Sarcasm

Sermon on Luke 16:1-13 preached to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest on September 22, 2013.

One of the realities of our digital age is that nearly every website gives its users the opportunity to comment on the website’s content.  Just about every article on the internet has a section below it where readers can offer their opinions about what they have just read.  This comment section is, in some ways, similar to the editorial page in a newspaper.  There is, however, a significant and important difference.  While the content of the editorial page is scrutinized and selected by an editor, there is no such filter in an internet comment section.  Literally everyone who can type (and quite a few people who can’t) is given the opportunity to make their voices heard over the information superhighway.  As you can imagine, there are some very disturbed, angry, ignorant, and downright crazy people who post in these comment sections.  If one spends any kind of time on the internet, one quickly learns that these comment sections rarely edify and frequently frustrate.  Responding to these comments is not an option, because the torrent of negativity unleashed by every minor disagreement is overwhelming.  It is better simply to ignore the comments.  The arguments are pointless and the unintended consequences can be catastrophic.  Brothers and sisters, I adjure you by God: for the sake of your physical, mental, and spiritual health, do not read internet comments; it’s simply not worth the anguish.

So while I was reading some internet comments the other day, I was reminded about a particularly annoying brand of internet commenter.  This is the person who wanders into a forum and makes a comment that is specifically designed to make people angry.  imgresFor instance, a University of Oklahoma fan may wander into a University of Texas forum and proclaim how terrible the Longhorns are.  Obviously, the person who does this is not even trying to contribute to the conversation; he’s just trying to get people riled up.  In internet parlance, this person is known as a troll, and the activity he engages in is known as trolling.  As frustrating as internet trolls can be, the most insidious thing about them is that they see what they do as a public service.  If you challenge an internet troll to contribute something of substance to the discussion, he will respond that he is: he’s being intentionally provocative, he’s causing us to moderate our position in response to his ludicrous opinion.  The reality, of course, is that this generally isn’t true: the internet troll is usually just being a jerk.  It’s interesting to me, however, that those who troll tend to embrace this narrative in which they are provocateurs, contributors to the internet symposium who force us to do the hard work of self-examination.

The reason I bring this up is that in our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus seems to be trolling us a little bit.  This is probably the most bizarre parable in all of the New Testament, because it seems to go against everything that we know about what Jesus did and taught.  This is especially true in the gospel according to Luke, in which Jesus is incredibly concerned with how preoccupied people are with money and influence.  To get a sense of how strange this parable really is, we need to take a look at some of the other moments in Luke’s gospel, many of which we’ve looked at over the past few weeks.  Just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell the parable of the great dinner, in which he warned us not to think to highly of ourselves, not to exploit the influence we believe we have in order to gain advantages over people.  A few weeks before that, we heard the parable of the rich fool, who built huge silos to store all his stuff and ensure his security, only to die that very night.  And next week, we will hear the story of Lazarus and the rich man, in which a man is thrown into Hades because of his obsession with his wealth and possessions.

So when we arrive at the parable in today’s gospel, the parable of the dishonest manager or the shrewd steward, I think we’re right to feel a little thrown off, perhaps even a little uncomfortable.  The story goes like this: a rich man has a business manager and discovers that the guy is mismanaging his boss’s assets.  Maybe he’s made some bad investments, maybe he’s skimming off the top, maybe he’s just incompetent; whatever the reason, the rich man demands an audit from his steward.  Instead of buckling down, getting the books right, and hoping that his boss will give him another chance or instead of updating his resume and hoping that he can get some honest work, the manager proceeds to go around to his boss’s debtors and reduces what they owe the rich man.  The thing is, he doesn’t do this out of the goodness of his heart, he doesn’t do this because his boss is unjust; he does this in order to get consideration from the people whose debt he’s forgiving, he does it for purely selfish reasons.  At this point, we can’t wait for the owner’s reaction.  This manager is going to get it!  He’s defrauded his boss; he’s been completely selfish.  There’s no way that he’s going to get away with this.  So imagine our surprise when Jesus tells us that the rich man commended the steward for acting selfishly.  Really?  Did you get that right Jesus?  Not only was the rich man not mad, but he praised this dishonest manager?  As if we weren’t confused enough already, Jesus goes on to instruct us to follow this manager’s example: “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.”

 

What is going on in this baffling parable?  Is Jesus really telling us to emulate this dishonest steward?  Are we really supposed to follow the example of a guy whose life is dictated by his own selfishness?  It’s hard to say.  One disadvantage of the study of Scripture is that we don’t have the tapes.  We don’t know how Jesus sounded when he said the things recorded in the gospels.  The result of this is that many of us tend to have a Scripture reading voice in our head (mine is some combination of James Earl Jones and Billy Graham).  Whatever it sounds like, it’s usually magisterial and full of authority.  But the reality is that Jesus probably had a variety of ways of communicating.  Sure, there were times in his ministry when a Scripture reading voice would have been very appropriate, like in the Sermon on the Plain.  But, what about when Jesus takes up a little child in his arms and says that it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs?  Are we supposed to think that he spoke to these children the same way that he spoke to the crowds?  Probably not.  sarcasm01In the same way, I wonder if we are mishearing this parable of the dishonest manager because we are assuming our James Earl Jones/Billy Graham voice.  What if we’re missing a note of sarcasm in Jesus’ voice: “Go ahead, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, because when it’s gone they’re totally going to welcome you into the eternal homes.  See how that works out for you.”  Now, I may be treading on some perilous ground here, but this interpretation seems more consistent with what we’ve heard before and what we’re going to hear in Luke’s gospel.  In the parable of the rich fool, Jesus makes it very clear that we shouldn’t be preoccupied with wealth because we can’t take it with us, because wealth is not eternal.  In the same way, it stands to reason that if we make friends with our wealth, that thing which isn’t eternal, those friendships won’t last very long.  Regardless of how we hear this parable, I think it’s clear that Jesus is being intentionally provocative, that Jesus is encouraging us to look closely at this dishonest manager and determine what we can learn from him.

On one level, I think we sympathize with the guy.  He’s in a position that too many of us have been in at one point or another; he’s about to lose his job.  And the only way he knows how to take care of himself is by being shrewd but also by being selfish, by looking out for number one, by worrying about himself first and about his impact on other people later.  This manager looked at his situation and was terrified, because all of his possessions, including his job, his friends, and his money are in jeopardy.  As one New Testament interpreter has remarked, possessions are our guard against nonexistence.  This manager was convinced that if he lost his possessions, if he no longer had what he once had, he would cease to exist, that he wouldn’t matter, that his life would be meaningless.  This manager defined himself in terms of what he owned, he defined himself in terms of what he could get out of other people, he defined himself in terms of things that are passing away.  But what Jesus reveals us to us in telling this parable, what Jesus reveals to us in all of the gospel according to Luke, what Jesus reveals to us in his death and resurrection is that we are not defined by what we have.  We are not defined by how much we make, by what circles we travel in, by how nice a car we drive, by who our parents are, by how much education we have, by who we voted for, by what we post on the internet, or by any of the thousands of other ways that our culture defines value.  We are not defined by what we have; we are defined by the fact that we are beloved children of God.  That’s it.  Jesus tells this story not to give an example of how not to behave; Jesus tells this story to remind us that what we have does not define us; Jesus tells this story to reminds us how much God loves us.  Jesus reveals the depth of God’s love for us on the cross.  By destroying the power of death, Jesus affirms the promise that nothing can separate from the love of God in Christ.  When we embrace our identity as beloved children of God, when we lose our preoccupation with what we have, then we will be empowered to share the love that God makes known to us in Jesus Christ, the love that transcends divisions and unites us, the love that reminds us of our eternal home.

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Dona nobis pacem

Sermon on Luke 14:1, 7-14 offered to the people of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX.

For a helpful summary of the situation in Syria, click here.

To help the Syrian refugees, click here.

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!  Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,  Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,  Into the school where the scholar is studying,  Leave not the bridegroom quiet—no happiness must he have now with his bride,  Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, plowing his field or gathering his grain, So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.

Walt Whitman wrote those words in the fall of 1861, just after the United States had embarked on the odyssey of carnage that was the American Civil War.  At that point, most Americans assumed that the war would last a few months at the most; Union partisans thought that the rebels would lay down their arms as soon as they went into battle, while Confederates were persuaded that their cause, which they felt was so righteous, would lead them to speedy victory.  Mathew-Brady-Battle-of-GettysburgDuring the fall of 1861, the war seemed distant; Americans felt that the war couldn’t touch their daily lives. In fact, well-to-do Americans often packed picnics and watched battles as if they were spectator sports.  Young men rushed to enlist, afraid that the action would be over before they got to the battlefield.  We now know that the war dragged on for four long years and took the lives of 600,000 young Americans, but during the fall of 1861, few could fathom the profound impact the war would have on the lives of every single person in this country.  Walt Whitman was one of the few who did understand how much the war would change the very soul of America.  In the poem he published during those early days of the war, he described the ominous and inescapable drums of war, avowing that no place was safe from their incessant pounding: not the school or the bridal suite or the farm or the church.  During the heady first months of the war, Whitman was one of the first to make it clear that no one could avoid the inexorable march of war, that no one could escape those terrible drums.

Over the past week, the drums of war have been beating once again.  Last Saturday, we saw the horrifying images of people in Syria who had been killed with chemical weapons.  The footage was eerie; it looked like the many bombing attacks that we have seen on television, except there was no blood.  Our hearts broke as we watched parents try to revive children who seemed to have drowned without any water.  Many months ago, our leaders averred that the use of chemical weapons was the “red line” for US involvement in the Syrian civil war that has been raging for the past two years.  This week, dozens of news outlets have explored what US involvement would look like, and we’ve heard about possibilities ranging from airstrikes to arming the rebel soldiers.  Even after commemorating the work of the modern prophet of nonviolence on Wednesday, the President warned the Assad regime about the likelihood of violent US attacks.  It has been a week in which the whirring of those terrible drums of war has become louder and more distinct, a week in which it seems that our country is marching inexorably to war.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells a parable that doesn’t seem to deal with anything as earth shattering as the imminence of war.  In fact, there are elements of this parable that seem downright petty.  After all, if you are really worried about where you sit at a wedding banquet, you probably need to reorient your priorities.  It’s intriguing to me that, in this parable, Jesus plays not on our compassion or our righteous indignation or our desire to be loved by God.  Instead, he plays on our sense of embarrassment: “You wouldn’t want to be asked to move to another seat at the table in front of everybody, would you?”  Jesus tells this parable with the assumption that no one likes to be embarrassed in front of their friends.  And so, on one level, the instructions that Jesus gives in this story are just good advice for any social situation.  When you come to a party, make sure you sit a less honorable place, make sure you sit in a spot that is below your station, so that you can be exalted in front of everyone, so that everyone can be impressed with you.

There is, however, another, much more profound level to this parable.  This level requires us to enter the story as a guest.  In this scenario, we arrive at the home of the host, pleased to be invited to a cool party, pleased to have the opportunity to rub elbows with some of the prominent members of the community.  imgresBut as we enter the house, dripping with self-satisfaction, we notice that the other people who have been invited are not terribly prominent.  In fact, most of the people who have been invited don’t seem to travel in the same circles that we do.  Perhaps we’re here on the wrong night, or more likely, perhaps all of these people are gatecrashers.  We make our way to the host, who is having a conversation with one of these ruffians.  Without acknowledging this person who is obviously not supposed to be here, we say hello to the host, who greets us, and then turns back to the other person!  Doesn’t she know who we are!  Why would she snub us in favor of this person who is so obviously below our station?  You can see what’s going on here.  Our expectation is that we will be treated better because of who we are, but the host makes it clear to us that we are as worthy of her attention as everyone else in the room.  The opposite scenario is also true.  Say we’ve been invited to a party, but we are convinced that the invitation is a mistake.  These people would never want to spend time with us: they’re too hip, they’re too educated, they’re too wealthy.  Nevertheless, since we’re afraid of being considered rude, we put on our best suit (which is a little threadbare) and head to the party, planning to stand in the corner and keep as quiet as possible.  When we enter the house, however, the host immediately walks over and greets us, telling us that she’d like us to sit with her for dinner.  Though our expectation is that we will not be treated as well as everyone else, the host makes it clear that we are as worthy of her attention as everyone else in the room.  In other words, this parable is not about how to behave properly in social situations, it is about realizing that regardless of who we are, regardless of where we come from, we are all equal before God, that “places of honor” are irrelevant in God’s kingdom, that we are all worthy of God’s grace and love.

As the drums of war continue to sound, as our country seems to be marching inexorably toward war in Syria, it would be easy for us to judge those people involved in the civil war.  It would be easy for us to view the rebels as hapless victims crying out for the United States to ride in on a white horse and save the day.  It would be easy for us to view Assad and his regime as callous brutes whose only objective is to destroy innocent life.  It would be easy for us to adopt this simplistic understanding of the situation, but then we would be falling into the very trap that Jesus describes in the parable we heard today.  We would be making judgments about the fundamental worthiness of the people involved in this horrific conflict.  Jesus calls us to view those in this situation not as victims who deserve our pity or as thugs who deserve our condemnation; Jesus calls us to view them as people, to acknowledge the inescapable complexity of this situation and not assume that the only option we have is to start raining death from the skies.  I’m not suggesting that the United States does nothing in response to the carnage in Syria, but there may be non-military options that can make an enormous difference in the lives of those who have been affected by this terrible war.  During the course of the conflict, over two million people have fled Syria and are currently in refugee camps throughout the region.  The UN High Commission on Refugees has estimated that it needs 5 billion dollars to meet the basic needs of these Syrian refugees; so far the US has provided $195 million.  Before we intervene militarily, perhaps we can reach out from our abundance to those who fled Syria.  Perhaps this is the way we can acknowledge that those who are struggling in those refugee camps are as worthy of our attention as anyone else, that they are all equal before God.

Now, it may be that I am being naïve, that this is a world in which the only way to stop humanitarian crises is with a show of military strength.  But I hope for peace for one very tangible reason: I have seen it manifested in the community called the Church.  At its best, the Church reveals that peace of God which passes understanding, that peace which the world cannot give, that peace which transcends all of the conflicts that plague humanity.  And there is no example of this peace more powerful than the Eucharist.  Every Sunday, we gather in this place and we live out the truth that Jesus reveals in the parable we heard this morning.  Every Sunday, we participate in Holy Communion regardless of who we are or where we have come from.  Every Sunday, we share the Eucharist with one another regardless of our political views, regardless of our feelings about Syria, regardless of whether we even get along.  And by doing so, by receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in this place, we affirm the fundamental truth that through Jesus Christ, all people have been made worthy of God’s grace and love.  Everywhere that Christians celebrate the Eucharist, whether beneath the soaring arches of Heavenly Rest or behind darkened windows in a Syrian basement, is an outpost of that kingdom where no sword is drawn.  When we participate in the Eucharist, we are exalted to that place where the Prince of Peace reigns.  And it’s no accident that our Communion liturgy often includes these words: “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world; grant us your peace.”  In the coming days, I pray we will remember these words, and that by God’s grace, they will drown out even the drums of war.