad people. They were good, rule-abiding folk who made the common mistake of believing too much in their own sanctity. When Jesus began his teaching ministry in Matthew’s Gospel, the first thing he said was, “How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of heaven is theirs.”[Matthew 5.3, New English Bible] I get myself into spiritual trouble when I forget my need of God. And I forget my need of God when, like the Pharisees, I take my own sanctity too seriously. I get myself into trouble when I see myself and my interests as tied to those of the haves rather than the have-nots. I get myself into trouble when I think of myself as one of the presumptively safe 99 rather than as the lost one.
The only thing different in sinners and saints:
One is forgiven, the other one ain’t

So here is how George Jones would help Jesus pose today’s question: Are you going to think of yourself as a saint or a sinner? Do you want to be holy and self-righteous, or do you want to be whole and forgiven? Are you going to consort only with people as pious and respectable as you think you are, or are you, like Jesus, going to welcome sinners and eat with them? “How blest are they who know their need of God. “ Those who are heavily invested in an image of their own respectability do not know of their need for God and so, like the 99 in the parable, they are pretty much on their own. It’s only those of us who “get” that we really do need some help who can become the ones whom God goes in search of. If you’re like me you can become dazzled with your own accomplishments and so forget your need of God at the drop of a hat. It’s only by God’s grace that things keep happening to us that allow us to open ourselves up to God and our own need.
Today is Homecoming Sunday here and Christ Church Cranbrook, and the tendency for the preacher on occasions like this is to say something self-congratulatory, to the effect that this, and not someplace else, is our home. But if we listen to what Jesus is saying in today’s parables, we might put it somewhat differently. Yes, sure, this is our home. But it’s our home not because we are more pious or more respectable or better educated or higher achieving than somebody else. It is our home because it is the home of all those who know their need of God. It is our home because, like the sheep and the coin in this morning’s parable, when we are honest with ourselves, we know we are those on behalf of whom God continually goes in search. When others point to Jesus and say, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” we take comfort in knowing that Jesus welcomes and eats with us, that we are the people worth enough to Jesus that he will risk all to seek for us. “How blest are those who know their need of God; the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” We will get this wrong if we think of the Kingdom of Heaven is something we own and others don’t. We will get it right if we see how deeply and consistently God continues to love us even when we inevitably get it wrong. And this will be our home not because we deserve it more than anyone else, but because we have been given grace to see that, for some unfathomable reason, God loves us enough to have left the 99 in search of us, to give us a place where we can, in the company of one another, make our way with those who know that they need God, too.
The only thing different in sinners and saints:
One is forgiven, the other one ain’t
We come now to the Eucharist, the central action of our life and witness as followers of Jesus. This is the meal that characterizes our life together, that connects us to each other and to God, the meal that strengthens us for the living of our lives in the world. Remember who it is that Jesus invites to this meal—not the self-righteous but the ones they would call sinners. We gather to dine with one who welcomes sinners and eats with them. As Jesus welcomes and eats with us, may we remember his promise that the One who goes in search of us will find us, that all of us who are lost will be found. Amen.