MDGs: For beginners … and finishers

From The New York Times:
By BONO
Guest columnist
(Published: September 18, 2010)

I’ve noticed that New Yorkers, and I sometimes try to pass for one these days, tend to greet the word “summit” with an irritated roll of the eyes, a grunt, an impatient glance at the wristwatch. In Manhattan, a summit has nothing to do with crampons and ice picks, but refers instead to a large gathering of important persons, head-of-state types and their rock-star retinues in the vicinity of the United Nations building and creates, therefore, a near total immobilization of the East Side. Can world peace possibly be worth this? Never, never…Eleanor Roosevelt, look what you’ve done … .

Deirdre O’Callaghan
Bono

Recent global summit meetings, from Copenhagen to Toronto, have frankly been a bust, so the world, which may not know it yet, is overdue for a good multilateral confab — one that’s not just about the gabbing but about the doing. The subject of the summit meeting at the United Nations this week is one whose monumental importance is matched only by its minuscule brand recognition: the Millennium Development Goals, henceforth known as the M.D.G.’s (God save us from such dull shorthand).
The M.D.G.’s are possibly the most visionary deal that most people have never heard of. In the run-up to the 21st century, a grand global bargain was negotiated at a series of summit meetings and then signed in 2000. The United Nations’ “Millennium Declaration” pledged to “ensure that globalization becomes a positive force for all the world’s people,” especially the most marginalized in developing countries. It wasn’t a promise of rich nations to poor ones; it was a pact, a partnership, in which each side would meet obligations to its own citizens and to one another.
Of course, this is the sort of airy-fairy stuff that people at summit meetings tend to say and get away with because no one else can bear to pay attention. The 2000 gathering was different, though, because signatories agreed to specific goals on a specific timeline: cutting hunger and poverty in half, giving all girls and boys a basic education, reducing infant and maternal mortality by two-thirds and three-quarters respectively, and reversing the spread of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. All by 2015. Give it an A for Ambition.
So where are we now, 10 years on, with some “first-world” economies looking as if they could go bang, and some second- and third-level economies looking as if they could be propping us up?
Well, I’d direct you to the plenary sessions and panel discussions for a detailed answer…but if you’re, eh, busy this week…my view, based on the data and what I’ve seen on the ground, is that in many places it’s going better than you’d think.
Much better, in fact. Tens of millions more kids are in school thanks to debt cancellation. Millions of lives have been saved through the battle against preventable disease, thanks especially to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Apart from fallout from the market meltdown, economic growth in Africa has been gathering pace — over 5 percent per year in the decade ending in 2009. Poverty declined by 1 percent a year from 1999 to 2005.
The gains made by countries like Ghana show the progress the Millennium Goals have helped create.
At the same time, the struggles of places like Congo remind us of the distance left to travel. There are serious headwinds: 64 million people have been thrown back into poverty as a result of the financial crises, and 150 million are hungry because of the food crisis. And extending the metaphor, there are storms on the horizon: the poor will be hit first — and worst — by climate change.
So there should be no Champagne toasts at this year’s summit meeting. The 10th birthday of our millennium is, or ought to be, a purposeful affair, a redoubling of efforts. After all, there’s only five years before 2015, only five years to make all that Second Avenue gridlock worth it. With that in mind I’d like to offer three near-term tests of our commitment to the M.D.G.’s.
1. Find what works and then expand on it. Will mechanisms like the Global Fund get the resources to do the job?
Energetic, efficient and effective, the fund saves a staggering 4,000 lives a day. Even a Wall Streeter would have to admit, that’s some return on investment. But few are aware of it, a fact that allows key countries — from the United States to Britain, France and Germany — to go unnoticed if they ease off the throttle. The unsung successes of the fund should be, well, sung, and after this summit meeting, its work needs to be fully financed. This would help end the absurdity of death by mosquito, and the preventable calamity of 1,000 babies being born every day with H.I.V., passed to them by their mothers who had no access to the effective, inexpensive medicines that exist.
2. Governance as an effect multiplier. In this column last spring, I described some Africans I’ve met who see corruption as more deadly than the deadliest of diseases, a cancer that eats at the foundation of good governance even as the foundation is being built. I don’t just mean “their” corruption; I mean ours, too. For example, multinational oil companies. They want oil, and governments of poor countries rich in just one thing, black gold, want to sell it to them. All well and good. Except the way it too often happens, as democracy campaigners in these countries point out, is not at all good. Some of these companies knowingly participate in a system of backhanders and bribery that ends up cheating the host nation and turning what should be a resource blessing into a kind of curse of black market cabals.

Well, I’m pleased to give you an update on an intervention that some of us thought of and fought for as critical: hidden somewhere in the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill (admit it…you haven’t read it all either) there is a hugely significant “transparency” amendment, added by Senators Richard Lugar and Benjamin Cardin. Now energy companies traded on American exchanges will have to reveal every payment they make to government officials. If money changes hands, it will happen in the open. This is the kind of daylight that makes the cockroaches scurry.
The British government should institute the same requirement for companies trading in Britain, as should the rest of the European Union and ultimately all the G-20 nations. According to the African entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim, who has emerged as one of the most important voices on that continent, transparency could do more to transform Africa than even debt cancellation has. Measures like this one should be central to any renewed Millennium Development Goal strategy.
And the cost to us is zero, nada. It’s a clear thought in a traffic jam.
3. Demand clarity; measure inputs and outputs.
Speaking of transparency, let’s have a little more, please, when it comes to the question of who is doing what toward which goal and to what effect. We have to know where we are to know how far we’ve left to go.
Right now it’s near impossible to keep track. Walk (if you dare) into M.D.G. World and you will encounter a dizzying array of vague financing and policy commitments on critical issues, from maternal mortality to agricultural development. You come across a load of bureau-babble that too often is used to hide double counting, or mask double standards. This is the stuff that feeds the cynics.
What we need is an independent unit — made up of people from governments, the private sector and civil society — to track pledges and progress, not just on aid but also on trade, governance, investment. It’s essential for the credibility of the United Nations, the M.D.G.’s, and all who work toward them.
And that was the deal, wasn’t it? The promise we made at the start of this century was not to perpetuate the old relationships between donors and recipients, but to create new ones, with true partners accountable to each other and above all to the citizens these systems are supposed to work for. Strikes me as the right sort of arrangement for an age of austerity as well as interdependence. (The age of interrupted affluence should sharpen our focus on future markets for our sake as well as theirs.)
No leader scheduled to speak at the summit meeting is more painfully aware of this context than President Obama, who one year ago pledged to put forth a global plan to reach the development goals. If promoting transparency and investing in what works is at the core of that strategy, he can assure Americans that their dollars are reinforcing their values, and their leadership in the world is undiminished. Action is required to make these words, these dull statistics, sing. The tune may not be pop but it won’t leave your head — this practical, achievable idea that the world, now out of kilter, can re-balance itself and offer all, not just some, a chance to exit the unfathomable deprivation that brings about the need for such global bargains.
I understand the critics who groan or snooze through the pious pronouncements we will hear from the podium in the General Assembly. But still in my heart and mind, undiminished and undaunted, is this thought planted by Nelson Mandela in his quest to tackle extreme poverty: “Sometimes it falls upon a generation to be great.”
We have a lot to prove, but if the M.D.G. agreement had not been made in 2000, much less would have happened than has happened. Already, we’ve seen transformative results for millions of people whose lives are shaped by the priorities of people they will never know or meet — the very people causing gridlock this week. For this at least, the world should thank New Yorkers for the loan of their city.
Bono, the lead singer of the band U2 and a co-founder of the advocacy group ONE and (Product)RED, is a contributing columnist for The Times.

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Leaps of faith

Luke 16:19-31

I am a rich person.

I know this because I looked it up on globalrichlist.com, where I entered my income from last year and discovered that I rank in the top 13.74 percent of the wealthiest people in the world.[1]

U.N. wealth-per-capita chart

According to this web site, I am the 824,785,999th richest person in the world, this out of the approximately 6.8 billion people now living.

That is an amazing ranking, isn’t it? I was astonished when I found out how rich I am, when compared to the rest of the world.

At the same time, I also am a poor person.

I know this because I looked in the Census Bureau’s Poverty Report that was released a few weeks ago.

According to that report, I am incredibly poor.  I am so poor that I inhabit, according to the Census Bureau, something called the “poverty universe,” along with more than 40 million other Americans.

One report says I am rich. The other says I am poor.

Let me clear this up for you a bit: For the last five years, I have been an Appointed Missionary of The Episcopal Church. I served for four years in the Diocese of Renk of the Episcopal Church of Sudan, and for about one year in the Diocese of Haiti. During that time, I was paid, by The Episcopal Church, $6,000 per year.  $500 per month. I raised money during that time to help support me, so for both of those reports I consulted, I raised my income to $8,000 last year.

On a worldwide scale, I am rich.

In the “poverty universe,” I am poor.

Census Bureau Poverty Index

Somehow, I have managed to span the great chasm between rich and poor, the chasm of which Jesus speaks as he tells the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel.

The story he tells is not a new one. It is, in fact, much older than Jesus himself, coming out of the Egyptian tradition. But regardless of its age and provenance, the story Jesus tells is an important one, not just for the disciples and Pharisees who are listening then, but to us now.

Let’s get something straight right off the bat: Jesus – God – has no problem with wealth. We know that because the Bible tells us so. In this very story, Lazarus, the poor man who had been abandoned outside the gates of the unnamed rich man, is sitting next to Abraham, the patriarch of the people of Israel and indeed of the three great faiths of the world. Abraham was a very wealthy man, far beyond simply being rich. He had land, animals, money … By reading that Lazarus, a poor man in such bad shape that he was covered in nasty sores, so weak that he was licked by dogs (that most despised of animals), simply by reading that Lazarus is sitting in paradise next to Abraham, we know that wealth in and of itself is not a bad thing in God’s eyes. By hearing Abraham tell the rich man, “Sorry, you’re out of luck, Lazarus can’t help you,” we know that in God’s eyes, Abraham the wealthy man is also Abraham the exalted man.

So wealth is not the problem that Jesus is highlighting in this story.

The Rich Man and Lazarus

What Jesus is focusing on is the great chasm between wealth and poverty, between those who have, and those who do not have.

For it is that chasm that gets in the way of God’s will being done in God’s very good creation.

I know a lot about this chasm. I knew a lot about this chasm before I went online and found out that I am simultaneously rich and poor. In my time as a missionary, I have lived among some of the poorest people on earth. I have seen the poverty, and I know what it is like to be on the wrong side of the chasm.

In South Sudan, I lived in a mud hut, with no running water, very little electricity, lots of disease, limited food to eat. And I lived a life of privilege in Sudan, compared to the average person, who lived in a hut made of grass, who had no electricity ever, no clean water and no way to clean the water she had, frequently far too little to eat and no way to make enough money to ensure her children could grow up healthy and strong. I once had to explain to some U.S. government officials who wanted to learn what life was like in South Sudan that, no, there really was no functioning economy there, that most people were poor beyond belief, that there was never enough of anything, and no hope of getting any more. The Americans simply shook their heads in disbelief.

In Haiti, I lived in the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The area in which I lived was surrounded by terrible slums, where people had very little, and even less hope of getting any more, while at the same time they were surrounded by people of wealth. Compared to my life in Sudan, my life in Haiti was full of riches. But when my colleagues saw where I lived, and how I lived, they could only shake their heads and ask me why. Why didn’t I have electricity all the time? Why did I haul water up three flights of stairs? Where was my air conditioner? My TV? (Hint: No electricity, no AC, no TV.)

So I know something, quite a bit, actually, about the poverty that Jesus is attacking in this story we call “The Rich Man and Lazarus” but which one commentator says more accurately should be called “The-Indifferent-Man-Who-Could-Have-Listened-to-Moses-and-the-Prophets-and-Followed-God’s-Way-of-Life-and-Been-Welcomed-Into-Paradise-by-Father-Abraham-But-Chose-Not-To and Lazarus.”[2]

The rich man, who is given no name in this story, knew what he was supposed to do. The Torah, the Five Books of Moses, told him: Care for the poor, the sick, the widows and the children. Leviticus says to love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength. Deuteronomy says to love your neighbor as yourself. You cannot do the former if you do not do the latter. The Prophets who came after Moses said the same thing. Micah asks, “What does the Lord require of you, o mortal, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) Proverbs say that “If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard.” (Proverbs 21:13) Isaiah quotes God thundering, “What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” (Isaiah 3:15) followed by a promise from God to never forsake them. (Isaiah 41:17) Jeremiah laments: “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.” (Jer. 8:21), then asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jer. 8:22) Ezekiel proclaims: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezek. 16:49)

Moses and the Prophets continuously spread God’s word: We are to care for the very least among us.

In telling the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus continues in that same prophetic vein:

You see someone in need, you help him.

You feed the hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Make the lame leap for joy, the blind see, the deaf hear, the mute speak. Visit the sick and those in prison. Clothe the naked.

Lord knows – and it is true, God truly does know – that there is a great chasm in this world between the rich and the poor, between the have’s and the have-nots. You and I know it, you and I have seen it, some of you and I have lived in it.

But just because it exists does not mean we can’t do something about it.

Rich or poor – or both, if you are like me – we can cross that chasm – in this life – and we can do something about it, if we so desire. In this country alone, more than 44 million of us inhabit what the Census Bureau now calls the poverty universe. More than 85 percent of the world inhabits that same universe.

Is that what we want?

Is that what God wants?

The real question we have to ask ourselves this morning is this:

Are we willing to cross that chasm ourselves?

The only way to answer that question is to figure out what exists in our lives that keeps that chasm there, and keeps us from crossing it. We may not want to cross it because the poor are too much like Lazarus, covered in ugly sores, so weak that the dogs – the dogs – are able to lick his wounds without hindrance.

We may not want to cross the chasm because to do so would mean leaving our comfort zones, and we are afraid.

We may not want to cross the chasm because we may feel, in our deepest secret places, that sometimes, the poor deserve what they have, or rather, what they don’t have. We may feel that far too many of the poor are poor simply because they refuse to work.

(But know this: In this story that Jesus tells, Lazarus is so far gone that he didn’t go to the rich man on his own to beg. He was placed there because he was so far gone that the people who put him there knew the rich man was his last hope. So in this telling, Jesus is quite clear that he is not talking about people who refuse to work; he is talking about people who cannot help themselves.)

Whatever reasons we may have for not wanting to cross the chasm, we have so many more for doing so.

It doesn’t take much to become poor; we all know that. The economy in this country and around the world went from riding high to sinking like a lead balloon almost in the blink of an eye. We all know someone – and generally more than one someone – who lost their jobs, and then their savings, then their homes. Going from being a rich person to poor, which is so often outside our control, is frighteningly easy. In other words, one very personal reason for crossing the chasm is that because we could have been, and still might be, the ones on the far side, the ones who need help.

We know, too, that while there is nothing wrong with being rich – however you define that term – there is something wrong, in God’s eyes, with not using our wealth to help others in need. We may not be in a position to join Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and all those other billionaires who are giving away half their fortunes, but surely we are able to give something to those who have less.

And we may not be the ones who are called to work directly with the poor. Our call may be to use our wealth – however big or small – to help others help the poor. There is nothing wrong with that – each of us has different gifts, and some people’s gift is to fund the work of others.

Whatever our gifts are, the important question we always have to consider is this: Do we want to cross the chasm?

Because that surely is what Jesus is calling us to do today.

To make the leap of faith and cross the chasm.

Are we willing?

Amen.

A sermon preached on the  18th Sunday after Pentecost, 26 September 2010, Proper 21 Year C, at Christ Church, Millwood. 


[1] cf www.globalrichlist.com

[2] The Rev. Dr. George Hermanson, “Paying Attention,” on David Ewart’s www.holytextures.com,

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Mission: Now is the time for prophetic action on the MDGs

From Episcopal News Service:
By Devon Anderson and Ian Douglas, September 22, 2010

(The Rt. Rev. Ian T. Douglas, Bishop of Connecticut, upper left, and The Rev. Devon Anderson, Executive Director of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation, bottom left.)

[Episcopal News Service] This week the eyes of the world turned to the U.N. Summit on Millennium Development Goals, where world leaders have spent the last few days considering a "global, results-oriented action plan" to accelerate progress toward achieving the goals — which include cutting extreme poverty in half, reducing child mortality rates, and increasing access to education — over the next five years.

World leaders agreed in 2000 to achieve the eight goals by 2015.The summit met to examine successes and continuing challenges to progress as a foundation for renewing commitments, galvanizing coordinated action among all stakeholders, and eliciting the funding needed to achieve the eight MDGs.

In a nutshell, the summit will ask the world to move from talk to action.

The occasion of the summit is an opportunity for the Episcopal Church, which committed to the MDGs in 2003, similarly to celebrate its MDG successes up to this point, renew our collective commitment to 0.7 percent giving at all levels of the church, and redouble our efforts toward results-oriented action in the next five years. More crucial still, this summit, at this particular time in the life of the planet, is a clarion call for Episcopalians to perk up, garner our resolve, and commit to the kind of prophetic ministry that will be needed if we are to make good on our promises to be an effective, dynamic contributor to the MDG movement.

The Episcopal Church has come so far. As of early 2009, to our best calculations, some 82 dioceses across the Episcopal Church had included a 0.7 percent line-item in their annual diocesan budgets for global mission. Following suit later that year, General Convention inserted a 0.7 percent line-item into its triennial budget for MDGs, courageously locating our commitment to global mission squarely at the heart of the church, while bearing the full weight of that worthy commitment in painful budget cuts elsewhere. And all across the church, congregations and dioceses have begun important work forming relationships and partnering with people across the globe to curb hunger, provide needed health care and stem disease.

And yet, there is still so much to do. The Rev. Sabina Alkire, an economist and Anglican priest who directs a major international development agenda in Oxford, England, and who is a founding member of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation describes the work at hand this way: "The number of people living in abject poverty has reached one billion for the first time ever (just a few years ago it was 841 million hungry souls on earth). International aid budgets are being cut; and in many countries government-funded social programs are also being reduced due to shrinking economies. Even the countries that gave 0.7 percent for international development are giving less money in real terms because their economies are smaller. Where I sit, the secular development agencies are in turmoil. I wish the churches were equally concerned. It is a time for the church to be prophetic, to speak out, to sustain its own commitment and call on others to sustain theirs. Quitting is easy. But our actions have consequences for the poorest of the world."

Now is the time for prophetic action. The world leaders have come to New York briefed by their own economists and political advisors. They are negotiating commitments and generating their collective resolve as governments to achieving the MDGs by 2015. Clearly none disputes the worthiness of the MDGs. But even as they debate the best roadmap to 2015, world leaders are also weighing the probability that any specific commitment they make will pass muster with their citizenries.

But prophets don’t trade in probabilities. Maimonides, the Jewish scholar of the 12th century, argued that prophetic hope is belief in the "plausibility of the possible" as opposed to the "necessity of the probable." Likewise, biblical faith calls Christians to something more in this Kairos moment than settling for realistic probabilities. Biblical prophets and Jesus’ ministry calls us to sustain a vision where the needs of all are met in the economy of God.

At this difficult time in our human global economy, the prophetic witness asked of us cannot merely be one of words but of vociferous, concrete action. Now is the time to move from MDG education and promotion to a model that will enfranchise Episcopalians for goal-oriented action and commitment. The hard work of motivation, equipping and action remains before us. Prophets have action plans. After all, Micah implores us not merely to speak justice but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

— Devon Anderson is the executive director of Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation. Bishop Ian Douglas is the bishop of Connecticut and vice chair of the EGR board.

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The Dishonest Steward

Luke 16:1-13

Jesus is in the middle of telling a series of parables about finding that which once was lost – parables of the lost sheep, lost coins, a lost son, all of which were easy to understand and cause for rejoicing – when he launches into yet another story, this time about a rich man’s steward caught with his hand in the till, and once again, we are set back on our heels and left to wonder:

Did he really just say what we think he said?

Did Jesus really just lavish praise on a thief, on a crooked manager, on a cheat?

And did he really just instruct his disciples – did he instruct us – to live by sly cunning in order to get ahead?

When you listen to Luke, it sure sounds that way.

The Parable of the Dishonest Steward – that’s what this story is called. It’s also called one of the most problematic parables in the Gospels, because the message is mixed and makes us feel … uncomfortable.

It’s the story of a steward, a manager of a rich man’s estates. The rich man hears that the steward was cheating him … we don’t know exactly how, other than the fact that the steward was squandering his master’s property. The rich man is royally upset by these reports – for who wants to hear that someone you trusted, somebody you put in power, is wastefully throwing away your money?

Squandering, remember, means to be wasteful … reckless … decadent. But its first definition is to be extravagant … which can be both positive and negative. As we hear this story, we need to remember: The main charge against the steward is that he is extravagant …

At any rate, when the rich man learns of this, he hauls the steward in and says, a la Donald Trump, “You’re fired! Give me an account of all you’ve done, and get out.”

The steward reacts as any of us would, with great dismay and extreme worry. “What am I going to do?” he asks himself. “I can’t dig (like all those poor people over whom I’ve had authority for all these years). And I refuse to beg – that’s too just too shameful.”

So the steward thinks for a while, and then he goes right back to what he’s been doing all along: He becomes extravagant again.

He calls in all those who owe money to the rich man and asks, “How much do you owe my master?”

[Now here’s something to think about … why would the steward, the man charged with keeping the accounts, not know how much each person owed? Could this be the reason he’s being fired? Not because he’s stealing, but because he’s stupid? A good steward should know these things off the top of his head … he should at least have some books, an accounting … he should be ready for an audit, at the drop of a hat. That’s what good stewards do … they do more than keep an eye on the business. They run the business. But not this steward. He’s been so extravagant with the master’s business that he doesn’t even know what’s going on!]

So he asks the first person he calls in: “How much do you owe?” The peasant says, “One hundred jugs of olive oil.” Now, my friends, you know that olive oil is expensive, right? Good olive oil runs up to six times what regular vegetable oil costs. So if this man owes 100 jugs of olive oil – gallons and gallons of it – he’s probably in hock to the master for the rest of his life! He’s an indentured servant and owes everything – every teeny, tiny thing of his life – to the rich man. There’s no way he can get out of this debt – because that’s how the system was designed.

And what does the steward do? Does he demand payment? No. Does he threaten the man (which is probably what the peasant was expecting; after all, this steward is the rich man’s representative, which gives him life and death power over the peasant …)? So does he do that? No.

Instead, he says, “Write down 50 jugs …” Half of what you say you owe. Which suddenly makes the debt reasonable. Which gives the peasant hope that one day, perhaps, he can get out from under this brutal debt, meaning his children and grandchildren won’t have to suffer from it as well …

Every person the steward calls in finds their debt cut … some by half, some by one-fifth …

In order to make his own life better, in order to make the peasants who probably have feared him forever now think better of him, perhaps even like him, the steward acts extravagantly, forgiving their debts by slicing them down to size.

Oh, he doesn’t erase the debts. That would be going too far – if he did that, the rich man would come back and say, “No way. I won’t stand for this.”

But by cutting each person’s debt to a reasonable size, by forgiving the outlandish portions of those debts, the steward makes the rich man look good. He makes himself look good. His own future suddenly looks good again, too – remember, the rich man ends up praising the steward.

All because, in sheer desperation, out of unbridled terror and unremitting pride, the steward forgave debts.

It’s important here to step back a bit and examine what this means to Jesus. Before Jesus told his disciples this parable, he taught them how to pray. In what we now call the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to say, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who owe us.” Translated another way: As we forgive everyone who is indebted to us. This is not how we translate the prayer. In the King James Version, we say, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And in the so-called “modern” translation, we say, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” But neither translation is accurate, for in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels, Jesus says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who are in debt to us.” Jesus balances our sins against others’ debts … So Jesus is telling us, right in the prayer he taught us, that we are to forgive debt. Which is exactly what the steward did: He forgave debts.

• • •

I have a friend, a theologian, who spent more than a year working with this text. She thinks that the key to today’s Gospel is forgiving those who owe us.*

It doesn’t matter, Dylan says, how the steward got to that forgiveness, or even why he forgave. It doesn’t matter that he was only forgiving a portion of the debt, or that the debt wasn’t even owed to him.

What matters is that he forgave.

Forgiveness

That is what Jesus wants us to do: Forgive.

Jesus tells this parable, and praises this steward because, even though the steward did it for all the wrong reasons, he still showed mercy. He still forgave people.

And forgiveness is key to how we are called to live as disciples of Jesus. Not to hold on to debts, but to let them go.

How many times have we been in situations where a little forgiveness would go a long way … and we didn’t do it? And the situation got worse?

How many times have we been in situations where we didn’t feel in the least inclined to forgive, but we did so anyway, even just a little, with only half our hearts, and life was better, for us and for the people we forgave?

Jesus is very clear about this: We are called to be extravagant in our forgiveness. To squander our forgiveness. To scatter it hither and yon, when we want to, and when we don’t want to.

It simply does not matter how we get to forgiveness.

It does not even matter why we forgive.

It only matters that we forgive …

… the big things that get in the way of us living our lives fully devoted to God and God’s beloved creation: those times when our loved ones hurt us … when our friends fail us … when we are forgotten … when we are not appreciated …

… and the little things as well which, taken on their own may not mean much, but put together with all those other little things – squeezing the toothpaste from the middle … tossing our clothes on the floor … leaving dirty dishes in the sink … when those things combine to suddenly make our lives seem like nothing but an uphill struggle …

… all of these things and more …

… we are called to forgive.

Extravagantly.

With as open a heart as we can muster, at that given moment, with that particular person.

There’s a reason Jesus tells this particular story; there’s a reason Jesus showers praise on the steward.

Not because he was the best example out there.

But because even though he was a lousy example … he was dishonest, he wasn’t paying attention, he squandered his boss’ money … even though he wasn’t someone we want to emulate ourselves, he still managed to forgive.

Extravagantly.

And if someone as incompetent and dishonest as this steward can manage to do this, Jesus says, how much more can we – we who are his disciples, we who are children of the light – how much more can we forgive?

If the steward can be extravagant in his forgiveness, for all the wrong reasons, how much more can we be extravagant in our own forgiveness, for the right reasons?

“It boils down to the same thing,” my friend Dylan the theologian says. “Deluded or sane, selfish and/or unselfish, there is no bad reason to forgive. Extending the kind of grace God shows us in every possible arena … can only put us more deeply in touch with God’s grace.”

Even in the darkest of times, we who are children of the light are always called to forgive, and to do so extravagantly.

That’s really what Jesus wants to teach us today.

Amen.

* I am deeply indebted to Sarah Dylan Breuer’s exegesis, found sarahlaughed.net, http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2007/09/proper-20-year-.html, and http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2004/09/proper_20_year_.html.

A sermon preached on 19 September 2010, Christ Church, Millwood, Va.

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Sometimes we are called to hate

Luke 14:26

It would be so much easier this morning if we were listening to Matthew’s Gospel, wouldn’t it? The Gospel where Jesus, pretty much in the same setting, says, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”?

But we don’t have Matthew this morning, with its emphasis on love. No, we have Luke. And in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is not as gentle, not as nuanced, not as loving.

For in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says: “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.”

Whoever … does not hate …

At best, when we hear Jesus say this, we cringe. At worst, we ignore him. Because hate is not something that we associate with Jesus.

When I work with children and youth, I always stop them from using the word hate. You know how kids can be: I hate … broccoli. Or I hate my teacher … or that TV show … or that song. Kids use the word hate all the time. And when they do, I stop them. “You can’t use that word,” I tell them. “Jesus doesn’t tell us to hate things, so you can’t hate. You can despise. You can even severely despise. But you cannot hate. God did not create us to hate. God created us in love to love,” I tell them.

Which is true.

We are created in God’s image, and that image is, first of all, one of love. We know that because we are not necessary to God. God is necessary to us, but we are not necessary to God. And we know that because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so therefore we simply cannot be necessary to God. So God must have created us because God wanted us, God desired us. Which means God created us out of God’s love for us.

Which is why we simply can’t go around hating things, hating ideas, hating people. It simply is not how or why we were created.

But then we come to Luke’s version of Jesus’ saying, where Jesus is not gentle, not nuanced, not loving.

Jesus has just finished dining with a leader of the Pharisees, has just finished instructing the people to take the lower seat at the table, to feed the poor, the lame, the blind, the sick. Now he turns his back on that town and begins traveling, with “a large crowd following him.” And suddenly he turns to them and out of the blue says:

“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.”

What brought this on? Where did this come from?

Well, I’ll tell you: I think Jesus has had it.

I think he’s tired of explaining to people – high and low – what it means to be a disciple.

I think he’s tired of having large crowds follow him, without making any commitments.

I think Jesus knows that far too many people in the crowd were just along for the ride, wanting to see what would happen next with this young, itinerant rabbi from Nazareth who preached a radical message of God’s love and hospitality.

Remember, these are people who have been waiting for a Messiah for centuries. They wanted another David. They wanted Israel and Judah restored. They wanted the Romans out, their glory restored, their freedom back. Not that they were planning on doing anything about it. That’s simply what they wanted. So when Jesus showed up in their neighborhood, they followed him, just in case anything happened.

And I think, by this point in his ministry, Jesus has had it. He’s fed up with the freeloaders.

So he lays it on the line for them:

The only way to be my disciple is to hate everything else.

Now, to be clear, the way Luke uses the word hate is somewhat … slightly … different from the way we use that same word these days. And here I’m not talking about how some people use the word hate, like the kids in Youth groups do when they say they hate broccoli, or that TV show, or that song.

I’m talking about the kind of hate that is visceral, and emotional, and comes deep anger … the kind of hate that is the result of irrational fear … the kind of hate that nine years ago this Saturday flew into the Twin Towers in New York, slammed into the Pentagon, and brought down a plane in the Pennsylvania countryside, killing nearly 3,000 people … the kind of hate that tears apart the lives of people all over the world today: Israelis and Palestinians, Afghans and Taliban, Shi’a and Sunni Iraqis, Sudanese Arabs and Sudanese blacks … the kind of hate that is used to threaten people of faith here and around the world …

That is not the “hate” that Luke is describing in today’s Gospel. What Luke is talking is the disruption of the family in first-century terms. Hate here means disconnecting from everything that has previously defined a person: family, friends, genetics …  As one commentator describes it, when Jesus says to hate your family, he means to turn your back on the old ways of life, the old world as people in those days understood it, so that the new ways, the “new world of God,” can come into being.

So, you see, Jesus looked back and he saw all those hangers-on, all those free-loaders who were just along for the ride, who were following him to see what would happen next, but who would do nothing to make that next thing happen … he saw them, and he cut loose.

If you want to follow me, he said, be prepared. Following me is not easy. It comes with a cost. You want to be my disciple?You want to love God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength? You’re going to have to give up something. In fact, you’re going to have to give up a lot. Your family – which doesn’t want you to follow me. Your friends – who’d really rather have you come out and play with them. Your place in society … perhaps your job … your home … 

Because nothing – nothing! Jesus says – can come between you and God.

That’s what it means to follow me.

Not just traipsing across the countryside, waiting to see what happens next. Not just showing up when I preach, or coming to me when your need is great and you want to be healed.

No. You want to be one of my disciples? Jesus says.

Put God first. Every moment. Every day. In everything you do.

Jesus is being very clear: We are not created to be freeloaders in our faith. We are not created to simply follow along, so that we can see what happens next.

We are created to make the next thing happen.

We who are created in God’s image, out of God’s love, are the ones who are called to love in return. To feed the hungry and care for those in need … not “God on high,” not the “other guy around the corner” but us. It is up to us to make the next thing happen through our love … like your food pantry yesterday … and the Stop Hunger Now program this coming Saturday … and the FISH clothing bank this whole month.

We are the ones who are called to see the world’s needs about us, and do something about it, to change it … like this discussion that you are having about the possibility of nursery school here for that 40 percent of the children in this county who never have a chance to go to preschool.

This is what it means to be a disciple of Christ: We have to turn our backs on everything old, everything that defines us by society’s limited and often self-serving standards, so that everything new, everything that is God, can come into being.

And the only way that is going to happen is if we refuse to be the hangers-on and the freeloaders, just along for the ride, and instead actively decide to put God first … in every moment and every part of our lives.

Jesus is stunningly clear: Discipleship is not easy. Discipleship is not cheap. Being a disciple means that we have to be brave and stand up for what God wants, regardless of what society tells us.

And it means that sometimes, yes, we are going to have to hate, just as Jesus said – not in the visceral, evil way that we encounter so much in today’s world, but in the back-turning, decision-making, world-changing, radical way of which Jesus speaks in Luke’s Gospel.

Because that is the only way we can change the world.

Amen.

A sermon preached on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 18, Year C, by The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley at Christ Church, Millwood, Va.

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Avoiding mission drift

From The Alban Institute:

By Peter L. Steinke

Visiting a relative who lives on the Great South Bay off the shores of Long Island, several of us joined him for a boat ride. We were on the bay in early afternoon, enjoying the breeze and fast ride. Some dark, scattered clouds cast shadows on the water, but the sky was mostly blue. The weather forecast called for sunshine with scattered showers in the evening. But several of the dark clouds suddenly bonded together. A strong breeze accompanied the darkening sky. Within minutes, everything became gray, concealing any sight of land. The wind-driven rain made visibility even more difficult. Unable to see land, the skipper turned to his boat’s compass to orient himself and the boat. Motoring slowly, he was able to dodge other boats on the bay as we headed for the now-invisible shore. Eventually, we saw partial outlines of beach houses as we approached land. Totally drenched and hyperalert on our own adrenaline, we docked at our destination. Oriented by the boat’s compass, we escaped harm’s way, landing safely.

To be headed in a direction serves people well in life, just as it did for us on the bay. According to Edwin Friedman, a distinctive mark of a mature person is having clear life goals. Guided by personal goals, an individual is less likely to be distracted or detoured by the reactivity of others. Someone else’s behavior does not determine yours. Based on principles and values, you direct your life. Friedman often referred to the analogy of sailing to illustrate his point. Without a destination, a sailor on a lake meanders and drifts. The sailor will not adjust the sails to take advantage of the wind to proceed to the chosen landing place. If this is true on water, what about in life? Is orientation possible without destination?

Considering all of the complexities and challenges facing churches, it is amazing that more of them are not on the brink of oblivion or in harm’s way. Many are not using a compass to navigate the hazy conditions created by cultural shift. When consulting with churches embroiled in conflict or paralyzed by passivity, I always ask the congregation, “Does this congregation have a clear sense of its mission?”

Typical responses range from “poor sense of purpose” to “running in circles,” from “lack of vision” to “our mission is not to have a mission.” Questions like, Who are we? What is our primary focus? go begging for answers. Then when I ask individuals what they think the mission is, the answers are rote: “spread the word,” “support the church,” “love everyone,” and “preach the Bible.” No one has ever said, “Our mission is to turn the world upside-down,” or “to join God’s ongoing promise to recreate the world,” or “to let the world know that the resurrection means the world has not seen the last of Jesus Christ.” Some members believed their congregation had a sense of mission because they had a mission statement. Sad to say, few knew what it was.

Limping along without a focus is called mission drift. It is what happens when people come together to support an objective but forget what the objective is. People lose their reason for being, even though they go through the motions. Many things contribute to the sidetracking, such as compromising ideals in succumbing to a pressure group, searching for instant viability or solutions, grasping for saviors, fooling themselves that they are vital or viable simply because they endure, preoccupying themselves with nonessentials, exchanging their core beliefs for more marketable ideas, or failing to attend to what God is calling them to do in their little corner of the world.

If mission is so essential to the congregation’s life and well-being, what exactly does mission mean?

There is a movement called “the missional church.” People assign marks or attribute certain actions to a missional church, but I find the term confusing. It is similar to saying “the ruling government” or the “athleticism of the athlete.” Either a church is missional or it is not the church. Mission is the nature and purpose of the church, not some list of qualifiers.

An additional confusion about the word mission comes from assuming mission necessarily results in growth. Distinguishing between congregations in survival mode (not growing) and those in mission (growing) is not honest and certainly not helpful. Every congregation, as a living system, is in the survival business. Thousands of congregations are decreasing in numbers, but some are also alive and sensitive to mission. Who is to condemn them to the category of survival? All things eventually reach their maximum growth. Are they then to be renamed as survival systems? Survival is fundamental to all organic life. Anything can be eliminated, obliterated, or cremated. Survival is not the church’s problem. The threat of it may even be the very stimulus needed for new action and direction.

Countless churches are floundering, trying to understand why they exist. Mission drift is especially problematical for those churches that have experienced a steady decline in membership. A church that once numbered one thousand and now is supported by two hundred is a significantly different church. The mission is the same, but the refocusing needed for directing it escapes their imagination.

Systems theory refers to an individual’s functioning position, a specific way of behaving. Organizations, like people, are emotional systems that also develop ways of functioning. As congregations decline, their functioning position changes, yet many continue to function as if nothing has changed.

A congregation is a group of people who believe that more can be accomplished by joining with others. They come together with a purpose. To create more life, the people create a community of purpose. After many years of being together, though, people may wonder what happened to the purpose, to the vision, to the creativity, and to the meaningful service that once energized them. This is normal. Again and again, we have to explore why we came together. Congregations need to continue to review who they are and how they will respond. What are we trying to be? What is our calling at this time and in this place? Can we make a difference? Is there a purpose for our presence? If we are unaware of the particular view through which we are looking at the world, then we do not have any true choices about what we are going to see and how we are going to respond.

Mission is the expression of the church’s deep, abiding beliefs. Mission provides the major standard against which all activities, services, and decisions are evaluated. Mission is the preserver of congregational integrity. It is about God’s love for the world, not about what I like or don’t like about my church. A major function of the congregation’s stewards is to be the creators and guardians of the mission. They defend the mission against resistant forces that would threaten or destroy it. They oversee the mission’s implementation. They keep the mission alive.

Comment on this article on the Alban Roundtable blog

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Adapted from A Door Set Open: Grounding Change in Mission and Hope by Peter L. Steinke, copyright © 2008 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.

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