9-20-19 - Gotta Serve Somebody

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

Bob Dylan sang it: “You gotta serve somebody.” He was partly quoting Jesus:
“No servant can serve two masters; for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth."

I’ve said before that the realm of God is a “both/and” kind of place, not “either/or.” Why can’t we serve God and wealth? I know an awful lot of people who are trying like crazy – including me and the institutional church structure of which I am a part. Where’s the Good News for us?

Jesus tells this story about a dishonest employee who gets caught, lands on his feet and earns commendation instead of condemnation. He suggests that the “children of light” are to look for eternal returns, not play the world’s games. And then we get the wrap-up: 

"Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?”

Is he talking to the temple leadership, raking in fees from the bloody business of animal sacrifice? Is he talking to the Pharisees, focused on minutia of the Law instead of its heart? Is he talking to religious leaders who turn a blind eye on dishonest business practices, such as the prophet Amos decried: “…you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land…,” who “make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances?”

Is he talking to us? Can we enjoy our wealth without serving it? Share it without letting it run us? See it as God’s gift entrusted to us to nurture and grow, not as ours to keep and hoard? The tradition of the tithe suggests we enjoy 90 percent of what comes our way, and return 10 percent to support the mission of God in the world and in our communities. 90 percent – that’s a pretty good return!

In what gifts and areas do you feel you are being faithful with what God has entrusted to you?
Give thanks for that freedom! Would you like God to give you more of any of that to nurture? Ask!

What things in your life might you be holding too tightly, too anxious to trust? 

Ask God to show you how those are God-given gifts, not yours to keep. 
Offer God your clenched hands, ask God to help you open them.

You might even visualize holding those things/people/assets in your open palm, putting them in a beautiful box without a lid, and handing them to Jesus. He's not going to take them away from you. He’s going to join you in the tending and nurturing of what you hold precious, as you allow him - just as he tends and nurtures you, precious as you are to him.

We worship a God who wants to fill our lives with blessings. We need open hands to receive those gifts. We need open minds to imagine the grace that commends us, even when our performance isn’t so good. We need open hearts to love even a fraction as much as we are loved. That’s the wealth that is God – we can serve that whole-heartedly.


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9-19-19 - Two Ways

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

Yesterday, I made a distinction between relying on God and relying on our own wits and resources. Is that valid? Didn’t God give us our wits and our resources? Yes – and perhaps this parable highlights the difference between using all that giftedness in God’s game, and taking what God has given us to fuel our own games.

Jesus certainly contrasted the “children of light” with the “children of this age.”
“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.”

Jesus’ commentary on his parable is profoundly perplexing. The dishonest manager is not condemned by the boss, but praised (we don’t know whether or not he kept his job…). Is Jesus also commending his loose ethics? And what on earth does he mean by: “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.”

I frankly believe that Jesus was being sarcastic – it’s the only interpretation that holds up. Jesus was telling his followers, “Look, if you’re worried about what’s going to become of you, cozy up to people who can help you… but if you want to follow me to the eternal home I can prepare for you, it’s a different strategy.”

The ways of God and the ways of this world are different and sometimes incompatible. We hear God speak it in Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, says the Lord…” (55:8) and in Paul’s writing to the church in Corinth: “What we have received is not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God....”(I Cor 2:12) We see it in the way Jesus instructs his followers to behave in ways that are not “natural” – to turn the other cheek on attackers, to give up one’s possessions if asked, to risk one’s life in service to others. These are not the ways of the world, nor of those who would succeed on the world’s terms.

Those who follow Christ are called to be in the world, to love this life and all its gifts – and to hold it lightly, not to confuse it with the realm of God. We have dual citizenship in both realms; we need to be clear about which “reality” is the most real. In what areas of your life are you living in God’s realm, and where are you in your own territory? Often we know by whether we’re anxious or at peace.

Who are the “children of light” in your life, for whom you can give thanks today?
Who are the “children of this age” around you? Do they influence you? 
How might you gracefully influence them?

Jesus didn’t withdraw from the world or from “worldly” people. He fully engaged them, building relationships in which many found themselves transformed. This is the world for which he lived and died and rose again. This is the world for which we are called to give ourselves, in love. We do that best when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, allowing God to love the world through us.

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9-18-19 - Self-Saving Strategies

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

When we left off, a rich man’s manager stood accused of squandering the property he was entrusted to tend, and was summoned to a smack-down with his master. He did not dispute the charges – here is his reaction: "'What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.'”

Lazy, proud and incompetent – there’s a trifecta. He acknowledges there are honorable ways of getting out of his jam, but chooses rather to run a scheme: 
"So, summoning his master's debtors one by one, he asked the first, `How much do you owe my master?' He answered, `A hundred jugs of olive oil.' He said to him, `Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.' Then he asked another, `And how much do you owe?' He replied, `A hundred containers of wheat.' He said to him, `Take your bill and make it eighty.'"

Not a bad plan. The boss gets some of what’s owed him, if at wholesale rather than retail prices. The customers get a deal. The manager has bought himself some influence with people who could do him a favor… which he will soon need. His plan is strategically sound. Does that make it good?

Jesus tells this story right after the one about the son who squandered his inheritance; two characters in deep trouble, who have misused resources entrusted to them. The son in the earlier story decides to come clean and entrust himself to his father’s mercy. The guy in this story decides he will keep trying to play the situation, relying on his own strategies – which is pretty much what got him into this pickle in the first place. A friend of mine called these “self-saving strategies,” the things we do and say to justify ourselves, to stay self-sufficient instead of God-sufficient.

Many novels, plays and films depict the ruinous consequences for characters who build their lives on layers and layers of lies and manipulation and self-saving strategies, which crash and collapse under them. You may know people like that. It’s an exhausting way to live. Most of us have some of those self-saving strategies in play, though. One of mine has always been trying to juggle more than I can manage well. And as long as I value affirmation and accomplishment and being productive more than relying on God for my sense of well-being, I’ll likely continue. Happily, I do it less than I used to…

What are some of your self-saving strategies? What in your life or work or relationships or self-image do you keep trying to “manage?” What patterns do you have that lead to more anxiety than peace?

Whether or not something comes to mind, you might reaffirm your desire to trust God for what you need. You can say whether you feel God is close or far away, substantial or flimsy – and ask Jesus to show you how to trust more. That’s my prayer – “Show me your way, Lord. I’m tired of mine.”

Jesus could have taken all kinds of outs – he had people to run to. He had power. Instead, he put his trust, all his trust, in God’s plan, though it looked like a way scary and painful plan. He really had to trust that the ending God had for this story was a whole lot better than it looked… And it was.

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9-17-19 - Performance Review

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

“I want to talk to you.” Six words that always strike fear into my heart. I immediately assume I’m in trouble. Dread pervades me as I wrack my brain to think what I’ve done wrong. I can usually think of something…

Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’”

Imagine the dread this manager felt as we went to the boss’ office. No need to wonder what he did – he's told straight out that the jig is up. The only thing left to do is settle accounts as favorably as possible. We’ll talk tomorrow about how this guy responds to that challenge. Today, let’s stay with the discomfort the prospect of such an interview can cause.

“Give me an accounting.” I preferred the God figure in last week’s parables, who seeks and finds and welcomes and forgives and restores and loves; the God of grace, not the God of justice. But guess what? There’s only one God. The grace and mercy are needed because the justice is true. And Jesus suggests more than once that we will be called to account for how we’ve managed the gifts and resources God has given us. So let’s take an inventory today for a mid-life performance review:

Make a list of all the gifts and resources you feel you’ve been given (family, skills, money, networks, location, genes, education, opportunities, relationships… what else?) What areas do you feel good about – where you’re using or nurturing what you’ve been given, and it’s healthy.

Are there any areas where you feel you’re squandering the resources entrusted to you – wasting, or not using, or mis-using, or avoiding? It’s worth naming those too.

Invite Jesus to look at your lists with you. How might you relate differently to the less fruitful parts of your life? What obstacles can you identify that keep you from thriving? Might you invite the Heavenly Trainer to work with you?

Good News: we don’t undergo our performance reviews alone. We have an advocate sitting right with us, the Spirit of truth, to keep our inner accuser in check. And our heavenly boss loves us so much, s/he wants to hear from us how we’re doing – and to work with us in the areas where we feel we could do better.

AND in this company, every employee’s performance is evaluated within the context of the performance of the best. The Best One in our company was pretty much perfect. So relax. We're good. This is not a conversation we need to fear.

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9-16-19 - Jesus the Accountant

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.)

Jesus didn’t name his parables – he just told them. Later, people compiling bibles added headings and titles, which often obscure as much as they highlight. Why name the story about the man and his two sons “The Prodigal Son,” and not, “The Merciful Father” or “The Resentful Brother?” Titles limit our view of the parable.

Parables are multi-faceted – look at one head on, it appears to say one thing; turn it just slightly, or look from the perspective of another character and, “Whoa, I never noticed that before…” And then there are some that, no matter how many ways you turn, it’s hard to grasp just what Jesus was saying. We get one of those this coming Sunday.

This parable is sometimes called “The Shrewd Manager,” and sometimes “The Dishonest Steward.” Both? Yeah. So let’s forget titles and look at the story: A rich man finds out his caretaker is squandering his estate. He calls him in, tells him he’s onto him, and demands an accounting. The manager realizes he’s about to be fired. He doesn’t want to do manual work or beg – so he cooks up a scheme. He calls in the man’s debtors and lowers each one’s bill if he’ll pay up. Now he has some income to show the boss; the debtors get a deal; and the manager buys himself some friends. Oh – and, Jesus says, the boss commends him for his savvy. What??? And why is Jesus telling a story of ledgers and balances and profit & loss statements? Isn’t accounting a little out of his wheelhouse as a carpenter and rabbi?

By some measures, Jesus talked about finance and how we use and get used by our money more than any other subject, way more than he spoke about sexuality or peace or justice. Because he knew that our relationship with money speaks volumes about our level of faith and trust and openness to the grace of God. And because money and managers are great metaphors for understanding our relationship to the gifts God gives us to enjoy and nurture and invest.

How would you describe your relationship with money?
(easy /trusting /anxious /clinging /generous /organized /playful /indifferent /attached /               )

Are there areas in your life in which you don’t feel you are a good steward of God’s gifts to you?
(time / relationships / vocation / health / place / nature / education /                     )
What are some areas where you use the gifts wisely and well?

In prayer, invite Jesus into all those parts of your life. If your relationship with money is not as easy as you’d like, pray about that. Tell God your anxieties. We’re called to be un-anxious – and sometimes we have to name our worries so we can let go of them.

Do you feel uneasy about your use or misuse of any gifts in your life? This is a good day to name those feelings, and repent for anything in particular that weighs you down. God wants us to be real and to trust in God’s loving grace.

Jesus told his followers they were no longer servants but friends. We can afford to look at our records as stewards without fear of being “fired” – and in the security of an awesome, eternal retirement plan.

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9-13-19 - I Love You the Most

(You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading - extended - is here.)

How do you feel when people get away with stuff? What if they say they’re sorry?

This week, we’ve looked at Jesus’ stories of the lost being found, with the refrain, “So there is rejoicing over one sinner who repents.” In the story of the son who left home with his inheritance and slunk back, broke and broken, the father who greets him with open arms says, “…let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.”

Do we rejoice when someone is forgiven for something awful? Not always. Jesus knew that – so his story doesn’t end with the celebration. There’s another part. The elder son, who has stayed and tended the estate he will one day inherit, hears music and dancing. “What’s going on?” he asks. “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.”

Does he run in with relief to greet his baby brother, whom they all feared dead? Not so much. He is furious. He refuses to join the party. Once again, the father goes outside to meet a son, and is met with a barrage of bitterness and resentment. Turns out the “good son” wasn’t so happy being helpful and compliant all the time. Or maybe he was – until he saw his ne’er-do-well brother seemingly rewarded after breaking their father’s heart and squandering family resources. Now he wants to know why he was never given so much as a goat to roast, when this “son of yours” gets the calf they’ve been fattening up for a feast?

This is the cry of all the “good girls” and “good boys” and responsible ones: “I did what you wanted. Why don’t you love me more than the one who screwed up?”

The father in Jesus’ story doesn’t distinguish “more” or “less.” He says, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’” In “all that is mine is yours” he is saying he can’t possibly love him MORE – he already loves him the most. And he can’t love his younger son LESS – his great love compels him to rejoice over this restoration of wholeness to the family.

How do you feel when someone does wrong and is forgiven, "gets away with it?" Think of someone. Can you see him or her with the Father’s eyes? That can move us to compassion.

This story has tremendous power to open people’s hearts to considering how vast God’s love is. I’ve told it to people in recovery, and most get it. Is there someone in your life who needs to hear it? Polish it up and tell it to them.

Some years ago, in prayer. I sensed God say to me: “I already love you the most. There is nothing you have to do, or can do, to make me love you more – I already love you the most, with the love that fills the universe and beyond.” It’s taking me some time to live into that love, and to extend it to others. Thankfully, I have a lifetime to learn to absorb it, trust it, let it make me whole. A ifetime, and eternity beyond that. You too.

For a rich and wonderful book on this story, I recommend Henri Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son.


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9-12-19 - Lost Boys

(You can listen to this reflection here.)

The gospel passage assigned for Sunday ends with the lost coin, but Jesus told one more “lost and found” tale in response to the grumbling about his dinner companion, this one set in the more complex realm of human relationships. We can only scratch the surface here, but let’s take a look.

The story may be familiar to you – a man had two sons. The younger, unlikely to inherit the property, decides it’s time to take off and make his fortune elsewhere. He needs some capital, and doesn’t want to wait for the old man to kick the bucket before he gets his nest egg, so he asks his father for his share now. Put another way,“If the timing were better, you’d already be dead, but you’re not – so give me my money; I’m out of here.” We might tell the young man to “Get lost!” Not this father. He loves him so much, he agrees, reducing his own assets considerably.

The younger son leaves, goes to a far country, squanders his inheritance living “high off the hog,” until that region is visited by famine. Once he’s out of cash, his party buddies abandon him, and he ends up living “low with the pigs,” as a swineherd, without so much as pig food to eat. In a beautiful phrase, Jesus says, “He came to himself,” and remembers where he came from, how even the servants in his father’s house had plenty to eat. He resolves to go home and ask for a job – he knows he has sinned, and forfeited his son-ship, but maybe he can be hired as a servant in his father's house.

Before he arrives, his father sees him coming, and rushes out to meet him on the road. The son cannot even get out his carefully rehearsed speech. The father kisses and embraces him, puts a robe around his shoulders, a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet – symbols of his restored status as a son and heir. He already got and lost his inheritance – now he’s an heir again. The father commands the servants to make a feast to celebrate his son’s return; soon music and the smell of roasting veal fill the air. That’s where the older brother comes into the story – we’ll get to him tomorrow.

Today, let’s find ourselves in the story of the younger son and the father. Have you ever had a time when you “wandered far in a land that is waste?,” as another translation puts it. 
What brought you back? (Are you back?)

Have you experienced the need for forgiveness, and found it? In a person? In God? Both? 
Some of us are still waiting to fully take in the forgiveness we know by faith is given us.

Forgiveness doesn’t come naturally, especially if we're used to a system of blaming and judging. To forgive means to “give for,” to pay ourselves what another owes us, what they already took. When we forgive, we release the debt owed to us. In a sense, we pay twice. Forgiveness is costly.

Jesus says: Look how lavish with his love God is! Though we wander off to things we believe will give us pleasure, or security, or power, or control, God greets us when we return, even before we get there. God extends us grace over and over and over again. This father in the story looks like a chump in certain lights – taken advantage of. But no. He gives with his eyes wide open, and will give again.

God gives with a heart wide open, offering us forgiveness, love and grace, unearned and unearnable, unmeasured and immeasurable. Can we say, "Yes" today?

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