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

Foolish advice

The following sermon is adapted from one preached by The Rev. Dawn Hutchings of Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Newmarket, Ontario. You can read her excellent sermon on pastordawn.com. In her introduction she thanks a couple of professors from whom we both learned — Eduard Riegert and Donna Seamone. Dawn writes that preachers today stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before; today, I will add that we also lean on each other as we journey together in the ministry of preaching! 

The ‘fool’ isn’t normally taken very seriously. In period books and films set in Medieval times especially, the court jester is the character to whom nobody pays attention beyond their ability to make people laugh. These are the fools we relegate to the realms of distraction and mindless entertainment. And then they are dismissed with an impatient wave of the hand.

Who are fools in our day and age? Who do we pay lip service to, or not take seriously? Who do we seek for a little distraction for entertainment purposes — but whose advice or thoughts or words we do not heed? Because they are fools!

In the recent home release of the film, “Now You See Me 2” starring Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson, the main characters reflect on the role of “the fool” symbolized on a playing card which figures significantly in the plot of the movie. No spoilers; you have to see it!

The whole movie is structured around the power of perspective. By the end of the movie, we are dazzled by how the same words spoken at the beginning of the movie can mean the total opposite by the end. At the end of the movie, here is what they say about “the fool” (I paraphrase): “The fool starts with a blank slate. Therefore, for the fool it’s not about who they are, it’s about who they are becoming.”

Let’s turn to the Gospel reading for today in Luke 15:1-10. Among the teachings of Jesus, the parables of the lost and found are so well known, so familiar that we are in peril of failing to hear the foolishness they advocate.

Today, we just focus on the lost sheep (but the parables of the lost coin and lost sons which follow in chapter 15 of Luke can also be understood in the same way — as foolish advice!): Whether we are relating to co-workers, clients, customers, students, friends, or children none but the foolish among us would leave ninety-nine to the perils and dangers of the wilderness in order to go looking for one idiot who’d been stupid enough to get themselves lost.

These parables of the lost and found are outrageous. None of us would get very far in life if we lived by these teachings. Because we live by a different code; you know it: It is better to put the welfare of the many above the needs of one. Sometimes its better to cut your losses and move on.

The wisdom of the world lurks in us down to every last maxim: – charity begins at home. – God helps those who help themselves. – Count the cost or pay the price. – “They should just pull themselves up, by the bootstraps.” You fill in the rest…

And yet along comes Jesus, spouting such foolishness that even we who are predisposed to agree with him, even we can sympathize with the self-righteous and wonder how anyone could be expected to live like this. The chaos that would ensue if we followed the teaching of these parables as law would be horrendous. What Jesus is advocating is foolishness itself. It makes no earthly sense.  

And so the foolishness that Jesus advocates remains on the pages of our Bibles, or in the sanctuaries of our churches, or in the halls of the academies where they busy themselves arguing of the historical minutia and we smile as the familiarity of the text washes over us from time to time.

But we know full well that this is not the way for any self-respecting, 21st century person to live in the world. These are just parables after all and we can’t be expected to live by them. We’d be fools to try. After all we are not Jesus! And anyway look what happened to him! So, the foolishness that Jesus taught is reasoned into irrelevance and confined to the recesses of our consciousness. 

But what if we didn’t approach these parables with the idea of pinning down their meaning. What if we approached these parables without feeling the need to wrestle the wisdom they contain to the ground so that we can extract from them rules to live by. 

What if we allowed these parables to simply touch us? What might the foolishness they prescribe evoke in us? How might we respond to their touch? In brushing up against these parables of the lost might we feel the touch of the ONE to whom they point?

I have come to believe that only those who have known the fear, the pain and the joy of losing and finding can really feel the touch the parables of the lost. But then again, I’ve come to know that it is impossible to go through life without knowing the fear, the pain and the joy of loosing and finding again and again and again. 

Jesus came teaching in parables. The parables of Jesus come to us to “show” us what God is like and to call us to a way of being in the world. These parables, simply, have about them a “ring” of foolishness.

Because not only would a fool leave ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost. Not only would a fool leave the ninety-nine unguarded to wander aimlessly, to be ravaged by some unknown predator, to fall prey to God knows what. Not only would a fool leave to search for the stray who might be wounded, damaged, dying, not interested in being rescued. And not only would a fool risk a reputation as a wise shepherd, a careful guardian of the known and secure, to seek one lone sheep. 

But a fool would also find, restore, and be foolish to care enough to save the lost, the wandering, the lonely, the one outside the bounds of the flock. Jesus teaches by showing us in these parables: in such foolishness this God has broken into our world and does so again and again. 

The parable of the lost sheep points us in a direction of foolish and passionate abandon. The seeking shepherd who rushes off to find one sheep shows us the God who cares for us so much that the safety of the secure flock is risked so that the stray might be brought home. The mark of the reign of God will be foolishness such as this.

In the time of God’s reign shepherds will care less about flock security and principles of good management, and more about the vulnerability of the odd one out. In the time of God’s reign everyone will counted valuable enough to be cared for. In the time of God’s reign every stone, every clump of dirt, every thing, every one will be counted as valuable.

Today, as we do every Sunday, in worship, we gather in thanksgiving for the reign of God. In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. If only our lives could embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love.

In the telling of these parables, we remember that none of these stories is of the stuff of everyday fare. None of us can do this kind of relentless, reckless abandon constantly. But there are times, there are times when … The risk must be taken. The grasp on the known must be released to reach for, find and restore the lost the abandoned the wayward and yes even the self-righteous. Those we have every right to leave alone. 

In one frame of reference the shepherd should have been guarding the flock, faithful to home duties. But there is a moment that grips, a moment in which what might be choice is no choice. There is only abandon and care, compassion and joy… There is only a moment of foolishness; and then…. love.

These are not only words for individuals they are words for the collective, words for institutions and those of us who make up institutions. The parables were spoken to the Pharisees by Jesus whose comfort with the outcasts and sinners made those keepers of the gates of righteousness squirm in their holy seats. It was foolish action Jesus was about. 

The wisdom of the righteous was ossified righteousness. Theirs was the wisdom of those entrenched in their own role and task so deeply they could not see some new foolishness of God, as wisdom. These were people lost and in exile for most of their history over and over again called and delivered by God. These were the ones whose memory of deliverance could not release them to be deliverers. These people were very much like us.

The Apostle Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:20-27). These parables challenge us to be reckless and relentless in our loving and in our witness.

We are called to be vulnerable in our ministry, vulnerable to those outside the boundaries of our private lives and our community of faith: to give with no expectation of reward, to love without demand for return, to reach out to those in need with unrelenting care, to release preoccupation with the cares and concerns of our own lives (or perhaps through these cares) to reach out in love to those who are not easy to love. We are called to do all this in delight and with joy and in so doing we mirror the foolishness of God. 

St Paul tells us that God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. By God’s grace we are the weak and the foolish. We are ‘the fool’; starting over again with a clean slate, becoming who God created us to be.

In the retelling of the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin we are called to a holy foolishness. To live toward the reign of God is, in some ways, to heed a call to reckless love that gives itself away for the sheer joy of loving. We pray that our various ministries in the worlds in which we live will embody that spirit of abandoned self-giving and love. 

May we declare the foolishness of God by reaching out in love recklessly, and with great joy. Moment by moment….let it be so!