Seeing and being seen: A lesson in community

Luke 19:1-10

Almost half my lifetime ago, I left my newspaper editor’s job in cold, wintery Bismarck, N.D., to serve overseas as a Peace Corps volunteer. I ended up in Kenya, in Eastern Africa, where Peace Corps, at my request, trained me to become a water technician.

For the first 10 weeks in Kenya, I lived in the central part of the country, attending classes every day, with the greatest focus on cultural and language training. At the end of that time, I was fairly proficient in KiSwahili, the national language. And then Peace Corps, in its wisdom, sent me out to the western part of the country to live and serve among the Luo peoples.

I wasn’t in my village but a few days before I realized that the Swahili I had labored so hard to master wasn’t quite the same Swahili the Luos spoke. I had learned classical KiSwahili; the Luos spoke something I later learned was called “dirty Swahili.” The former is highly technical and intricate; the latter is very simple and ignores all rules of grammar.

Which meant that my training, which had led me to believe that I could live and move and have my being among the Luo, was insufficient at best, a barrier at worst.

Kenya

All this became crystal clear to me within my first week in my village. Wherever I went, whenever I spoke Swahili, people looked at me in confusion. I couldn’t communicate that well, despite my high score on my language exam.

Worst of all, I could not properly greet people.

And greeting people, in Africa as in much of the world, is a very important part of life. Whether you greet them … how you greet them … even if you are just walking down the street (or the dirt path, if you live in much of the developing world) … all of those things place you in society. So if you can’t properly greet people, you really don’t have a place … you don’t know where you belong … or even whether you belong.

One morning, as I was walking down a dirt road, an old woman – and I mean, an old woman, with frizzy little tufts of grey hair on her head and a face filled with wrinkles and dark, dark eyes that peeked out from between those wrinkles – one morning, this woman greeted me on the road.

“I see you,” she said.

I was so startled that she spoke to me in English that I didn’t respond at first. I simply while I thought, I see you? What kind of greeting is that?

So I responded in kind.

“Um, I see you?” I replied, questioningly.

The woman smiled at me and stood there and waited for me to go on.

“Um, how are you?” I asked, not knowing what else to say.

“I am here,” she said.

OK, I thought.

“I am here, too,” I replied, thinking, Isn’t that obvious? We’re standing in the middle of a dirt road, face to face. Of course you’re here. Of course I’m here!

“It is good to be seen,” she said.

And then we began to talk, mixing Swahili, the version I didn’t really know well, and DhuLuo, the tribal language that I really didn’t know yet, and English, which she didn’t know well, and somehow she managed to teach me that in her tribe, as in much of Africa, a proper greeting begins with, “I see you.”

The proper response is, “I am here. I see you.”

The one who began the conversation concludes the greeting with, “I am here. It is good to be seen!”

In much of Africa, this greeting is what gives people life and builds community. You don’t walk down the street and ignore people – you see them. And by seeing them, you do more than acknowledge their presence in the same piece of earth that you occupy. You acknowledge their whole being. You grant them meaning. You name them as part of your community.

As we parted, she in her direction and I in mine, I realized: I had just been introduced to a whole new way of being.

I was seen.

Therefore I belonged.

And I saw.

Therefore the other person belonged as well.

Yes indeed, it is good to be seen!
• • •
Seeing and being seen is what today’s Gospel lesson is all about.

We have Luke’s story of Zacchaeus, the wee little tax collector who was so anxious to see Jesus that he climbed a sycamore tree in order to see over the people in the crowd.

Now most of the time, the focus for this story is on Zaccheus giving away half his fortune and paying back four times what he might owe to people because he had defrauded them. That focus centers on Zaccheus’ conversion and subsequent repentance for the wrongs he had done.

But this story is not so much about repentance as it is about inclusion. Or, more accurately, about God’s wild, radical, inexplicable inclusion of all of God’s beloved children, no matter what the world might think of them or how the world might treat them.

Zaccheus and Jesus

Zaccheus, remember, was the chief tax collector in Jericho; therefore he was:
(a) Rich. Luke says so;
(b) Despised. Tax collectors, as all who witnessed this event knew, were employees of the oppressive Roman government. Any Jew who worked for the Romans was considered a traitor. Any Jew who collected taxes for the Romans, thus keeping the Romans in power, was a double traitor; and
(c) Pretty much an outcast in his own society. See (a) and (b) above.

So when Jesus calls Zaccheus down from the tree – where he really had no business being, since he was both a grownup and a powerful man – Jesus was setting, yet again, another example of God’s incredible love, even for those whom society does not love.

Jesus teaches us, yet again, that God’s love trumps society’s hate. You see, society would have preferred that Jesus ignore that little traitor up in the tree, and society expected the Jesus would never have gone to that little traitor’s house, much less eaten with him.

But Jesus never paid much attention to what society wanted, did he? Instead of letting society dictate to him, Jesus dictates to society. He declares who is good, who is worthy. He determines who belongs, who is part of the community.

So what if society despises this wee little man? Jesus doesn’t.

So what if society has judged this tax collector and found him wanting? Jesus doesn’t.

Instead, Jesus declares that Zaccheus is a son of Abraham – a beloved child of God!

Jesus saw Zaccheus and declared him good.

Take that, society!

Jesus demonstrates to and for us an in-your-face, I-really-don’t-care-what-society-thinks radical hospitality that declares, once and for all, that all of us – that each of us – is a beloved child of God. That all of us and each of us belongs to God. That our community is in and with and through God – because God said so!

How many times have we declared that someone is not welcome in our community, is not one of “us”? We’ve all done it – we decide that because someone is different, looks different, sounds different, smells different, that he or she cannot come in to our community.

And how many times have we been told that we do not belong, that we can’t come in, that we are not welcome in a community? That has happened to all of us as well.

But both stances – saying no and being told no – violate the very image of God in which we are created.

We are created in God’s image of love, because we are not necessary to God (God was before we were and will be after we are, so we can’t possibly be necessary), and God’s image of community (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, always together). Since God created us in God’s image, God gets to decide who’s in and who’s out. And since God never votes anyone off the island, and God never says, “You I love; you … eh …” we are called to do the same. To include people.

To see others – really see them …

… and to be seen.

I see you, Jesus said to Zaccheus

I am here. I see you, Zaccheus replied.

I am here. It is good to be seen! Jesus said.

Zaccheus’ story is a lesson in community – in God’s community, and how God wants us to be in community. It’s a reminder that we don’t get to make the rules; God does.

God sees each and every one of us, welcomes us into the household of God, makes room for us, sits down and eats a meal with us.

And then God asks us to do the same. God asks us to see each other not for what we think they are, but for what God knows they are: God’s beloved children.

It indeed is good to be seen!

Amen.

A sermon preached at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Richmond, Va., on the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, 31 October 2010, Proper 26, Year C.

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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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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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