God doesn’t play by the rules

Reading the Gospel text for today (Luke 16:1-13) may very well leave us feeling as flabbergasted as ripping up money. I felt appalled for the implication that we ought to be as dishonest as the shrewd manager who swindled profits from his master.  I admit at first I felt offended that the manager wasn’t playing by the rules. And he’s commended for this unruly behavior!

If anything is clear in this text – is that the Christian life and the nature of the God we follow in Jesus Christ are not bound and contained by the rules of our economy. Value, truth and righteousness are not dictated by the dollar, nor by any worldly measure for that matter.

What God is about here is not adherence to any theory – whether that theory is about how the economy works, or following any laws. What God is about, is something far more precious to living.

Let’s see the principle characters in this parable – the master, the manager and the debtors – in a different light. Let’s substitute them for God the Father, Jesus, and all of us. That is, the master is God the Father, the manager is Jesus, and the debtors are you and I.

And I want to focus on the main character here – the manager from whose perspective we read most of this story. Jesus, like the manager, has a higher purpose for doing what he’s doing. On the surface, his actions don’t make sense.

God doesn’t play by the rules. Just look at the Christmas story: Jesus was conceived in a girl who was not yet married. The good news of Jesus’ birth was first announced to the low-life shepherds occupying the bottom rung of first-century Palestine’s economic and social order.

If Jesus claims he is the Son of God, the Messiah, it doesn’t make sense that in order to fulfill his destiny, he must die a criminal of the state on the cross. It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t fit the expectations, the formulas, for success that any aspiring leader would meet. God doesn’t play by the rules.

There’s something here way more important for us to pay attention to, than ‘the rules’. The manager understood how to use what was entrusted to him to serve a larger purpose. Jesus, the Son of God, was given human life – a life he knew would serve a larger purpose by his sacrifice of love.

The manager forgave part of the debt owed to the master. We, as the debtors, owe God so much for our life on earth and eternal life. But we can’t do it all by ourselves. We cannot pay back to God what God did for us. We cannot earn our salvation by our good works. That is why Jesus, for our salvation, forgave us – and as a result opened to us the way of eternal life.

The master saw what his manager had done, and forgave him. Following his resurrection and ascension, Jesus returns home to sit at his Father’s right hand. Jesus is reconciled to his Father, as the manager is commended and presumably keeps his position working for the master.

What motivates the manager more than following the rules, is his relationships with the debtors. Anticipating the end of his career, he would do anything for the sake of establishing good rapport with the debtors. His motive is not snow-white, because it comes from self-interest, for sure. Yet, other options were open to him that did not involve his friendships as much. Instead, he valued his relationships, above all else.

Jesus values his relationship with you. More than making sure the rule-book is complied with. More than being a law-abiding citizen who is ‘nice’ and meets all the expectations. He is shrewd, in the sense that his passion for us will take him to the most extreme expression of absolute love and forgiveness of us.

Martin Luther regarded the Holy Communion as a most profound expression of God’s forgiveness of us in the real, true presence of Jesus. Again, Communion is not theory. It is experiencing God’s forgiveness in the love of Jesus. It is tasting, feeling, digesting. It is a most unremarkable yet remarkable meal, to which we come forward – as is the only thing we can do in response to God’s loving offer – we come forward.

That is why Martin Luther advised congregations to celebrate God’s action of forgiveness each time the assembly gathers. Who are we, to deny this wondrous act of love from anyone? – to withhold this gift anytime we meet to connect ourselves to a forgiving and gracious God? – A God who loves, forgives, believes in us and sees in each of us priceless worth?

Praise be to God!

The Glory of God

Just ten days after the attacks in Boston, one of the victims gave a chilling testimony to the media about what happened in the moments after the bombs exploded.

She and others standing at the bar overlooking the street were blown off their feet and against the wall. Then, she remembered the smoke and screams which reminded her of 9-11. In an unwavering voice she spoke of how her foot suddenly felt like it was on fire, and she couldn’t put any weight on it.

Everyone started running for the back door of the bar. She called out for someone to help her, because she couldn’t move. She recalled how frightened she felt because no one seemed to be listening to her pleas for help. And then, everything went dark.

Reflecting on the trauma we watched on TV last week, my wife and I have talked about what we might have done if we found ourselves on that sidewalk in Boston watching the race when the bombs went off. Had we not been physically damaged by the shrapnel what would we have done? Started running away, focused on escaping the mayhem? Would we have been primarily motivated by self-preservation?

Or, would we have looked around us? Would we pay attention to where the greatest need was, and offer help? Would we have run against the crowd?

I must confess, I didn’t imagine I would be so altruistic and ready to help. I must confess, I would likely be one of those people running headlong to that back door focused on nothing else but getting out.

And for us Christians who have received Christ’s commandment “that we love one another,” we may be embarrassed, as I have been, at how poorly we put this command into practice.

In the Gospel passage today (John 13:31-35), we hear Jesus’ commandment to love. And what I find remarkable is that Jesus gives this commandment precisely at a time when everything but love was swirling about him. It was the night before his arrest and crucifixion. Jesus was a marked man. A target was on his back. And while Jesus was eating the Passover Meal with his disciples, Judas had just slipped out from the group to carry out his dastardly deed to betray Jesus.

And right after Jesus speaks the commandment to love, Peter falsely predicted that he would always be faithful and committed to Jesus – we know later that Peter denied knowing Jesus three times.

So Jesus command to love is spoken right in the very midst of betrayal and violence. Not an easy situation in which to be preaching or practising love.

But it is precisely at these times when it matters the most. Jesus calls us to do this not in some abstract, ideal, fantasy world when it’s easy to love, but rather in the real world of violence and broken-ness. And that’s not easy.

This is one reason why we need to gather for worship from week to week –

We need to hear over and over again God’s good news in the midst of all around us that is un-loving.

We need to hear once more the story of the resurrection, the affirmation that life and God’s love is more powerful than death and sin.

We need to hear once more God’s undying love for us all, so that we can be strengthened to practice love toward others, when it counts the most.

I find it significant that we read the word “glory” some five times in this short Gospel text. Odd – even counter-intuitive – you would think, that “glory” is associated with the pretext of Jesus’ suffering and death. Perhaps this emphasis on the glory of God is to underscore that love is not just some Valentine’s Day, romantic, warm fuzzy feeling shared between people in a comfortable, safe place.

Love, on the other hand, is in the Christian faith, self-giving. It is something realized, and practiced, for others – especially when the going gets tough.

As difficult as it is, coming to that place of self-giving love often, in the testimony of people’s lives, happens right in the valley of the shadow of death: amidst loss, stress, disappointment, suffering and pain. The transformation people experience towards a renewed sense of God’s love in Christ Jesus occurs usually at their lowest point in life.

For a long time, the accumulation of personal wealth was the single most important goal for Millard Fuller. During the 1960s, making a pile of money was his singular goal from which he never wavered. Amassing a personal fortune, Fuller was the ultimate “success” story.

But he paid a high price for this. Fuller admitted later how it affected his personal integrity, his health, and his marriage. When his wife Linda left him and informed him that his Lincoln, the large house, the cottage on the lake, two speed boats and a maid did not make up for his absence from his family, he realized what he had sacrificed for money.

It was at that moment when a transformation occurred in his life – when he began focussing less on himself and more on others, more on living out God’s great love for himself, and for others.

In 1976, Millard Fuller founded Habitat for Humanity, one of the most transforming forces around the world today, drawing on local volunteers to build houses for those who have need.

From someone who was once only focussed on himself, Fuller was transformed to someone focussed on others, living out Jesus’ commandment to love one another. “I love God and I love people,” Fuller says now, “this is the focus of my life, and that is why I am doing it.”

I like the story of two young boys playing church. One of them was explaining to the other what all the parts of the liturgy were about.

“So, do you know what the pastor does at the end of the service when he does this?” And he made the sign of the cross.

“Yeah, sure,” the other boy chimed in, “it means some go this way out and the others go that way out!”

The boy was right. The cross sends us out and scatters us out into the world with Christ’s command to love, where we would least expect to do so. The really important thing for any church is not how many people the church can seat, but how many it sends out to love in real, practical ways. A self-giving love, in moments of human hardship, is the glory of God.

The victim of the Boston attacks who recently spoke to the media was told some days after her foot was amputated how she was rescued from the mayhem of that smoke-filled bar. She was told of how a couple of people risked their own lives to drag her to safety. Those two people resisted the temptation to run en masse with everyone else. They had the presence of mind to look around to see if anyone needed help. Amidst the chaos, they were able to express the love that Jesus was talking about, whether they knew it or not.

Glory be to God!

From Golgotha to Homs

This Holy Week our attention focuses on the story of Jesus’ Passion. For people of faith especially the suffering and violence to which Jesus eventually surrenders in death on a cross stirs the emotions and even brings tears during the liturgies of the week.

It is a moving story of sacrifice, love, betrayal and ultimate vindication and victory. It’s impact has literally changed the world and altered the course of history.

But if our humble observance this week stops at a reverent gazing upon the Cross of Christ, how then does our faith translate to today’s realities? Would Christ on the cross two thousand years ago not lead us to see Christ in the faces of those who suffer today?

Some Christians express concern today for the various ways people of faith strive to make religion relevant, popular, exciting and culturally palatable.

Then they need Good Friday. Because the cross keeps us grounded in the primary action of Christ. The cross stands at the center of the holy story. If any will question and scrutinize the actions of Christians, it will never be in helping the poor, standing with the marginalized, advocating for justice for those who suffer, all in the name of Jesus — as unpopular and undesirable as doing this might be.

This year the observance of Holy Week falls at a time when the crisis in Syria heightens and refugees stream over the borders into neighboring Jordan –Escaping violence, searching for safety and security, forced from their homeland. The escalating hundreds of thousands of refugees are alarming international aid organizations and local governments.

The Cross of Christ cannot but point us to look in this direction today. To the suffering, the dying. I was astounded to read earlier this week that tens of thousands of children die each day in poverty and from malnutrition — conditions often exacerbated in refugee camps.

Action among the living faithful must emerge out of a holy observance about God’s great acts in Christ. For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son ….

The world yesterday. The world today. And the world tomorrow.

From Golgotha to Homs, with love.

To hear a first hand account and learn more about the growing crisis in Syria, the Christian Council of the Ottawa Area invites you to “Joining in Prayer for Syria” on Thursday April 11 beginning with welcome and refreshments at 7:15pm at the Arch Diocese Centre at 1247 Kilborn Place in Ottawa.

A presentation will be given by Huda Kandalaft of Homs, Syria, and now of Ottawa. She will speak about the struggles of Christians in Syria today.