Sunday, September 22, 2013

mountains o' things

All Saints’ Rehoboth Beach
Proper 20, Year C, September 22, 2013
Here is the complete lectionary (here's the Gospel, for those short on time).

May the words I speak and the words you hear be God’s alone. Amen.

In reading today’s Gospel passage from Luke I find myself scratching my head. This isn’t the first time I’ve read some of Jesus’ words and thought to myself, “What in the world is he trying to say here?” For me, the passage has simply led to a lot of questions.

Today’s parable isn’t a typical one. Instead of a story with a recognizable hero and definitive lines between good and bad, the lines are more blurred. Rather than a story of a lost coin or a lost sheep, we seem to have found yet another person with a lost moral compass. But the thing that is really surprising in this tale is that Jesus seems to be praising a manager for acting shrewdly in the face of being fired for his dishonesty. Wait, what? Where’s the remorse? Where’s the passionate change of heart? Or at the very least where’s the punishment if he does not amend his ways? Could this be an ancient form of sarcasm? Perhaps a dig at the doltish tendencies of his disciples? Probably not, but maybe Jesus is saying that we can learn from people even when we don’t like them very much. 

Maybe he is telling his disciples that in addition to all of the other qualities they need in order to follow him, they must also be perceptive, aware of what’s going on, and able to think quickly on their feet. The world is not always a friendly place, and the disciples have a long, hard road to tread. They are going to need to acquire some survival skills for the journey ahead. 

The second part of today’s Gospel reading takes the story a little further. Here is the epic come-back we’ve been waiting for: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much” (Luke 16:10). “If you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” (v. 12). Jesus is saying that our lives will be defined by our actions and by our inaction. If we act in a selfish and greedy manner, like the dishonest manager, then we will lead empty lives, no matter how clever or shrewd we are. Because he is dishonest, the manager presumably has no friends, or at least no one close enough to him that he feels comfortable asking them to house him when he loses his job. What a lonely existence, thinking only of ourselves. 

However, if we conduct our lives with even a little bit of faith, no matter how imperfect, we will be entrusted with “true riches” (v. 11): friendship, community, fulfillment. If the manager had been honest and a good steward of the master’s possessions, then if he had been fired from his job he probably wouldn’t have had to worry about where to stay or what to do next.

In this country we live our lives under the banner of individualism. This has led to many important things: unprecedented freedoms, innovation, and creativity. But in the same vein this individualism has masked some pretty ugly qualities as well: entitlement, self-absorption, and the thought of wanting our fair share, no matter how it affects others. Naturally, we all desire what is best for us and our families, but at what cost? At what point do we draw the line between survival and selfishness? 

This is why it is so important for us to come together to worship on a regular basis, instead of just doing it on our own. When we worship together we learn from one another’s experiences. Old and young, we have things to teach each other. Hearing someone else’s perspective can affect the way we view the world. Listening to someone else’s passions can ignite a passion in ourselves. Having a conversation with someone in the pew next to us can alert us to the needs of the community. 

In the Gospel accounts, Jesus surrounds himself with people. He takes time off to pray and relax, but he also makes time to eat and drink with friends and foes alike. They might not always get along, but they learn from each other and bring balance to the conversation. Occasionally, a conversation with someone even changes Jesus’ mind (Matthew 15:21-28). 

It is important to note in today’s passage that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, but there are also Pharisees listening in, and in the next few verses we find that they don’t take too kindly to Jesus’ teachings. They are used to being the ones in charge, of leading others in matters of faith. But this rabbi from Nazareth points out that their desire to follow the Law so strictly has made them blind to the suffering of their people. The biggest problem the Pharisees have is that they place rules above people. They see only how far their people have strayed from the Law, and don’t take into account how hard they are trying. In their quest for religious purity the Pharisees have alienated themselves from the very people they are trying to teach. 

Another problem the Pharisees have is that they are “lovers of money” (Luke 16:14). In the answer to today’s strange parable, Jesus says that we “cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 13). Wealth, in this instance, can also mean money or possessions ( Possessions are inanimate objects. If you love them, they cannot love you back. But if you devote your time to pursuing them, your possessions will begin to slowly possess you. Retail therapy may feel good in the short run, but over time we will look around at all that stuff and realize that it has never filled the void, only put blinders on for awhile.  

“You cannot serve God and [possessions]” (v. 13). In this day and age, with all the new gadgets and technology, when information--and therefore advertising--is instantaneous, we are constantly being reminded of all of the things we lack, all we need to accomplish,  all that we “can’t live without.” We want the car, the gadgets, the career. And the more we focus on what we want, the less we think about others (I’m saying we because I am not immune from this either). We end up putting God in a box on a shelf that we can only reach with a step ladder. It’s safer that way, because then God is out of sight, not constantly reminding us of where our priorities should lie. 

But God will not be contained in a box. When we come together to worship, we help hold each other accountable. We collectively remember our sins and ask for God’s forgiveness. We pray for those we love and for those we find it difficult to love. We share a message of peace with those around us. We come to realize how fortunate we really are as we thank God for our many blessings. We come to the table and eat together, sharing in the broken body in all of our own brokenness. Finally we leave, restored, refreshed, and renewed for service out in the world. 

So today we are called to put aside our selfish desires and focus on loving others, within this community and without. Have a conversation with someone you don’t know as well during breakfast/coffee hour, really listen to that person who you don’t agree with at work or school, reach out to someone who looks like they’re going through a rough time at the grocery store. It will cost us some time and effort, yes, but we will find our experience to be that much richer.

Here's a song about possessions I think fits the theme for today's Gospel reading:

Mountains of Things performed by The Duhks 
and Jonathan Scales on steel drums
(I went to college with Jonathan!!)

The life I've always wanted 
I guess I'll never have
I'll be working for somebody else 
Until I'm in my grave 
I'll be dreaming of a live of ease 
And mountains Oh mountains o' things 

To have a big expensive car
Drag my furs on the ground 
And have a maid that I can tell
To bring me anything 
Everyone will look at me with envy and with greed 
I'll revel in their attention 
And mountains Oh mountains o' things 

Sweet lazy life 
Champagne and caviar 
I hope you'll come and find me 
Cause you know who we are 
Those who deserve the best in life 
And know what money's worth 
And those whose sole misfortune 
Was having mountains o' nothing at birth 

Oh they tell me 
There's still time to save my soul 
They tell me 
Renounce all 
Renounce all those material things you gained by 
Exploiting other human beings 

Consume more than you need 
This is the dream
Make you pauper 
Or make you queen 
I won't die lonely 
I'll have it all prearranged 
A grave that's deep and wide enough 
For me and all my mountains o' things

Mostly I feel lonely 
Good good people are
Good people are only 
My stepping stones 
It's gonna take all my mountains o' things 
To surround me 
Keep all my enemies away
Keep my sadness and loneliness at bay 

I'll be dreaming, dreaming... Dreaming...

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