Monday, October 21, 2019
Tuesday, October 1, 2019
SCAN is one of those things you do in the CAF checkout lane. It’s a useful sort of activity, because we all have to leave, voluntarily or otherwise, and there’s a lot to think about as we go from a military life to a civilian life, and there’s a lot about resume writing and networking and retraining and possible second careers, which are all good to know about.
Certainly its words go far beyond token efforts. The passage is a vigorous exhortation to the fully engaged Christian life: "Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14 to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ (12-15).
Sunday, September 22, 2019
God's Rascal: The Parable of the Dishonest Steward; A Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
A Sermon Preached 22 September, 2019, at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, ON, Diocese of Toronto
Readings for the Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost Jeremiah 8:18 - 9:1; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” (Luke 16:8)
Imagine that you are at a diocesan or church conference, and a motivational speak tells you the story of a parish that really turned itself around.
There was a church warden, and things had gone poorly because the parish whose finances had been badly managed. And the priest said to the warden, “What have you done? The Diocese is going to close us down because things are so bad, and we could both go to jail.” So the warden spoke to a business that the parish owed a lot of money to, and said, “We’re broke and I can’t pay you, but if you rip up your invoice I’ll give you a receipt for a tax deduction for the same value” and they did. Then the warden went to three different families and said, “that money that you were going to leave the church in your wills, give it to us now and we’ll rename the church after you when you die”. And then the warden closed the parish daycare, which was losing money, and bribed a friend at city hall to give him a license to reopen the space as an after hours dance club. And the church books looked great, so the priest was happy, and the Diocese was so impressed that it hired the warden to run all of its business affairs.
And the moral of the story is …. ?? Yes, right. That’s the problem, isn’t it. My story isn’t really conducive to any morally improving conclusion. If it had actually happened, the people involved would be in court, and for good reason.
Which is why today’s gospel reading, known as the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, is in its own way as problematic as the silly story I just told you.
In the parable, a master tells a servant. who is probably a slave, that he will be fired for his poor management of the master’s goods, but first, he demands a financial statement. The manager turns to his master’s debtors for help, thinking that if he can help them reduce their debts, then they will be grateful and give him a soft landing when he is fired. The master learns of the scheme, and praises his manager because is so cunning. We don’t learn what happens to the manager, but presumably he keeps his job.
The problem with the parable, as many preachers have noted, is that Jesus doesn’t explicitly condemn the dishonest manager. In the second half of verse 8, when the parable seems to end and Jesus makes his first comment on the story, he says “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light” (Lk 16:8b).
The phrase “children of light” seems to apply to Jesus’ followers, to us, and is contrasted with “children of this age”, who appear to be the dishonest manager and those like him, people who want wealth and comfort most of all. But in verse 9, Jesus seems to tell us to be like the dishonest manager and make friends “by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes” (16:9). In this verse “eternal homes” (the Greek word for home is tabernacle, which has a sacred meaning) seems to speak of heaven or the afterlife, in which case, we are left to wonder, how does “dishonest wealth” get us into heaven?
The parable does not offer an easy interpretation. In the early days of the church it was considered a bit of a scandal, and some pagan writers would point to it and say how could you take a religion seriously if it has such a story in its scriptures? Biblical scholars have struggled to interpret it, and preachers like me grimace when it shows up in the Sunday readings, because it’s hard to know exactly what Jesus is getting at.
If we break it down into its core concepts, there are three aspects of the parable that seem important. First is the manager’s cunning, which is the trait that gets him off the hook with his master. Second is wealth, which Jesus stresses in his teaching after the parable. Third is the role of the manager as someone who is charged with looking after things that don’t belong to them.
So cunning first. We’re told that “his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly”. This could mean that one rascal admires another rascal, but the word “shrewd” can also mean a person with good judgement, someone who is astute. Those are good qualities in a financial adviser or a banker, for example. Is Jesus telling us to be shrewd, sort of like in Matthew where he tells the disciples to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16)?
However, if we look at some of the other parables in this part of Luke’s gospel, there is nothing that a shrewd financial adviser would admire. Consider the three parables in Luke 15 that come just before our gospel readying today. A shepherd abandons 99 valuable sheep in the wilderness and goes off to find the lost sheep (Lk 15:1-7). A woman searches for a lost coin, and when she finds it, invites her friends and neighbours to a celebration that costs more than the coin is worth (Lk 15:8-10). A father throws a lavish party for a son who has squandered half of his net worth (Lk 15:11-32).
Whenever Jesus talks about money, he doesn’t follow the rules of shrewdness and cunning that we would want our own wealth managers to give away. People with money tend to happily give it away, or like he parable of the vineyard workers in Matthew, they get the same wage regardless of how long they’ve worked (Mt 20). The laws of capitalism don’t seem to apply to the kingdom of heaven.
Furthermore, people who want to hang on to their money don’t fare well in the gospels. You can’t take it with you is one of Jesus’ core teachings (Mt 16:19-21). In today’s gospel reading, Jesus twice refers t wealth as “dishonest”, and concludes by saying that it is impossible to serve God and wealth. This teaching irritates Jesus enemies, the Pharisees, who Luke tells us were “lovers of money” (Lk 16:14), so Jesus tells another story, the parable of Dives and Lazarus, where a rich man is tormented in the afterlife while the poor man at his gate is taken to heaven (Lk 16:19-31).
It’s fair to say that Jesus regards the pursuit of money and wealth with suspicion. Acquiring money for it’s own sake is “dishonest wealth”, and is not something that his followers, the “children of light”, should pursue.
And this is where the role of the manager needs to be considered, because a manager, or steward, is someone who looks after someone else’s property. Today, when we talk about giving to the church and its work, we talk about it as stewardship. The fundamental idea here is that what we have, our wealth and possessions, even (and especially) the world we live in, is given to us for a time by God but is not really ours. This idea flows out of the doctrine of creation, the idea that God made the world for us to use for our time here.
In a society where we praise rich people as “wealth creators”, the idea that wealth is given to us by a creator God is outlandish and foolish, but so is much of the church’s teaching. The very first Christians took this idea to heart (44All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Acts 2) and made it part of their way of life. Today the practice of tithing, of giving a fixed percentage of our wealth to the church, reflects this idea that we are stewards of what God gives us.
We give to the church so that the church may share God’s love and grace with the world. That’s the only reason we’re here. Yes, we pay salaries and bills and keep the light and heat on, but those are necessary things to the church’s mission. The church exists to love as God loves, generously, without hope of return, for all who want it. We call this love grace, and graces spends its wealth freely.
If there is anything that the parable of the dishonest manager shows, it is, curiously, grace. At the end of the story, the master’s debtors have their debts reduced. They did nothing to deserve these discounts, they just got them. Likewise, at the end of the story the manager keeps his job. The master recognizes that his manager is a rascal, but forgives him. And Jesus seems to imply, if worldly people (the children of this age) can be so forgiving, then how much more forgiving can God be?
The story of he dishonest manager resists easy interpretation, and may even be, in some people’s eyes, a scandal to the gospel. But if anything about the gospel is scandalous, surely it is the scandal of grace, about a God who does not pay and punish as we deserve, but who gives freely and forgives freely. If we want the rascally manager to be punished, and are disappointed, then what other disappointments might we expect from a saviour who parties with tax collectors and sinners, who kills the fatted calf for the prodigal son, and who makes the thief on the cross beside him welcome into paradise?
Wednesday, July 17, 2019
A new poll suggesting the waning influence of clergy doesn't really surprise me. Perhaps the only thing that is at all newsworthy is that the poll describes religions opinions in the United States, which reinforces ongoing findings that even the US is becoming increasingly secular.
That the clergy are less respected than other professions (financial, medical, etc) seems to me a wholly expected result of secularization and the general decline of participation in churches. As someone who wears a cross on a military uniform and, occasionally, a civilian clergy shirt and dog collar, I don't expect deference from strangers. Usually I hope for a sort of forbearance or polite tolerance, and hope to build on that.
What I find most interesting, and most hopeful, from this article is this part:
My advice for practicing and aspiring clergy who wish to be relevant would be that, in lieu of seeking or expecting a mostly vanished social respect and prestige, seek instead to cultivate character, empathy, and compassion.
Friday, July 5, 2019
I am posting a link to a US website called The Chaplain Kit, an online resource centre for military chaplaincy in an American context.
Some interesting resources including a guide to chaplains as depicted in films and movies.
I have a soft spot for this photo found on the site, as the reference to Hattiesburg in the caption gives it away as being taken in Camp Shelby, Mississippi. My late wife Kay grew up in Hattiesburg and worked in the PX there as a teenager. Not sure how that's relevant to anything, but there you go.
Friday, May 31, 2019
In this article for Commonweal magazine (not overly familiar with it until now, but it appears to be a progressive Catholic publication), Wesley Hill argues that the future of liberal Protestantism will be politically progressive but theologically traditional and creedal.
Writing primarily about the US Episcopal (Anglican) church, Hill sees clear signs of a "generational shift", where it is unremarkable to see clergy and laity who are progressive on a host of issues such as LGBT writes, but who have no patience for the boomer clergy and theologians, such as John Spong, who once defined liberal theology in terms of metaphor, ambiguity, and a vague spirituality.
Hill writes: "the new face of mainline Protestantism may well be someone in a clerical collar who marches for gun control and says “I believe in the resurrection of the body” without crossing her fingers."
From my own limited vantage point, I think Hill's claim has merit. My own Twitter feed (you can find me at @madpadre1) has been expanding to take in a number of people who - clergy and laity) who call themselves Weird Anglican Twitter. Some of their content seems campy and slightly precious - a delight in vestments, for example - but there is a deep desire in them to explore the full history of the Anglican tradition - pietism, Anglo-Catholic devotion, creedal belief, the church fathers. Some of the people I follow on Twitter are also signatories of this document.
As I find myself sliding inexorably towards retirement as a late boomer myself, I find great comfort and hope in the emergence of post-boomer religion. I doubt that I will ever share their fascination with, say, the Solemn High Mass, but I will be cheering them on from the sidelines.
Saturday, May 25, 2019
Readings for the Sixth Sunday of Easter: Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10-14,22-23; John 14:23-29. Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, Ontario, 26 May, 2019
“Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them’ " (Jn 14:26)
Recently, during this month’s session of Faith On Tap. we talked about what Easter means to us. We also talked about why it is, in the life of the church, that Easter is a season, like Advent or Lent, rather than just one day. Now if you can’t come to church that often, Easter Sunday is a pretty good day to come, it’s true. But if you come to church even semi-regularly, you’ll notice that we do things a little differently in the seven weeks between Easter Sunday and Pentecost Sunday.
During these seven Sundays after Easter we do certain things in church that we don’t otherwise do. We say “Alleluia” (a lot!), we dress the church in white, we light the paschal or Easter candle, we hear the stories of the earliest Christians from the Book of Acts in the place where we normally hear the Hebrew Scriptures read. During our Faith On Tap conversation, we talked about what these actions are designed to teach us and we agreed that they all point us towards the resurrection of Jesus as an ongoing fact rather than a one-time event. By repeatedly visiting his followers in the days and weeks after his resurrection, Jesus is showing them a new reality, a new creation, a new way of life that we are invited into as his disciples. In this new reality, joy replaces sadness, forgiveness replaces guilt, life conquers death.
So while the Easter season is a special time in the life of the church, we don’t stay here forever. Like every season, Easter has a beginning, middle, and end, and I think this was true of the first Easter. I suspect that if we could talk to any of the disciples about their time with him after the resurrection, they would have said that they knew that risen Christ had to go. I think all the disciples knew that in their hearts. There was just something about his mysterious comings and goings - passing through locked doors, suddenly appearing to them on the road, or standing by the side of the lake while they were fishing - that suggested that Jesus had changed in some profound way, that he was no longer part of the physical world as they knew it, and so he could not stay with them forever.
Certainly Mary Magdalene knew that. In John’s gospel, in his first appearance after his resurrection, Jesus says to her, “Go to my brothers and say to them, “I am am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (Jn 20:17). While John thus mentions it, the Ascension itself, Jesus’ return to heaven, is only described in one gospel (Luke 24:50-53). The church remembers this event on May 30, the Feast of the Ascension, though we don’t often think about it because this feast is not normally celebrated on a Sunday and is not often preached on.
So the Easter season begins with church remembering the resurrection, and as the Easter season begins to wind down, the story changes to Jesus returning the Father. We can ask, what are we supposed to think about as the Easter season ends? What would be helpful for us to reflect on? If Easter was a time when the Kingdom of God has never seemed closer and more real in the risen Christ, the man who stands before us having broken the chains of death, where does the Kingdom of God go when Jesus leaves the disciples for the last time?
In today’s gospel we see Jesus beginning to prepare the disciples for the time when he would leave them. John 14 is the start of the longest goodbye in the Bible. Now you might hate long goodbyes at the airport, but if you read all of John’s gospel, this is an epically long goodbye, what scholars call the Farewell Discourse. In John 14 Jesus begins three chapters of last instructions and teachings to his disciples before he is arrested in John 17. In these chapters Jesus tries to tell his friends why he must leave them, and tries to reassure them by saying that his death is necessary because it will lead to better things.
The language in today’s gospel is complicated (aka Johanine) but it in essence it is a promise that the disciples will never be abandoned and need never fear. Jesus will return to the Father after his death and resurrection, but in his place the Father will send the Holy Spirit: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will tech you everything, and remind you of all that I have” (Jn 14:26). The disciples won’t begin to understand this until the miracle of Pentecost, as we’ll hear in a few Sundays, when the Holy Spirit comes and allows them to take the message of Jesus into all the world.
So here are the key messages from today’s gospel for us, the descendants of the first disciples.
- We are not alone, and we never have been. The Holy Spirit is the final gift of God’s presence to us in Jesus.
- In returning to the Father, Jesus opens a ways for us to be with God in all God’s fullness: “we will come to them and make our home with them” (14:23)
- The Holy Spirit gives us peace and joy, by freeing us from the worldly pressures and worries that pull us away from God “(I do not give to you as the world gives”).
- The Holy Spirit is our teacher and our memory - it will “teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you”, and so the Holy Spirit allows us to live as God wants us to live (“those who love me will keep my word”).
In short, the Holy Spirit allows us to be the church. It allows us to be a people who live in the knowledge that the resurrection is the start of a new creation, the first glimpse of that New Jerusalem in Revelation, where there is only life, only love, only light, only God. The church is thus called to be the promise of something better, something yet to come, for we are situated somewhere between the Ascension and the New Jerusalem, somewhere between the return of Jesus to the Father and his return in glory at the end of time.
As we stand between these two times, we at St. Margaret’s are not that different from the little community that we heard of in our first lesson from Acts, the believers who welcome Paul and the apostles at Philippi. Lydia and her small group of believers are prayerful, open and attentive to what God may be calling them to do, ready to minister to the world but subtly apart from the world (at the gates), ready to be hospitable and ready to share the work with others (the apostles) to show Christ to the world.
Two thousand years later, our reality, our life as a community, and our strength as a parish comes from our faith in Christ and in the reality of his resurrection. and our belief that Jesus is one with God the Father. The Spirit that works in us - our humour, our prayerfulness, our care for one another, our hope, our hospitality and our willingness to share our belief with others - comes from the Holy Spirit working within us. As we think to the years ahead, and to what we can offer to the community around us, our greatest strength and advantage is precisely this same Spirit, the presence of God in Trinity who will never abandon his people, our greatest hope, and our greatest joy.
My prayer for us at St. Margaret’s, as we discern our future and our mission to those around us, is that we may always build on our greatest strength, namely the Spirit that is the very presence of God among us, the God who will never abandon us, and who empowers us to show God’s life to the world.
Saturday, April 27, 2019
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