Pentecost 15

This passage of the Gospel we have just heard, the parable of the dishonest manager and Jesus’s following comments about money, is known to be confusing – actually it’s known to be one of the most confusing passages in the Gospel. But I was taught that a good way to deal with confusion is to start by identifying what we’re confused about, and so that’s where we are going to start today.

To me, there are actually two difficulties in this passage:

First thing that can confuse us is that it looks like Jesus presents the dishonest manager as an example, and invites us to imitate him by stealing from our Masters to make friends with their money. The question is: why would Jesus asks us to do something immoral?

And then, the second thing that can confuse us in this passage is that, after he tells the parable, Jesus makes comments that seem to completely contradict what he’s just said: He asks us to be faithful with the money that is entrusted to us!

So what are we to do about that? Well, I was wondering if a good way of starting could be to consider that, as two negative sentences equal a positive, the comments Jesus makes after he tells the parable could be meant to solve the contradiction, instead of aggravating it. I was wondering if the comments Jesus makes / or Luke chose to add in here / about trustworthiness and honesty aren’t meant to clue us in that the parable isn’t (first thing) about money, the way we handle money and how we use it. It seems to me that the wealth of the earthly Master in the story is meant to be an image of the true riches of the heavenly Master, since Jesus compares them both and so the money in the story would be a mirror to understand God’s wealth – the kingdom of God. This parable – like all of Jesus’s parables – is about the kingdom of God!

How is the kingdom of God to be understood in this parable? Well, it starts by introducing us to a wealthy Master to whom a lot of people owe something, so it looks like Jesus wants to remind us first that all riches belong to God, not only material things of course, but everything in life, and in this regard we are all debtors – we all owe our lives to God and everything we possess. We all have received from God. On top of that, like the dishonest manager, we also may have stolen from God: We have hurt God, sinned against God, in one way or another. Even if we don’t want to hurt God personally, the thing is that when we hurt each other, we hurt God first. The debtors may think they owe their debts to the manager, but really, they all have taken from the Master’s treasure.

It may be something we easily forget and we need to pause here a little bit. When we hurt one another, we first hurt God. God is not hurt like an almighty majesty would be offended because we haven’t “played by the rules”, God is hurt as an all loving, compassionate and sensitive being. If we want to have a sense of that, we can meditate on Jeremiah’s words in our first reading today. Jeremiah impersonates what’s going on inside God’s heart. He says: My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick (…) For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt (…) [may] my eyes [be] a fountain of tears so I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people”. That God suffer in us, for us and because of us, this is the meaning of the cross, but these images are already very much alive in the Old Testament.

When we are victims of injustices, we can find a lot of comfort knowing that if somebody offends us, God is on our side as God suffers from their sins even more than we do. But knowing this, that our offenders hurt God through what they do to us, also puts us in a strange position and gives us a great responsibility: It means that, like the manager in the story handles the debts contracted towards his Master, we all stand in between those who sin against us and God, and we have the choice to accuse or to release them in front of God.

So the question the Gospel has for us today could be this: How do we handle the debts people contract against God when their sin is hurting us?

It seems to me that this is really what Jesus is talking about. And what he advises us, as “children of light”, is to handle those debts created by sin in the same way the “children of this age” handle their own business. What the manager does is to use his in between position to reduce the debtors’ debts towards the Master because he knows he owes his Master even more and he is going to need friends– Well, I think this is how we are invited to look at our own situation as Christians. People sin against us and hurt us, but we also stand in need of forgiveness in front of the same God, and so the best thing to do is not to always accuse our offenders. That’s what we pray every time in the Lord’s prayer: We are sinners but we hope God will forgive us as we forgive each other’s offenses.

Paul today in the Letter to Timothy reminds us that we need to make for everyone supplications, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving. He says, of course Jesus is the only mediator between God and humankind, but if we pray to Jesus, we can all be mediators for one another, we can all intercede for one another, and what would be more precious to God’s heart that we may be able to intercede for those who hurt us? How could God hold something against them, if we don’t? St Teresa of Lisieux had often a naive and yet beautiful way to say deep things, and this is what she used to say: When somebody hurts me, I try not to show God that I suffer about it, so God will be more likely to forgive them.

Of course, it’s a manner of speaking, an image, as it’s an image when the manager writes off half the debts on his Master’s bills. God does not do the math, listing everything we owe to God and one another…It’s a manner of saying that even our sufferings, the way people hurt us, are an opportunity to do something good. I heard a pastor say something once I will never forget. He said: “When somebody hurts you, (…) you’ll have to make a choice”. Indeed, when people hurt us, we need to make a choice: Do we use what they did to us against them to make them feel bad about themselves / ashamed / guilty? Do we hold on to our grudges so we can feel better about ourselves / feel like the innocent, the righteous one? Or do we use the opportunity to mend the relationships/ set other free / not let the person be defined by what they did? How do we use the debts to open the future and head towards healing? Jesus says that like the manager, we have to make friends: work towards reconciliation. Not keep on accusing them.

Now forgiving is not about ignoring a situation, covering up, renouncing justice or enabling people to do evil. Forgiving is FIRST about not seeking to hurt back in the same way we’ve been hurt. You need to look clearly at the bill to let go of the debt, to not hold on to what happened and to start something new. We also have to know that it’s always God who forgives in the end, but if it is the direction where we want to go, if we try to forgive even a little bit though we are still angry or wounded, we have already make half of the work and we can put the rest into God’s hands. This is being smart before God if we live our lives like this. The “dishonest manager” often translates “the shrewd one”. Because the wonder is that Jesus tells us: forgiving will benefit others, but doing so is also in your own interest! We need to forgive because it’s going to benefit ourselves! Most of the bad things that happen to us can be an opportunity to grow into more loving / honest / generous people instead of holding on to our grudges and let us be defined only by the (bad) things that happen to us.

Now of course – and we’ll finish with that- in this passage of the Gospel, Jesus also talks about money. Jesus wants us to look at the way we handle money b/c it reveals what’s in our hearts. If we’re not generous when people owe us concrete money, how generous are we going to be able when they owe us emotionally? If we can’t let go of a small debt of money somebody has towards us, how can we let go of the hurt they did to us? You know there is always this gap between this person we think we are in our heads, and there is this person we are in real life. Most of us feel like we’re nice and friendly people. Now when we do something as simple as looking at our bank accounts, we may get a “reality check”, because the way we handle material things say a lot about the way we handle spiritual matters. Our bank statements often respond with no ambiguity to the question: What is it that really count in my life?

The way we handle our money is like a mirror of the way we handle our hearts. The good news is that working on the way we handle money could help us to change our hearts. Start with letting go of this small debt, maybe you’ll be able to let go of the sin. Or maybe that will be the other way around: maybe by paying our debts, hold ourselves accountable towards others, we’ll be able to acknowledge our debts when we hurt others – and in the end find forgiveness and reconciliation, or as the parable puts it, maybe just finding friends to welcome us into their homes. Amen.

Pentecost 14

So for this Sunday, I had a dilemma. I felt like I had to make a choice between preaching and practicing what I preach, because I would not be able to do both! Let me explain.

Early this week, I had a phone call from a young man whose GM just passed away and his family was looking for somebody to help them with the funeral. They reached out to me because the lady was French American, and from what I gathered, her only connection to the church was that when she was a child she attended the French Episcopal Church in NY – where her parents had immigrated from France. The young man told me that it would be very meaningful for his family to have a French priest and also someone to be with them – it looked like they weren’t very religious and, at any rate, had no other connection to a priest who could help them put a service together at the funeral home. The service was set on Friday this week, in Virginia Beach.

And I thought to myself: Well, if I want everything to be ready, coordinate with the funeral home, put a bilingual service together, work with Betty on the bulletin, write my homily, drive down to Virginia Beach on Thursday, do the funeral, come back late at home and Friday…and still be able to help with spaghetti dinner on Saturday as I said I would, well, when would I have the time to do the research to prepare my sermon for Sunday? And so I wondered if it was a fair use of my time, for myself, but mostly for you, that I would help out a family I didn’t know and probably won’t see again when I have already my own congregation to take care of?

Well, the good news is that sometimes the Gospel is so clear and unambiguous that it’s almost like it hits you in the face, right? As I sat to look ahead at the Scriptures and I read how Jesus told the religious leaders of his time (and not only the religious leaders, but I think every single person who wanted to follow him) to be ready to leave the 99 to go look for the 1, I knew what I had to do – even if it wasn’t the most comfortable decision. I had the choice between spending time thinking about this Gospel and hopefully coming up with something meaningful to say about it, or I could just do it, do what it talks about. So I did it. And the good news is that I come back to share with you a few thoughts about this experience.

– First thing is that – and I preached about that on Pentecost day, but we need to be reminded from time to time – the church is not made just for us, our Christian family. The church has been founded for people who are outside the church, to be a connection, a bridge, between God and people. When the Apostles received the Holy Spirit, they weren’t brought together to build a Temple, they were scattered and sent out to the world. They were sent out to seek those who were looking for God and bring them the good news. We have been trusted with God’s treasure, the word, the sacraments, and – mostly – we have received hope with Christ’s resurrection, something very important at the time of death, a kind of hope the world cannot give us. But the belief in resurrection is not only a comfort at the time of death, it sheds light on everything we do, it gives meaning to our lives. Our world – I was about to say is “desperate for hope”…The world longs for hope. Well, as disciples of Christ this is what we have to offer, to bring to the world: The hope Christ has given us.

On Tuesday, I was attending a meeting with Bishop Mariann (busy week!) and she said she was feeling sad so many people were able to tell her everything about the history of the churches in Maryland, but so little about what’s going on in their own neighborhoods…We need to be reminded all the time that Jesus sends us out to seek people!

– 2nd thing I think is important is the way we understand “sinners” in the Gospel we’ve just heard. We often make the assumption that we are the ones who have the truth and who act righteously (at least, it was certainly the assumption of many religious people at Jesus’s time) but I don’t think this was the way Jesus saw those whom they called “sinners”. The parables of the lost / found I think mean exactly what they mean. When you are lost, it does not means first thing that you have done something terrible, it means mainly that you are disconnected, that you are not with the rest of the group, of the flock, of the family. When you are lost, it means that you are on your own – sometimes it means you have been rejected.

And so as Christians, if we are sent out to bring the hope of the Resurrection, I think more simply, we are also sent to bring love to those who are unloved / isolated. The fact that Jesus says that everyone is to God like the lost sheep or the lost coin means first thing that we are precious to God, important and that literally the party is not the same without each one of us. You know, when I lose something, I search for it 5 minutes and then I am frustrated and I just tell myself it’ll turn up eventually or I go buy another one. I do that unless it’s really precious to me. The persistence of the search in those two parables make me think that Jesus wants everyone to feel valuated, desired, needed.

People are isolated in the world we live in. Old people, sick people, but young people too. Rich people. People who seem happy on the outside because they have everything they could want. But they lack this deep connection with others. Sept 10th was the world suicide prevention day. In our world, someone commits suicide every 40 seconds. Sometimes, suicide is the outcome of deep depression, but it is often also a sign of deep loneliness. It’s a sad reality that some people die because nobody come to look for them. One of the best advice I have ever heard was this: Always assume that people are lonely. Always assume they have nobody to talk to except you. Always offer your friendship. It does not mean they will take it or that they indeed need you! But you need to try because you may be the only one to do so.

Seeking those who are lost, it does not necessarily mean to go get people to convert them and turn them into Christians. It is first to make them feel valuated, to make them feel like their presence and their lives matter and that the party isn’t the same without them. We need to make everyone feel like they matter to us, but also, and more important, make them feel like they matter to God. What basically the Pharisees were saying about the tax collectors and others was: “We don’t need those people” but Jesus told them another story…

Maybe not only the Pharisees needed to be there for those people who were rejected, but more deeply, maybe the Pharisees needed to reach out to them to open their own hearts / become loving. They had to look on the outside to learn about God. Maybe that was the outsiders who were going to bring them closer to God, to teach them something about God.

– 3rd thought that occurred to me about this Gospel is that not only we see how God can use us to reach out to other people but we can also see how God is the one doing the seeking to bring us back closer to God. I think this is really something unique we have to share as Christians.

A lot of people today are looking to live more spiritual lives and it’s a good thing. We live in a world that seems very indifferent on the outside, but there is always this longing for hope and love in people’s hearts. And even a longing for the divine. The thing is that people often think / and even as Christians we often think / that it is their / our own doing. That we are the ones looking for God, that we are the ones who need to find God / to be good enough or smart enough or holy enough to come closer to God. We often hear that, don’t we?: “I am a seeker”. But Jesus says it’s the other way around! God is the seeker, God is looking for us. God is trying to find us. Our faith is not our own doing.

Maybe it happened to you already. You felt so lost, so hurt that you thought your faith wouldn’t survive, and yet it did – otherwise you wouldn’t be here today. We don’t have to force ourselves / convince ourselves about God. We just have to let God live inside of us, hold us. To trust God. I think this Gospel is about trust. To really believe that God can find us wherever we are and keep us / bring us back close to his heart: through loneliness, depression, dementia, sin, death…Actually, maybe we have to be lost / to feel lost at some point to be really able to find God, because truly finding God (not just having ideas or feelings about God) is not our own doing, finding God is to make the experience of being found by God.

As I was preparing for the funeral this week, I do what I generally do: when I ask the family to pick the readings I ask them why they picked those readings – and the young man told me he chose readings about trust, because his GM was a “trusting person” and I thought it was so refreshing because generally when someone dies, what I hear is that they were “good” persons, but not “trusting”!

But it makes all the difference: being trusting is to believe in goodness, instead of focusing on our own goodness (what the Pharisees and the scribes did). Instead of trying so hard to be good, working on the ability to see goodness around us. Trusting people, but also trusting life, trusting God. This is God’s most precious gift: Giving us the ability to trust in goodness, in spite of the suffering and evil we know. We can trust that God won’t let go of us, we can trust God to find us. Amen.

Pentecost 13

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Have you ever heard a “I hate you” coming from a family member? From a sibling, a spouse, a child? Or maybe it’s you who said it to them? Hatred inside a family is a special kind of hurt, isn’t it? The hatred from people we love / with people we should love. Family seems to be the place where you expect the more acceptance / nurturing / gratitude and then terrible rejection happens, suddenly or over the years…And we know that, sadly, it’s not unusual.

– Yet if we think about it a little more deeply, we’ll notice that unless addictions take over every positive emotion, hatred (or at least tough words) in families happens in a certain context though, and for certain reasons. It is well known in psychology that children leaving infancy will oppose their parents for example, saying no to everything, and then teenagers of course. Later in life, conflicts often arise in families around big life events: weddings, births, funerals. The common thread seems to be that they are times of redefinition of boundaries, when there is a need for separation / for growing into your own person / or letting a family member grow into their own person. Opposition, saying tough words, is a kind of testing – between the lines, there is often this question the one who looks for separation is asking: Could I live w/o them? Who am I w/o them? And if we love people, in our families or in our friendships, we have to provide them the space to do this experience: To define themselves w/o us. Otherwise we enable dependency. We don’t give them a chance to grow.

– Carolyn Hax, counselor in the WP, often says that: “Love is not always about hugs and kittens”. I would say the same about the Gospel. The Gospel is about love, yet there are very few hugs and kittens. Because the Gospel is not only all about love. It is about love and freedom / there is this tension all along between the two. As we get more mature spiritually, the love we have for God leads us to grow into disciples away from the natural mold of human families, and it will bring tensions and dissensions with them, Jesus warns us today. And maybe it’s not so much a tension between freedom and love, maybe it is about growing the freedom to love. If we re-read the Bible from Genesis, we know it’s God’s plan for human beings: entering a covenant. Entering a covenant means: Not loving out of instinct (whether maternal, sexual, self preservation)…it’s natural to love this way, but we have to go further and choose to love. An expression I don’t really like b/c it feels like you have to force yourself to love! To force yourself to stay in bad relationships! To me, choosing to love is more about loving from a place of generosity / life giving / self giving (an expression I also like more than “self sacrificing” as we say sometimes). But the Christian idea is to love intentionally and to do so, you have to be able to distance yourself, to know you can do w/o those you love so you don’t love out of neediness / dependency.

– I am currently reading this book “All about love” by Bell Hooks and she says that we all want love but we often think more about receiving than giving / or if we think about giving, we still don’t really know how to love. She makes this point we have to start loving with self love. She says if we don’t love ourselves, we are going to bring all our hurts into our relationships b/c we wait for people to give us what they cannot give us / this love, this confidence, this acceptance we have to give to ourselves. Don’t we say: “Love your neighbor as yourself”?

Love of self is not a selfish love. Not a “Me first” kind of love. A foundational kind of love. To have this sense that we are worthy, that we are enough. I think that’s what our psalm (139) is talking about today. The love of self is discovering that there is already love inside of us, and that’s the love of God, at the root of all love. We are first received and accepted by God and it’s from this place we can love at our turn. In the movie “The Help” the nanny always says to the little girl who is abused by her mother: “You are important, you are beautiful”, reminding her to accept herself. Experiencing racism, rejection and bullying on a daily basis we understand it’s the way the nanny also herself manages to cope with life: Affirming her own value and beauty helps her deal with the scorn of other people.

– So Jesus today asks us to trust that we are enough, that we don’t depend on others to tell us who we are. When he says we need to be ready to hate our close ones, it is not about withdrawing our love and affection. In Jesus’s culture, parental relationships weren’t much about affection…He speaks about the “inner circle”, the tribe (makes sense if you look at what’s going on in this chapter all about the network of relationships). The family system in Jesus’s culture was based on honor / respect for the authority figures, where we are supposed to not “rock the boat”. Jesus teaches that love is not blind obedience or conformism, rather it’s a transformative spiritual force that brings life as long as it sets us free. My clue for this interpretation is that Jesus moves from talking about “hating our families” (opening) to “renouncing our possessions” (conclusion). It’s the same thing in Jesus’s mind. “Hating” is renouncing to possess people, but also refusing to be their possession. Bell Hooks says that a lot of women are still schooled to believe they cannot live w/o being somebody’s possession, w/o a man to “supervise” them, a father, a husband, an older son…. Yet, it’s not the kind of relationships Christians should believe in. In the Epistle we have just read, Paul quite clearly opposes slavery because he believes no one can be somebody’s possession. When there is a power unbalance, genuine love isn’t possible. As Christians, we are sisters and brothers in Christ: all with different abilities, skills, but equal. Jesus dis-constructs the nature and the culture of the human family to build a new spiritual family where everyone is equally important and included.

– So it means for us that there is a lot of letting go we need to be doing…Not only our possessions, things or possessive relationships, it can also be our ideas, our prejudices…through all of this letting go, we grow. Jeremiah reminds us we are not created once for all. We are in the potter’s hands, so the creation into our own being is on going. It often sounds reassuring, but we have to acknowledge that it’s harsh sometimes too. God models us and remodels us, as life smashes us, as we go through the fire. Not only as individuals but also as nations, as communities, as families, as individuals. Terrible things happen to us, yet we believe that, we can be re-shaped, made new, b/c God is not done with us yet. It’s also a warning: if we don’t let God heals us from our pain and our traumas, we will repeat them (nations/wars).

– Jesus promises us today it is worth it, in spite of all the pain, to trust God. “Take your cross” = Offer what happens to you to the glory of God. Even if it is seems shameful or insignificant: We are invited to offer all our trials but also our everyday lives, to God so God can transform us as we go through them. We often say that God will make it all turn for the best…It does not mean that the outcome that we will win in the end, but it’s about who God is going to turn us into through our crosses. Compassionate people thriving for justice.

– And so we believe that the work of God through our suffering is going to bring us closer to God. Because we are in the potter’s hands, suffering cannot turn us into bitter people, on the other way around, we have the hope that we will be turned into vessels able to receive and give love in truth. Bell Hooks has a very simple and beautiful definition of spiritual life. She says that Spiritual life is what gives us the strength to love day after day. Not out of need, but out of compassion. The cross was the worst suffering and God made it the source of all blessings. Made it worth it. Think about what God could do with your pain if you walk with God.

I read an article this week where a preacher says that when we travel, there is always a risk, there will be dangers, pain, yet we decide to do it anyway. Well he says, it’s the same when we are looking for God. Life is hard – not b/c God wants it to be hard but b/c we are separated from God – yet Jesus encourages to the crowds today to be on their way whatever the cost because he can guarantee that it is worth it.

– So today maybe we can think of all the places we are stuck in right now (whether in our heads or in our lives, as people but also as a christian community) and think about the kind of pain we may have to be able to walk through with God to be able to detach, move on and be brought closer to our real identity and to a more faithful and deeper love.