Forgiveness: from transaction to wholeness

We ran all-out with back packs and walking poles to catch the bus. Yes, we were on a walking pilgrimage. But a few of us didn’t feel up to walking through one of northern Spain’s downtown city streets. After hiking a couple days already through the beautiful, peaceful hills along pristine trails with spectacular ocean views, the thought of breathing gas fumes and hitting the hard top sidewalks in an urban jungle just didn’t appeal. It was only three or four kilometres, and a city bus conveniently would take us to the other side where we could pick up the pilgrimage trail out in the open again.

As I clambered onto the bus behind my Dutch walking partners with all my gear, mindful of not clobbering someone with the swing of my bulky pack, I realized I did not have the correct change for the single fare ticket. Without any hesitation, my pilgrim friends dropped enough euros to cover my ticket. I expressed a deep-felt thanks to them, making a mental note to treat my friends later on. “I owe you coffee,” I said as the bus wove through San Sebastian’s downtown core.

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There’s a culture on the trail among pilgrims that doesn’t operate according to the normal etiquette of life back home. You see, early the next morning, my friends wanted to get going right away. I, on the other hand, wanted to stay at the hostel of my name’s sake (San Martin) a little longer to enjoy the view and the home made breakfast offered by the hosts. Off they went, and I never saw them again. I didn’t have a chance to ‘repay’ their good deed done unto me.

At the same time, there were other pilgrims to whom I’d catch up a few nights later at another hostel. Everyone walks at a different pace. Paths would cross, un-cross, and cross again. Sometimes I’d meet someone on the trail and never see them again. Other times I’d bump into the same group every other day, or so, somewhere along the way. Because of the nature of the pilgrimage community, I looked for opportunities, therefore, to treat another fellow pilgrim at a roadside café whenever the opportunity arose.

The economy of quid pro quo – paying back another individual and keeping the economic scales even on an individual basis – just couldn’t operate neatly on the Camino. It didn’t matter to whom you were being gracious. Only that you were gracious – that you offered help when help was needed, to whomever, regardless of whether or not they had earned your favour in some way earlier on.

The challenge was to receive the gift when it was offered, and give a gift when it was needed. Period. It was as if, on pilgrimage, we were all in the same boat. Which, of course, we know before God we are. It’s just in our daily lives we are not often able to appreciate that reality clearly.

Forgiveness is the theme in the Gospel text for today[1]. I’ve wondered why the servant who was forgiven his debt didn’t do likewise when given a chance. A more general question, is:  Why do we find it so difficult to forgive one who ‘owes you’ an apology for some wrong committed against you. I think it’s important to understand first some elements of the Gospel story. Because this story first tells us something very important about God and God’s ways.

To begin with, the servant owes the master ten thousand talents. ‘Ten thousand’ here signifies an absurd amount of money.[2] In that day and age, even if the servant lived three life-spans working full-time, there was no way he could ever repay that amount. The master has pity on him because the servant pretends that he can somehow work hard enough, in his plea for mercy, to repay the debt. The absurdity of the extra-ordinary amount should tip us off to something vital in our understanding of God forgiving us:

There is nothing we can do to make our lives right before God. And what is more, God has already forgiven us, and reminds us over and over again that we are forgiven before we do anything. Yes, we can say we ‘owe’ God. But no matter how hard we try, no matter all the things we can do to make it right, this effort will never, ever be able to erase what is stacked up against us – all our moral failing, our mistakes, our brokenness.

We puff ourselves us up in embarrassing, false piety when we pretend we can. As if forgiveness was simply a matter of paying our dues. But it isn’t. Like true love, forgiveness is a function of grace. And, oh, the Lord has compassion on us, even in all our futile toiling and striving.

I suspect one reason why the forgiven servant does not ‘pay it forward’ to his own slave, is because what the slave owes the forgiven servant was not as large an amount. In other words, the slave could technically repay his debt.

It’s so easy not to apply God’s economy of extraordinary grace to our ordinary lives. It’s so easy to slip into the transactional ways of our world, and apply the values of the culture to our life of faith. Meaning, we don’t really forgive others when they have to ‘earn’ our attention, our love, and our friendship. We will not really forgive others when they don’t behave in a way that meets our approval.

We live in a transactional economy – even in our spirituality – where people have to pay for their sins. We are to a large extent products of our culture. Our view of justice, therefore, is naturally retributive. Whereas God’s economy is about transformative justice. To move from one to another calls for a monumental shift in our thinking.

God’s grace, indeed, “surpasses all our understanding” (Philippians 4:7). God’s economy of grace does not make sense in our quid pro quo culture of transaction and merit. God’s love crosses all these boundaries and systems of our making. The gift is simply given. Will we receive it, freely? Will we pass it forward, freely, without any expectations nor strings attached?

In God’s economy of grace, we move from transaction to wholeness. Love and forgiveness – these functions of grace – expand outward. There are no losers in this economy. Only winners.

A transactional economy goes something like this: If I have twelve, gold coins and you take six, I will only have six left. I’ve lost. You’ve won. And so it goes with everything we do with others in life. Someone described our culture this way, sadly: We love things and we use people.

In an economy of grace, in contrast, we love people and use things. It’s as if I had planted twelve lily bulbs. I can divide my bulbs and give you twelve and I will still have twelve left. Then you can plant your bulbs and eventually you can give away twelve more. Grace multiplies. Everyone gets more. Grace is infinite, in truth. The win-lose economy changes into a win-win economy.[3]

Moreover, forgiveness is not just about evening the score between just two individuals. It’s not entirely a private act. Forgiveness is communal.[4] When, in the Gospel text, the others saw how unjustly the servant treated his own slave who owed him money, they didn’t simply wipe their hands in denial and avoidance of the injustice before them. They went back to the master and told him. The proverbial whistle-blowers, they were involved in the process of forgiveness.

This is necessary, because sometimes individuals are guilted into forgiving someone who is left unchallenged, unaffected, and unaccounted for their misdeed. Sometimes victims are not able to easily forgive the one who has hurt them. It took Joseph all the way to the last chapter in Genesis to finally forgive his brothers for throwing him into a well and selling him to slave-traders.[5] As they say, it takes a village. And sometimes time. Lots of it.

Forgiveness is validated in community. Because sin is something we all participate in. If we are human and live on this earth, we will sin. No matter the colour of our skin, no matter our creed, our ethnic background, no matter where we were born or what our political stripe. We will make mistakes. We will all contribute to the problems we face. As Paul wrote, “since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”.[6] No one is immune to the complicity and consequence of sin. It is woven into the fabric of our common existence.

And so is forgiveness. When forgiveness is offered and received, it becomes part of a wider field of responsibility and accountability. We are not alone. We need the community of faith. We need to be real. Forgiveness does not mean enabling sinful behavior to continue by excusing it, or letting it happen over and over again. Forgiveness means people of faith seek the justice of the matter. Forgiveness can only happen when people see their own lives as part of the human condition, just like everyone else.

People will not be changed in their hearts for God unless they are loved unconditionally, freely. Martin Luther believed that we would be so overcome by God’s unearned, unconditional love that we would be so moved to spontaneously and unconditionally love others in the same way.[7]

May our hearts be moved to forgiveness and justice for all.

Our Father in heaven …. forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

Amen.

 

[1] Matthew 18:21-35

[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary”, Year A Volume 4 (Louisville Kentucky: WJK Press, 2011), p.71

[3] Janet Hagberg uses the gold coin versus lily bulb analogy to describe transitions in power, in “Real Power: Stages of Personal Power in Organizations”, 3rd Edition, Salem Wisconsin: Sheffield Publishing, 2003, p.77

[4] Susan E. Hylen, “Forgiveness and Life in Community,” Interpretation, Volume 54, Number 2 (April 2000), p.146-57.

[5] Genesis 50:15-26

[6] Romans 3:23

[7] cited in Bartlett & Brown Taylor, eds., ibid., p. 70

Relationships over Resources

A member of this congregation sent me an email including a list of short phrases called paraprosdokians.

A paraprosdokian, according to my online dictionary, is a derivative of a Greek word which means, ‘beyond expectation’. It is a wordplay, a figure of speech in which the latter part of a sentence is unexpected. Here’s a smattering:

 · A neighbour knocked on my door and asked for a small donation towards the local swimming pool, so I gave him a glass of water.

 · Take my advice — I’m not using it.

 · Ever stop to think, and forget to start again?

 · He who laughs last, thinks slowest.

 · I was going to give him a nasty look, but he already had one.

 · Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.

 · I was going to wear my camouflage shirt today, but I couldn’t find it.

 · If at first you don’t succeed, skydiving is not for you.

 · No matter how much you push the envelope, it’ll still be stationery.

 · Money is the root of all … wealth.

Indeed, the Gospel today (Luke 16:1-13) has at least one major, unexpected twist. And unlike most of these paraprosdokians, this twist is not humorous. 

A manager has been wasteful of his boss’ riches, and consequently will lose his job. So, the manager figures on a scheme to look out for his own interests in his impending unemployment. The ‘dishonest manager’ — as some bibles entitle this parable — puts himself first at the seeming expense of his boss: he will go to his boss’ debtors and demand only half of what they owe. He shrewdly seeks to curry favour with them, and anticipates to be in their good books, once he is unemployed.

Smart move, you might say, eh? But what will Jesus say? Especially keeping in mind that this passage comes to us on the heels of the ‘golden’ chapter of the bible, Luke 15. Therein we read the familiar and heart-warming stories of the lost being found, of celebration and belonging, of unimaginable grace and mercy shown to the poor, the wayward, those who are not easily counted in the economy of the day. 

In Luke 15, we get the strong impression that the values of God’s kingdom — mercy, inclusion of others, unconditional love — stand in sharp contrast to the values of the world — competition, self-centredness, individualism. And, now, in Luke 16, the set up leads me to anticipate Jesus will come down hard on the ‘dishonest’ manager. I expect Jesus to say how unjust, unethical, and selfish the manager was. Don’t be as self-centred as he is!

In verse eight, the rug is pulled out from underneath me: “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” What ?!! Commended?

And yet, I should expect that the bible does that to us from time to time. The bible does not present a tightly knit, unequivocally clear and coherent storyline. You can justify anything from the bible, if you want — even murder. But that is not what we are about, when we approach the bible. 

After all, there is an important reason why the New Testament includes four, different, renditions of the life and times of Jesus. If uniformity was the goal in the inspiration behind putting together the bible, then we would have only had one Gospel, not four. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — the first four books of the New Testament — basically follow a similar plot line about Jesus’ birth, baptism, calling, choosing disciples, healing, teaching, passion, death and resurrection stories.

And yet, each presents variations, slightly different orders, and yes, sometimes even these unexpected twists and turns in what needs to be emphasized. There are, after all, different people listening in — the religious leaders of the day, his disciples — people like you and me who live different lives and face different challenges. Each of us needs to hear something unique to what our needs are, apart from our neighbour. And each faith community needs to hear a unique word spoken to them.

So, while the story of the dishonest manager twists and puts our expectations on their head, perhaps there is something here worth paying attention to. “You cannot serve God and wealth” concludes the passage. And yet, the manager was looking out for his own material well-being in his shrewd and commendable actions.

Well, what is the wealth that is talked about here? For what treasure do we Christians — called the “children of the light” in this text (v.8) — search? What is the golden nugget that we seek, above all else? Again, perhaps the broader context can help us, again.

As I said, the previous stories of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost sons suggest that what is valuable in the economy of God, stands in sharp contrast to what is valuable in the economy of the world. These are treasures that are worth uprooting what is hidden, putting in the light what is shrouded in darkness, lifting up what is normally considered not worth the effort, forgiving what is unforgivable.

What does the shrewd manager value, even more than making money? He values relationships. He values keeping connected with others even though he loses what the world values — jobs, financial security and material wealth:

He reduces the amount of debt owed by the amount of his commission — as some biblical commentators suggest. He reduces the amount of interest owed, according to the Torah Law in Deuteronomy 23:19-20 — as other commentators suggest. Regardless of how we interpret the manager’s actions, we can see how much the manager values being in relationship, above all else.

The wealth described here is the treasure of being inter-related in a season of loss and disruptive change. Relationships over Resources, you could say (1).

And this truth hits us unexpectedly in the telling of the Gospel. Another classic reversal. I started this sermon with a Greek word to describe a form of speech that ends unexpectedly. Of course, the New Testament was written in Greek and influenced by Greek culture.

Greek culture often reflects this image of having a feast in the midst of famine. Another contrast of expectations, when during a famine you would not expect people to throw a large feast, and celebrate. Remember, after finding the lost sheep, the lost coin and when the Prodigal returns home, there is much rejoicing. And a feast is prepared for the whole community.

This does not make sense. To have a feast in the midst of famine. And yet, this is what we are called to do. To be children of the light, in the midst of darkness. Not to be a slave to our circumstances and meagre resources, as we may see them to be. But to release them, distribute them, relinquish our seeming control over them, all for the purpose of maintaining and strengthening our relationships.

Celebrating the gift of each other and those we meet. Relationships first, then resources. The horse before the cart, not the other way around.

We may by lying in the gutter of our lives, but we keep our gazed fixed upon the stars. We may be wallowing in an ocean of despair, regret, fear or pain — but we begin with a spoonful of water. In other words, there is always hope. There is always room to grow, to change, to something — anything — in order to make things better. This is the quality of faith.

We are never lost, abandoned and left for dead in the economy of God’s grace. After all, the rich man gives his irresponsible manager a second chance. Normally when charges are brought against an employee, charges that incriminate and prove wrong-doing to the degree of ‘squandering’ the owner’s property, the person in question is fired immediately, without question.

But something odd happens here: The rich man allows his soon-to-be-fired worker to continue doing his job for a while. The rich man gives his delinquent employee some ground, some space, to do something — anything — in order to make things better. The rich man demonstrates some grace in a relationship that has gone awry. 

Not only are the relationships in life our priority over everything else including our material resources, the quality of those relationships — according to the New Testament — are defined by grace, compassion, and love. 

An unexpected twist of the stories of our lives in the world, perhaps. Yet, these are the hallmarks of the children of light following Christ in the world.

Thanks be to God!

(1) David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary; Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol 4, WJK Press; Louisville Kentucky, 2010, p.92-97

The other side

In a Brazilian folk tale called, “The Little Cow”, a master of Wisdom was walking through the countryside with his apprentice. They came to a small disheveled hovel on a meagre piece of farmland. “See this poor family,” said the Master. “Go see if they will share with us their food.”

“But we have plenty,” said the apprentice.

“Do as I say.”

The obedient apprentice went to the home. The good farmer and his wife, surrounded by their seven children, came to the door. Their clothes were dirty and in tatters.
“Fair greetings,” said the apprentice. “My Master and I are sojourners and want for food. I’ve come to see if you have any to share.”
The farmer said, “We have little, but what we have we will share.” He walked away, then returned with a small piece of cheese and a crust of bread. “I am sorry, but we don’t have much.”

The apprentice did not want to take their food but did as he had been instructed. “Thank you. Your sacrifice is great.”
“Life is difficult,” the farmer said, “but we get by. And in spite of our poverty, we do have one great blessing.”

“What blessing is that?” asked the apprentice.

“We have a little cow. She provides us milk and cheese, which we eat or sell in the marketplace. It is not much but she provides enough for us to live on.”

The apprentice went back to the Master with the meagre rations and reported what he had learned about the farmer’s plight. The Master of Wisdom said, “I am pleased to hear of their generosity, but I am greatly sorrowed by their circumstance. Before we leave this place, I have one more task for you.”
“Speak, Master.”

“Return to the hovel and bring back their cow.”

The apprentice did not know why, but he knew his Master to be merciful and wise and so he did as he was told. When he returned with the cow, he said to his Master, “I have done as you commanded. Now what is it that you would do with this cow?”
“See yonder cliffs? Take the cow to the highest crest and push her over.”
The apprentice was stunned. “But, Master …”

“Do as I say.”

The apprentice sorrowfully obeyed. When he had completed his task, the Master and his apprentice went on their way.

Over the next years, the apprentice grew in mercy and wisdom. But every time he thought back on the visit to the poor farmer’s family, he felt a pang of guilt. One day he decided to go back to the farmer and apologize for what he had done. But when he arrived at the farm, the small hovel was gone. Instead there was a large, fenced villa.

“Oh, no,” he cried. “The poor family who was here was driven out by my evil deed.” Determined to learn what had become of the family, he went to the villa and pounded on its great door. The door was answered by a servant. “I would like to speak to the master of the house,” he said.

“As you wish,” said the servant. A moment later the apprentice was greeted by a smiling, well-dressed man.
“How may I serve you?” the wealthy man asked.

“Pardon me, sir, but could you tell me what has become of the family who once lived on this land but is no more?”

“I do not know what you speak of,” the man replied. “My family has lived on this land for three generations.”

The apprentice looked at him quizzically. “Many years ago I walked through this valley, where I met a farmer and his seven children. But they were very poor and lived in a small hovel.”
“Oh,” the man said smiling, “that was my family. But my children have all grown now and have their own estates.”

The apprentice was astonished. “But you are no longer poor. What happened?”

“God works in mysterious ways,” the man said, smiling. “We had this little cow who provided us with the slimmest of necessities, enough to survive but little more. We suffered but expected no more from life. Then, one day, our little cow wandered off and fell over a cliff. We knew that we would be ruined without her, so we did everything we could to survive. Only then did we discover that we had greater power and abilities than we possibly imagined and never would have found as long as we relied on that cow. What a blessing from Heaven to have lost our little cow.” (1)

This story is not a prescription for how the church or society should treat economically disadvantaged, underprivileged people — by ignoring their plight and expecting them to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. 

Instead, I offer this story as an allegory, a parable, of whatever it is in our lives that keeps us bound, that keeps us stuck. 

The cow, in the story, represents that which the farmer believed would help them survive in the big, bad world. And without it, they would be lost.

What is ‘the cow’ in your life? Whatever you believe you cannot live without. What keeps you bound, shackled in a sense? It may not appear or even be a bad thing. It can be the ‘best’ thing in your life, you will say! And that’s point of the fable.

The cow was the only thing, the best thing, the poor family had going. In our lives, it can be the relationship we have with our work. It can be a person. It can be some activity of our lives that we think we want and need. What is the ‘cow’ in your life — things to “let go ” of, either in church life or your personal lives, that would enable the freedom of God to operate?

Letting go of over-attachment to building? Property? Material riches? Some significant aspect of your financial portfolio?Clutching on to church programs and processes that have had their day, making room for something new?

It could even be your reputation, your status, or social position. Whatever it is …

If we should lose that, why would God want that for us? And when we do lose it, we may be angry at God for taking it away from us. We may shake our fists at God, walk away in disgust and anger, never to darken the door of a church again. We may be blind to the possibilities on the other side.

In the Gospel text today (Luke 8:26-39), Jesus travels to opposite side of Lake Galilee. He goes to what I will call ‘the other side’, where the people in the Gentile territory there respond to the miracle of exorcism with fear. The man they knew to be living on the outskirts of town, out of his mind, full of demons — now sat at the feet of Jesus “in his right mind” (v.35).             

Odd as it may sound, we often prefer the devil we know to the freedom we do not. We can take a false sense of security from the patterns of our lives we learned to cope with over the years. 

And we may fear what change — even change for health — may bring. Because that would mean losing that which we have grown accustomed, even cherished, for a long time. We keep ourselves from seeing the possibilities on the other side.

The truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ reverses the fortunes of those in low estate. The “good news to the poor” which Jesus announces in his inaugural speech (4:18) becomes a reality in the healings and exorcisms that follow in Luke’s Gospel.

But this freedom and health does not come without major disruption in people’s lives. This is the part we like to dismiss in our “feel good”, “prosperity-gospel” driven culture of church in North America. 

Because to the people whose living depended on the pigs — those pigs who ran off the edge of a cliff to their deaths — their loss is catastrophic. The swineherds in the Gospel story are understandably afraid, too, even angry at Jesus. And despite the healing, they want Jesus to leave them (v.37).

The story demonstrates that the the Gospel brings upheaval and sets in motion powerful forces that will disrupt our lives. 

At first, the good news of Jesus will not seem good to everyone. At first, our economic and social lives are put on their heads. At first, we will experience pain and suffering. We will need to surrender that which has given us a sense of security in life. 

We cannot have Easter without “Good” Friday. The cross precedes the empty tomb. The way of salvation goes through suffering, not around it. We cannot avoid pain in our journey towards liberation, healing and salvation.

The good news is the promise that there is no darkness, no loss, no pit too deep that God will not go into, in order to carry us through to the other side.

(1) cited in Richard Paul Evans, “The Walk” Toronto: Simon & Schuster, 2010, p.285-288

No life insurance

It’s like the spirited game parents play with their young children.

I remember years ago when the kids were still in diapers tossing our little ones up into the air, and then catching them on their way down. What makes this game so delightful is to watch the expression on the face of the child. If you slow-motioned the activity and zoomed in on the facial reactions of the child at each stage of the ‘throw and catch’ game, you would see a contrast of emotions:

From the catch to the upward toss, a smile and squeal of joy; from the falling motion to moment of catch, a growing sense of alarm as the eyes widen in concern and fear begins to creep into the picture. But, then, again the catch. And the grin returns. And the game resumes.

Can you imagine being the widow in the Gospel story (Luke 7:11-17) who has just lost her only son? Having lost her husband is one thing. You think it cannot get any worse. Yet, as is often the case in life, it does. Now her son. She feels the sharp edge of grief once again. Perhaps more deeply for the child she gave birth to, and raised with all her mother’s love.

Not only a personal grief, but the prospect of living in extreme need. Being a widow in 1st century Palestine was usually a ticket to poverty and low social status. A woman’s economic worth was almost always tied up in the men of her household — her husband or eldest son. This was much more than personal, emotional grief. This was a complete life-style change, from top to bottom, in a heart beat.

After meeting Jesus, however, things change so rapidly. From a season of mourning and grief, to the astonishment and wonder of joy: Her son is no longer dead, but alive! No longer is she alone, vulnerable, a burden on society, worthless in the economy and social structures of the day. Now, she has her son back. She has family. And that means the world to her!

Although something has changed. This new thing is also scary. All who witnessed the miracle were filled with fear (v.16). What does this second chance at life mean? Things will be different now. No longer like the good old days.

The rapid and extreme change of emotions could make her feel like a yo-yo. Maybe life sometimes feels like that for you. From moments of exquisite satisfaction, pleasure and joy, to the dark caverns of grief, depression, loss, suffering, fear and pain. Life. Death. Life. Death. Life. Death. Life. 

In my first parish, which was in rural southern Ontario, burials were conducted (except during winter months) immediately following the funeral service in the cemetery right beside the church building. The recessional with casket proceeded to the grave side where the words of committal, prayers and scripture readings were offered. 

But then, the family stood by as the grave-diggers and funeral attendants lowered the casket, suspended up until that point on winches and ropes, down into the hole. In some cases, I had to assist by moving the casket into place as it slowly lowered. Once resting on the ground inside the hole, a family member used a spade to throw the first shovel-full of earth onto the casket — a symbol of the family participating in burying their loved one.

Today, especially in urban centres where funeral services are highly managed by market-driven professionals, most often the family leaves the grave-side before the casket is lowered and actually buried. I wonder about how the smallest of acts reflects our attitudes towards death and loss. 

Perhaps we can’t ‘go there’ emotionally so soon after losing a loved one and have to insulate ourselves in order to cope. The funeral rite therefore serves more as an anesthetic against the harsh reality of death and loss. I wonder: Does the experience and ritual of funerals only end up buffering the hard, emotional impact of loss?

Perhaps we are not used to ‘losing’, letting go, failing, surrendering, being powerless, vulnerable, at ground zero. We have little in life to practice this letting go before the final experience of losing a loved one. And perhaps healthy religion, as Richard Rohr claims, is about showing us what to do with our pain.

Is this too difficult an expectation of our faith? Because in making religion only about ‘feel good’ ‘warm fuzzies’ we might maintain our denial of life’s realities and only distract ourselves from truth. And that’s not what Christian faith is about — distracting us and keeping us from the rhythms of life, death, life, death, life.

Because in avoiding death, we also ironically, avoid life. And Jesus is about life. When we say this Gospel story is first and foremost about a miracle, we may be missing the point. It’s understandable that we do, because it is sensational. It captivates our imagination.

Focusing only on the miracle may just play into our fear and avoidance of death. As if to say Jesus performing this miracle was done for the boy’s sake. The enemy, death, was conquered! Therefore we can go on denying death. As if the boy will never eventually die an earthly death. As if to say Jesus performed this miracle solely to convince us to ‘believe’ in him — because no one else could do so (even though there were magicians/soothsayers and other miracle workers who performed incredible acts in Jesus’ day).

But the miracle, per se, is not the point of the story. Jesus raised the son from death not merely to show his divine power but to express his love and concern for the widow. He had compassion on her (v.13). And he couldn’t stand the thought that she would have to go it alone in a culture that marginalized the widow. Jesus brought the son back to restore a relationship, for living in the world.

God tosses us into the air. God throws us into the thick of life with all its challenges, disappointments, failures, weaknesses, joys, hurts, loves, pleasures and pain, satisfactions and accomplishments. God throws us into the air to experience fully this life we have been given. Life, death, life, death, life, death …

Then, to our happy amazement, God catches us again at just the right moment. God cares about what happens to us in our lives. God is interested in every minute detail and event in our lives — even those things we would rather cover up and hide in the darkest recesses of our hearts. God’s light exposes those secrets, even. We may feel vulnerable, challenged, unsettled for a time. And we may even wonder if we won’t just crash and burn on our way down.

Have faith in the One who’s tossing you. Because it’s part of life, for one thing. But most importantly, because God loves you and will quite unexpectedly be the One to catch you, at just the right moment.

Who’s counting?

I think it was Albert Einstein who said that we can’t solve a problem by using the same kind of thinking that caused the problem in the first place. In other words, we can’t move forward with solutions into the new thing God is doing using a frame of mind that also contributed to creating the fix we find ourselves in today.

The Gospel story today (Matthew 25:14-30) is a good example of a parable that challenges a materialistic way of thinking, a mentality that has contributed to a problem we face today. It also introduces — if we pay attention to it — the Gospel way of thinking. And I believe, the Gospel way of thinking not only judges the ways of old, it paves the way for entering God’s future.

A man and his wife were having some problems at home and were giving each other the silent treatment. Suddenly, the man realized that the next day, he would need his wife to wake him at 5:00 AM for an early morning business flight.

Not wanting to be the first to break the silence (and LOSE), he wrote on a piece of paper, “Please wake me at 5:00 AM.” He left it where he knew she would find it.

The next morning, the man woke up, only to discover it was 9:00 AM and he had missed his flight. Furious, he was about to go and see why his wife hadn’t wakened him, when he noticed a piece of paper by the bed.

The paper said, “It is 5:00 AM. Wake up.”

On several levels this story exposes the kind of way we operate when facing difficulties: It’s a tit-for-tat world we live in. There have to be winners and losers. It’s really the only game we know well. When someone, or some group, or some other religion or denomination poses a threat, we respond in kind. Because someone must win and someone must lose. During the Cold War Era, we called it ‘mutually-assured-destruction’; or, as the acronym accurately suggests, when we give ourselves into this compulsive way of behaving, we are indeed MAD.

On the surface this parable looks like it contains a good stewardship message. And, admittedly, there is this theme of valuing personal industry and action as part of what it means to follow Jesus. By comparing what the three servants do — one turns five talents into ten and the other turns two into four by bold, risky investment; but the third doesn’t do anything with his talent — we may be left merely with the notion that the solution is by just upping the ante of all our spiritual work. Just do more. Work harder, and spin those wheels faster.

All of this to get more of what we think we want; that is, more of the same thing we’ve always known. I like to joke that when someone in the church suggests we do something today the same way the church did it 50 years ago — whether it is about a strategy for getting more people in the pews, some outreach program all intended to bring people in — it’s like advising someone who has car trouble they should really trade it in for horse and buggy. It just won’t work today! The church today really needs to do something altogether different from the ways of thinking fifty years ago.

I wonder what would have happened if the first two slaves had put the money in a high-risk venture and lost it all. Jesus didn’t tell the story this way, but I cannot imagine the master would have been harsh towards them; he might even have applauded their efforts. The point here is not really about doubling your money and accumulating wealth. (John M. Buchanan, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, WJKP 2011, p.310). The point is not about achieving a desired result, and being congratulated for your success, materially. This is not management by objective. This is not ‘the ends justify the means.’

This is about living — living in a way that demonstrates a willingness to take risks not knowing how it will all turn out. The Gospel way is not win-lose, it is both-and. Because in being faithful, we may try things, and sometimes fail in the world’s eyes. But emphasizing risk-management may sometimes impede our action to do the right thing when we have to do it, despite the sordid circumstances of life. We can’t wait until everything is hunky-dory before we take action; otherwise we never will. The reason the third slave received judgement was because he wanted to play it safe, be cautious and prudent; he wanted to make sure he wouldn’t lose anything; low risk, no risk.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the sin of respectable people is running from responsibility. Bonhoeffer, who was a pacifist, took his own responsibility seriously, so much so that he joined the Resistance and helped plan an assassination attempt on Hitler’s life. His sense of responsibility cost him his life. (ibid., p.311-312)

We, as Christians, are not called to be ‘counters and measurers’. God knows, if we do anything well in times of institutional crisis and constriction, we count and we measure — we do this very well. But in all our counting and measuring and bottom line conversations, are we not being judged? We just need to look around and count the heads in our churches today, for that answer.

When we arranged for this pulpit swap, the purpose around doing so was to provide an opportunity to share about how we reach out. In the congregation I serve, in the last couple of years, we have done “Back to Church Sunday”. Practically, this event boils down to each member of the worshipping community being challenged to ask a friend, “Would you like to come to church with me?” And it’s not as easy as it may seem on the surface.

Success in the program is not based on how many first-time visitors walk through the door on B2CS. Success is not measured by the number of people who agree to come. No-one may show up on that Sunday. But the event could still be considered a success IF … If at least one member — one of you — actually asked someone, actually invited someone, to come. Because the result is not something we have control over. How a person responds is not in our control — it is the job of the Holy Spirit to move in the heart of the person.

Yes, we have some work to do in the process — developing a friendship with that person, praying for that person — these are things we can do to prepare ourselves for asking that question to them. And had we done all those things, culminating in actually asking that question — then we are successful.

This calls, admittedly, for a radical shift in our mentality and in our approach. It necessitates, I believe, some uncomfortable letting go of the way we have seen ourselves. But in the unravelling, discomfort and vulnerable places we put ourselves in living the Gospel way, we can be encouraged.

For one thing, in reading this Gospel text, have you ever noticed how trusting the master is with his resources. God, like the master, has faith in us. God gives according to our abilities — not more, not less. God puts no condition on what we do with this bounty. Even the one talent was worth — in those days — 15 years of wages. Converted to today’s average salaries, that would be around a million dollar value! But who’s counting?

The point is, God entrusts us with an abundance of wealth, gifts and resources. God is so generous to us. Do you see the good in your life? I hope you do, because this ‘seeing’ calls us to respond in kind. God believes in us, and will ever be faithful by God’s gift of abundant grace. Just maybe, then, we can trust God when we live boldly using those gifts in the world for good, and as we step out into the unknown, as we move out of our comfort zones to do great things that God can accomplish in us.

An opportunity

By golly, we do it to ourselves! Time and time again.

There’s a sense in the gospel text for today (Matthew 21:33-46) that we are the captains of our own demise.

Let’s stay with the allegory to mean that the owner of the vineyard is God the Father, and the Son that goes at the end to the wicked tenants on his Father’s behalf is Jesus.

Notice that in the story-telling, right off the bat, it is noted that the owner goes away to another country. It is this initial leave-taking of the owner that precipitates all the action in the rest of the story.

Also, let’s not forget the premise of the story which is that the owner does provide all that is good, all that is needed, all that is required for a beautiful, satisfying, enriching life — for everyone involved. The primary grace is the gift of the vineyard. And this vineyard is intended and supplied to fulfill the needs of the economy. In other words, God provides, for all.

But it doesn’t work out so ideally in this parable. Violence and death characterize most of the action in this story. So what do we do when things don’t work out according to the divine intent? When things go wrong, do we blame God, or someone else?

When things go wrong, do we deny or repress the new thing wanting to emerge, and we re-trap ourselves in living the way we always have? But then don’t we just remain unhappy, somehow living with this low-grade confusion about our lives. Richard Rohr says, “If the old game doesn’t stop working for you, you’ll keep playing it” (Discharging Your Loyal Soldier, DVD, Centre for Action and Contemplation, 2009).

It seems the tenants are stuck in playing the old selfish game of ‘what’s in it for me?” And how does that work out in the end for them? When the old game does not work anymore. When the way you used to pray just doesn’t connect anymore? When God’s love for you doesn’t mean anything to you anymore.

Some may call this a spiritual crisis. Good! It is! And in that, lies the invitation to change. To try something else. To go deeper.

Some believe the solution to all our problems is to turn the clock back to 1950. And do everything in the same way that people once did in the church, in their families, in their communities, in their politics in the last century. Like conforming robots, mimicking the past. But that’s like advising someone who is experiencing some difficulty with their motor vehicle to get rid of it and buy a horse and buggy.

The truth is, we can’t turn the clock back. Accepting this takes great courage, because then you need to confront what might first feel like a great abyss, before you. Spiritual masters, like St John of the Cross, have called it the ‘dark night of the soul’.

There are times when we hit ground zero in life. This occurs to more people than you may imagine. People ask me when they are in crisis — where is God in this? — presuming God is absent. Indeed, it may feel very much like God is absent. It’s a good question.

But the answer, I believe, is not in returning to the old patterns of thinking and living, to fill in the ‘gaps’ with our hard work, as if the solution is merely to ‘buck up’ and lose ourselves in distraction until we ‘fake it’ back to behaving in the ways we used to. Presuming, of course, that we save ourselves from our malaise. Eventually, our toiling is over. And then what?

But it is precisely In the ‘dark night of the soul’ where what emerges, if we choose to see it, is the invitation for renewal, for beginning anew with deeper growth and maturity for life.

Are we paying attention to this call of God? I believe that when we are confused, unsettled, even despairing – these are moments of grace wherein God softly and gently calls us to deeper and more authentic living. So we no longer have to live on the surface of our lives, but discover more of whom God has created us to be, created in God’s very own image for a purpose.

When the darkness comes, and you recognize it, allow the process and don’t rush back to the economy of the way it has always been. Learn from the darkness. Be vulnerable and humble. Hold and traverse through these periods of transition in your life with gentleness and compassion.

The absence of the land-owner is contrasted with the image that concludes the allegory — the cornerstone. A cornerstone, obviously, evokes images of constancy. The rest of the building upon which it rests is measured against this aligning force. A cornerstone doesn’t move. It provides the guidance and standard against which everything else is measured.

But, in verse 44, we see another function of the cornerstone: “The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”

When we make mistakes, and our old game doesn’t work anymore, we live the consequences of our own mis-deeds and thoughts. We are the architects of our own demise. And when we fail and fall, it does feel like we are crushed. In the imagery of the prophet Isaiah, God is a stone over whom the disobedient inhabitants of Jerusalem stumble (Isaiah 8:14-15).

How do we ‘stumble’? One way is when we reject the prophets, the messengers, of God. Prior to sending his son, the landowner sent others in his name — all of whom the wicked tenants rejected.

We reject God when we reject some of God’s people for reasons of our own. After all, human beings are capable of doing terrible things to other people whom we are somehow able to define as less worthy, less human, less valuable than themselves.

We can be as brutal to one another as were the tenants who beat, stoned and killed the owner’s messengers.

In the last century, the Canadian government and mainline churches sought to stamp out the Indigenous culture in the residential school system, by abusing native children and simply defining them as the ‘other’. Germany employed the Holocaust, and the Soviet Union used the gulags (work and labour camps in Siberia). It was apartheid in South Africa and ethnic cleansing in the Balkan region of Europe and in central Africa. In 21st century India there is still a group called the ‘untouchables’ and in Australia there still continues to be discrimination against aboriginal people. When we reject some people, we reject the God who created them. (Marvin McMickle, “Feasting on the Word” Year A Volume 4, JKP Westminster, 2011, p.143).

But God continues to have faith in us, despite our ongoing sin. This is the kernel, the heart, of the Gospel good news. The owner says that surely, despite all, “they will respect my son” (v.37) before sending him to what turns out to be his brutal death. God still has faith in us to do the right things, even though we so often fail God our creator.

God loves us so much, that we are given the grace and freedom to make up our own minds. God will maintain at least sufficient distance to enable us to determine our own fruitfulness or to make our own mistakes. God is, of course, not an absentee landlord. But mature faith means we know that we have the freedom to make mistakes, yes. But also the freedom to grow up and practice sound values and judgement on our own — even, and especially, when God seems distant. (Richard E. Spalding, ibid., p.144)

After all, God has already given to us everything we need. God has prepared everything we need for fruitful living.