Monday, October 21, 2019

In Search Of Justice: A Sermon For The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Sometimes I spend less time on a text than I would like, and this sermon was one of them.   I had however never thought of the parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge as being about justice, despite Jesus' words to that effect in vv 7-8.   I think I've previously thought of it as being about persistence in prayer, which is part of it, to be sure.  At any rate, I'm happy I now see the text in a newer light.  MP

A Sermon Preached at St. Margaret of Scotland Anglican Church, Diocese of Toronto, Barrie, ON, 20 October, 2019, the

Lectionary Texts for the Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost:  jeremiah 31:27-34, Psalm 121, 2 Timothy 3:15-4:5, Luke 18:1-8

And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:7-8)

This last week at work, one of my colleagues has spent a lot of his time with Canada Revenue Agency, trying to something fixed with his tax file.   I’ve frequently looked into his office to chat and seen him on the phone, only for him to say “It’s ok, I can talk, I’m on hold”.   Sometimes I could hear the muzak coming from his speaker phone when he was waiting for someone to get back to him.

After going through three or four different people, over the course of several days, my friend got his problem fixed.   I’m sure you’ve all had similar experiences, perhaps with a bureaucracy of some sort, where you’ve had to get you want from sheer persistence, just by making a nuisance of yourself.

So there are times in life when we might feel ourselves to be like the widow in the parable which is today’s gospel reading.   Of course, the difference between us and the widow is that the people and the bureaucracies we have to deal with are not wicked.   They may be slow-moving, maddening to deal with, and their rules may be ridiculous and even stupid, but they are not generally corrupt.   The widow on the other hand has to deal with “a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people” (Lk 18:2).  

Certainly there are places in the world where justice, such as it is, is in the hands of the wicked and corrupt.   Imagine if an updated version of this parable was set in some neighbourhood in Central America that was controlled by cartels, and the widow having to go ask a drug lord to help her settle a dispute.  In this version of the story, we would admire the widow’s courage and persistence, while wishing that there was some way that she could obtain proper justice from people with integrity.

Jesus’ audience would I think have had a similar reaction.   They lived in a society where tyrants and despots like Herod enforced the rules.  The would have seen the parable through the lens of the psalms, which see people like the widow as being especially deserving of God’s justice:  “Give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and destitute” (Ps 82:3).

For those who first heard or read this parable, the point of it would have been the widow’s persistence.   They wouldn’t have said, “Well, it goes to show, eh, the squeaky wheel gets the grease”.   Rather, the point of it would be to reinforce the call in Israel’s scriptures for God to come with God’s justice:

“O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek, you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the meek and for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more.” (Ps 10:17-18).

Jesus’ parable thus takes up a call for justice for the poor and powerless that runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures.  Verse 7 of the gospel reading should be read in this context as a powerful promise that God’s will bring justice to the world:  “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” (Lk 18:7).

Jesus is explaining the parable as follows:  If a stubborn widow can get some justice out of a wicked judge, how much more can the faithful get from God?  The final lines of the gospel reading are eschatological, in that they point to a day of justice that God will deliver at a time of God’s choosing: “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”   However the Gospel ends on a question that seems almost foreboding: “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

There are several answers we could give, depending on how we read today’s gospel.  if we read it as being about prayer, we could say that faith is measured by our persistence in prayer.   However, I think that if we read it as being about justice, we could say that faith is the extent to which we believe in and strive for God’s justice, in our actions where possible, and in prayer often.  In this context, “faith” is understood to include “faith/belief in God’s justice”.

Caring about justice doesn’t necessarily mean that we as Christians and as Canadian Anglicans need to align ourselves with any one political party or cause, though it does mean I think that we care about what happens in the political realm.   I think we have pretty good instincts when it comes to looking around us and recognizing injustice.  Injustice is simply that which isn’t right.

For example, it’s not right that children go to school with empty bellies

It’s not right that so many of Canadian indigenous communities do not have safe drinking water

It’s not right that God’s creation is being destroyed and that species are going extinct daily

It’s not right that hundreds of thousands of people are abandoned and left defenceless after two powerful men have a brief phone conversation

And on and on and on …

In this parish there are ways that we can and do act for justice.   Our deacon’s cupboard is one example.   Being an open and inclusive community is another.    But as the gospel reminds us, we are called to pray always and not to lose heart. 

Our prayers of the people should always include prayers for our community and for the world.   We need to be as intentional and as deliberate in praying for Barrie, for Canada, for troubled places in the world, as we are when we pray for our families and for our loved ones.  Praying for justice requires effort and patience, especially when it’s easy to lose heart.  Praying isn’t a way of alerting God to bad things happening here or there.  We can presume, I think, that God knows and God cares, passionately, and that God is acting in the world.  Praying for justice, I think, is a way of aligning ourselves with God in the world.

I think of two men of faith who were in the news recently.  Both exemplify the faith in and persistent work for God’s justice that are relevant here.

One is Elijah Cummings, the American political who died last week,  The son of poor farmers and Baptist preachers, an advocate for residents of poor neighborhoods in Baltimore, champion of healthcare for the poor, he worked right up to the day he died

The other is Jimmy Carter - married to Rosalyn for 73 years, longer than some presidents have been alive.  Now in his nineties, he still teaches Sunday school, and still devotes time to Habitat for Humanity, building homes for the homeless.

Both men are examples of good people who cared about God’s justice and did what they could to pursue it.  As impressive as they are compared to what you or I might do, their efforts may seem like a drop in the ocean compared to the injustice in the world. 

However, prayer reminds us of God’s purpose and plan to rescue and redeem the world, to return it to the way he created it.  I think of another widow in Luke’s gospel, not the widow of the parable that we heard today, but one who is mentioned in the nativity stories, the prophet Anna, who lives long enough to see the Saviour born:

She was of a great age, having lived with her husband for seven years after her marriage, 37then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.  Luke 2:36-38)

Anna reminds us that prayer is heard and answered, that God does care for the world enough to send us his son, and that as Christians, are prayers are part of God’s ongoing work in Christ to save and rescue the world.

Gracious God, we thank you that you are not like the judge in he parable, and we thank you that you do hear our prayers.  We pray that you give us hearts for your justice and for the world you have given us.   Give us faith and persistence to pray, so that our work and prayers may become part of your justice.  Amen.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

At What Price? Thoughts On God's Strange Economy

10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Timothy 6:10).

Preached at Trinity Protestant Chapel, Canadian Forces Base, Borden, 29 September, 2019.  Readings for the Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost:  Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 146, 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

I love how the church's lectionary, it's regular cycle of scripture readings, can speak into the particulars of my life.   Take the readings this Sunday, which touch on money and mortality, which illuminated for me some of the content of the "How to Retire" aka SCAN (Second Career and Networking) seminar I took last week.

SCAN is one of those things you do in the CAF checkout lane.   Its a useful sort of activity, because we all have to leave, voluntarily or otherwise, and theres a lot to think about as we go from a military life to a civilian life, and theres a lot about resume writing and networking and retraining and possible second careers, which are all good to know about.

Briefings about benefits, educational opportunities, pensions, disability allowances.  In other words, there was a lot of stuff about money:  how much do you need, how much you can get?   Can I get compensated for an injury incurred during my military service?  Can I get money to go back to school?  Can I get money to go back to school and retrain for a second career?

The people in the room, mostly middle aged, got really thoughtful when they started to reflect on their own mortality.  That happened when they talked about what age you could take your pension - 55?  at 60 when, as the presenter said, you have one foot in the grave?   at 65?   

Then, when they started talking about survivor’s benefits and the importance of making a will, that’s when people were reminded that they we can’t take it with us.     Everything has an end.  There’s nothing more sobering than realizing how actuarial tables work, and how choosing when to take a pension is to place a bet on how much longer one will live.

Life,  career, money, death.  All of these things are good and necessary to think about.   Someone once said that being hanged in the morning concentrates the mind marvellously, and the same is true when you realize that the pay check and benefits that we’ve come to depend on will come to an end. 

The good news that day was that by and large, the people in that room will be ok.  They have decent pension plans, they have good benefits and good prospects of second careers.   The medical release process is fairly generous.   People will be looked after and the wolf will be kept from the door.

As I left the seminar, I couldn’t help but wonder, what about all the people facing old age without these things?  According to Statistics Canada, fewer than half of Canadian workers, and fewer women than men, have a workplace pension plan.  Many people will enter their late years without much security or rest.  That cheerful old person greeting you at WalMart may not be there by choice.

Why spare a thought for them?   Because that’s what Christians do.  The gospel is pretty clear that our responsibilities extend well beyond meeting our own particular needs and responsibilities.   For every word that scripture tells us about what to do with our bodies, there are many more that tell us what to do with our money, and this is especially true of the gospels.

Two of the readings today speak very clearly about our relationships to wealth, to God, and to one another.   They describe both God’s economics and God’s justice, and they give us some rich opportunities to reflect on what we do with the material gifts that God has given us:  “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (v 10).  Note that it is not the root of all evil, but is definitely a source of evil.  If there “godliness” can bring us “contentment”, then the desire for wealth leads in the opposite direction, taking away from “faith” and into a state of life where we are “pierced with many pains” (v10).  

What are these pains?  Could they include anxiety?  A restlessness that comes from never having enough?   Worry about what happens when the money runs out?   A materialism that leads us away from our relationship with God and into a kind of idolatry where we think that we must be self-sufficient in all things, not needing God or anyone else?

Surely we see all these things in the world around us, in our politics, our popular culture, even in our neighbours and in ourselves.   I think of a man I knew who tracked his stock portfolio online, back when that was a new thing, and would shout red-faced at the screen when his investments had a bad day.   He had by any standards a comfortable existence, and yet he was “pierced with many pains”.

Of couse, wealth and more are one of those subjects, like war and non-violence, that Christians have long debated.  It would take far too long to sketch a summary of Chrisian attitudes about wealth and money over the years, but it would probably start with the earliest church, in Acts 2, which sold its goods and lived held all things in common, the church in Corinth which Paul accuses of ignoring the social divisions of its members, through the middle ages and the established church’s great acquisition of land and wealth.    We could spend an hour looking around Christianity today, with the debate over the prosperity gospel, and the way that churches today tend to mirror social, class, and racial divisions in western culture.

Well, when in doubt, ask a simple question:  what does Jesus say?  Last Sunday I preached on the first half of Luke 16, the parable of the dishonest manager, which is perhaps the most difficult of the parables to interpret because it’s the story of a rascal who cooks the books, tricks his master, and yet appears to do well from it.  The important thing about the parable is that Jesus twice uses the phrase “dishonest wealth”, and Jesus contrasts the dealings of the people of this age with the dealings of the children of light.

The phrase “dishonest wealth” invites us to read the gospels as showing that Jesus had, at the very least, a healthy skepticism about wealth, as we might expect from an itinerant preacher.   Certainly we know that Jesus and his disciples needed money to get by; they had a common purse, women of some means who helped them financially, and they had trades and means to make a living, like boats (Jn 8:2-3, 12,6).  Was this a lavish lifestyle?  I’ve heard that some defenders of the prosperity gospel argue that Jesus and his disciples were in fact quite wealthy, but to me that argument seems to fly against the teaching of Jesus.

If we look at some of the parables, there is nothing that a shrewd financial adviser would admire.  Consider the three parables in Luke 15 that come just before our gospel reading 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 as we understand it don’t seem to apply to the kingdom of heaven.

Today’s gospel reading is a parable about a rich man who has no compassion for a poor man named Lazarus (16:19-31).   The first part of the parable paints a highly exaggerated picture of contrast, from the rich man’s purple robes to the dogs licking the sick and frail body of Lazarus.  Both die, and the rich man discovers the truth of 1 Tim 6:7 “we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it”.  In the afterlife, the rich man is punished and now envies the comfort of heaven given to Lazarus, but unlike he ghost of Jacob Marley in Dicken’s Christmas Carol, the rich man is not given the chance to warn others of his fate.

Some approaches to the parable however focus on the proximity of the two men, and the fact that the rich man knows Lazarus’ name.   How does he know that?  If he knew Lazarus’ name in life, was he not even more obligated to do something for him?  The rich man doesn’t even have our excuse of treating the homeless on our streets as nameless, faceless things that we can safely ignore, or even treat as nuisances.   And yet, as the commentator Mitzi Smith notes, "he asks that Abraham demonstrate mercy by sending Lazarus to cool his tongue by dipping his finger in water and placing it in his mouth to alleviate his agony (Luke 16:25). In death as in life, the man treats Lazarus as if he is a slave/subordinate whose purpose is to serve him.”

Again, I would say that when trying to understand a parable such as this one, context is everything.   We need to look at what Jesus says elsewhere and how that parable fits into his wider teaching.  In fact, he has a lot to say to the rich, including that they "consider selling all their possessions and redistribute the proceeds to the poor (18:18-25); be commended for giving half their possessions to the poor and making restitution to those they defrauded (19:1-10); and he shames the rich who contribute gifts to the Temple from their wealth, while a poor widow gives her; she sacrificed (too) much and they gifted relatively little (21:1-4)” (Mitzi Smith, commentary).

It would be tempting to end this sermon by encouraging you to try a little harder to remember the poor, to show the less fortunate some kindness, and give a little more at church.    However, that sort of exhortation might risk buying into a kind of works righteousness whereby we simply try harder to do our best to be kind and, hopefully, to please God.   It is true that 1 Timothy 6:18 encourages us to “do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share”.

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).

Let me finish by focusing on the word “confession”.   It is not meant, I think, in the sense of admitting to bad things that we might have done, as the sheep in the cartoon at the top seems to think.   Rather, as the Lutheranscholar Karl Jacobsen notes,

"Confession,” homologeo, has to do with two things: first, it may be a confession of faith, like the description “I believe in ... ”. Second, this confession is an exhortation to faith, like the prescriptive, “Believe this ... ” or “Do not doubt but believe” (to coin a phrase). Homologeo occurs just a few times in the New Testament. Here, of course, and tacitly in the description here in 1 Timothy in the story of Jesus before Pilate, and again in Hebrews 3:1, where Jesus is called, “the high priest of our confession.” Here in Timothy, that good confessions is, as I have said, first made by Jesus and then echoed by Timothy. In Hebrews, the good confession is both the confession of Jesus the high priest—he is the one who makes it for us—and at the same time the confession we, in turn, make about Jesus our high priest. There is both a subjective and an objective sense to our good confession. Most striking is the use of homologeo in 2 Corinthians 9:13, as it parallels 1 Timothy’s pairing of the good confession, and the warning about the love of money."

Our relationship to wealth must begin and end in our relationship with Jesus, our full identification (confession) of him, and must be grounded in a fulsome participation in the economy of the kingdom of God.   As we have noted, God’s economy as seen in the parables of Jesus doesn’t look much like earthly economies.   In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, it is easy to imagine that we might tinker with the edges of it to make it less intimidating.  What if the rich man had spent a little more time worrying about Lazarus?  What if he had given a small fraction of he wealth to the poor?  Would that have saved him?

Possibly.  Martin Luther once said that  “You can’t feed every beggar in the world, but you can feed the one at your gate”, which in the end may be all that we can do. 

However, I think we also need to be open to a radical imagining of the world, in which divisions of wealth and poverty are completely swept away in the kingdom of God.   Certainly it will be thus in the kingdom of heaven, when we arrive there with nothing that we had on earth, but only our soul, which might indeed be a very poor thing indeed, but whose value only heaven can tell. 

I once knew a person who had learned that they had a month to live, maybe less.   We talked about what that person imagined their arrival in heaven to be like, and to their credit, it was not the kind of thing you hear in many eulogies where the afterlife is a lovely place where we do what we want.   No, this person had thought through the mechanics, the economics, of their arrival.

First they will read my account in the Book of Life, this person told me, just like in St. John's Revelations, and it won't all be pretty.   Then I will be asked what I have to say for myself and I will point to Jesus and say, "ask him.   He's the only reason why I'm here".   I reckon that will be enough to get me in.

I thought that answer was simply splendid.  Christians, I think that we are called on to remember, as best we can, that our economics must align with the economics of heaven, and that the final transaction we are involved in will but be our own, but God, through our confession of his son, Jesus Christ, purchasing and redeeming our poor and impoverished soul, at a great price, through the abundance of God’s love.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


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