Saturday, September 6, 2008

Seventeenth after Pentecost, 2007

September 23, 2007 XVII Pentecost (RCL Proper 20C) Luke 16: 1-13

So I think I understand the story Jesus tells here.

There this management guy who feels like the pink slip is going to be landing in his mailbox sooner rather than later. He’s under a lot of stress, and in that almost sense of panic he comes up with the idea of going down into the receivables file and offering some really deep discounts to get the accounts closed. Worst case scenario, he figures, is that if the axe does fall there will be some potential employers out there who will think he did them a big favor. But of course the worst case scenario doesn’t play out after all. The owner of the firm, who was going to fire the manager, notices the sudden bump in the cash-flow numbers for the month, sees the stack of now resolved slow-pay files stacked in the financial office, and takes notice. All of a sudden the employee who had seemed expendable appears in a different light. This is a guy who is quick on his feet, creative, a risk taker, somebody who can put a plan into action and get things done, who thinks outside the box. Number-crunchers and by-the-book administrators are a dime a dozen. But this guy is clearly different. Maybe not so much somebody you want to send out to work for your competitor, in any case. Instead, a promotion might be in line, even a partnership. It was a risky step, but it took some guts too, and that’s the kind of guy, at the end of the day, you want to have playing on your side of the field.

And so Jesus says, looking at his disciples—maybe looking at us: why is it that this business guy can figure this out in a heartbeat, while with you it’s like pulling teeth? What’s the deal with that? There’s something about the urgency out there in the wide world that drives creativity and energy and risk-taking. Not about wild, reckless risks, of course. But about taking a chance. It happens every day in the business office and the investment firm and the research laboratory and the kindergarten classroom, for that matter. “I’m not sure this is going to work, but it might. Let’s roll up our sleeves, give it our best shot, and see what happens.”

The kind of action anyway that Jesus wishes he’d see more of among his followers. He’s doing it himself: preaching new freedom to the poor at the very moment when the authorities are breathing down his neck, commanding evil spirits to depart, laying his hands on the body of a dead girl, for heaven’s sake, and telling her to get up, to live. There’s a lot that can go wrong there. But how are you going to know until you try? Sitting down to dinner with the most notorious bad guys in the village—collaborators, crooks, people with communicable diseases, illegal aliens, prostitutes. Probably not our idea of the ideal demographic for church growth here in the East End, and it didn’t make the disciples feel all that inspired to go out and do likewise either, apparently. The point I think is about opening the doors and giving it your best shot and seeing what happens. Pushing the edge of the envelope. Win some and lose some. But not living in fear, paralyzed, frozen, hunkered down behind the barricades, rules and regulations, customs. Always keeping the excuse close at hand. The anthem of middle management, going by the motto “CYA.” “We didn’t do very well, but the problem is with the procedures, not with us. We were only doing what we were told.”

The church I guess does a pretty good job of producing a Jesus and a life and a ministry that are easy to work with. Gentle Jesus, meek and mild. Tame. We lose that sense of the edge of things so easily. Thinking about the line in the C.S. Lewis Narnia series about Aslan, the royal lion who figures as the Christ character in the allegory. “Very good, but also very dangerous.” Not tame at all.

The comment about not being able to serve both God and Mammon is exactly about this. In the sense of what wealth represents: safety, security, a cushioned life. Trust funds and a hefty bank account may sound good. But they’re dangerous too, because they dull the edge. Because we do our best work often when we’re a little hungry, when there’s something on the line that matters.

Sooner or later there is a choice to be made. Playing it safe, or going for the prize.

There’s probably all kinds of ways to apply this. In our relationships, our families, in our church. All the corners of our lives. Measuring out mercy and forgiveness and healing, drip by drip, each transaction recorded in triplicate, making sure that if anything does go wrong it won’t be our fault, not on our watch. Speaking as a Northern European introverted male descended from a long line of Northern European Introverted Males, I can tell you that this comes naturally after a while. Measure twice and cut once. Or better yet, let’s put off the cutting ‘til tomorrow if we possibly can. And better safe than sorry.

Fortunately around our house I have a wife who can give the tree and good shake when it needs to be shook. Of course not talking about irresponsible or dangerous things, and always good planning and management is important. But to say that the conversation about what to do has gone on for a while, and now it’s time to get up from the table and take the best idea we’ve come up with and give it a try. Even if it isn’t the perfect idea, and even if we might find ourselves in a bit of hot water if it doesn’t work out the way we hope it will. Hope you have people that can do that for you when you need it, too.

The thing about “walking in love,” about “loving our neighbor as ourselves,” about putting ourselves out there to worship God in the “beauty of holiness,” is that it’s all about taking chances. God got all this started at the beginning of creation by saying “let there be light,” and you wonder whether he hasn’t rethought that idea a few times since. But that’s what creative types do. You’ve got this blank canvas, and a paint brush in your hand, and sooner or later you’ve just got to make your move. You have to start somewhere.

So blessings on us, when we open the doors on Sunday morning, in the first place, because who knows what might happen? Anything could happen. Or at least to say: something might happen. And that’s enough of what we might hear Jesus saying to us, down through all these years, and into the very odd and very challenging situation of the Christian family in our little corner of the world. Not to run away, not to hunker down or hide away, not to bury the talents in the ground (as the Parable of the Talents is something like a parallel to the story this morning).

But to go out there and do what we can with what we have. With some freedom. Without being afraid to make a mistake. Opening the door at least a crack so he can get in and do what he can do, in and through us. Which will surprise us, I think, most of the time. That he will be working in us infinitely more than we could ever ask for, or even imagine.

That we would picture and dream and then give it our best shot, and even if we sometimes get things wrong, even the results of that would be pretty amazing, a vision and putting it into action, that mercy and forgiveness and kindness, a gentle spirit, a glimpse and foretaste of heaven in a life that for most doesn’t seem all that heavenly most of the time, the living and breathing presence of Jesus himself, as we know him and love him and serve him and seek to follow him—that all that would just fill this place us and overflow abundantly, running down the steps and out onto Hampton Street and beyond, world without end.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

Bruce Robison

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