Sunday, October 12, 2008

Suppose There Were a Financial Meltdown and Nobody Cared

Practicing Stewardship:
Suppose There Were a Financial Meltdown
and Nobody Cared

A sermon preached at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, Washington, DC, Sunday, October 12, 2008

Leo Bebb is his name, and he is a character. A guy by the name of Frederick Buechner invented him and gave him not one but four novels in which to star. The third one of them is called Love Feast. Bebb is a southern, overweight white preacher whom we come to know because another character, much more like you and me, by the name of Antonio Parr, decides one day in New York City to follow Bebb in order to expose him as the charlatan that he had to be. Parr goes after him to Florida, to Connecticut, and then to Princeton, New Jersey. It is the 1970’s, just about the time that I myself was living in Princeton. The university is chock-a-block with hippies. It is to them that Bebb offers his message of salvation. He persuades the rather stodgy Princeton University to let him hold love feasts in Alexander Hall in the middle of campus. The students by and large love attending Bebb’s services, not the least reason for which is that he serves tropicanas, a tasty orange drink which he has imported from Florida.

By the time he reaches Princeton in the wake of Bebb, Antonio has discovered that Bebb is anything but a phony. His brand of Christianity, while unpolished and blunt, captivates Antonio with its courage and imagination. Bebb manages to attract a well-heeled supporter whose name is Gertrude Conover. Gertrude lives in a big house on Library Place in Princeton, which is truly the high rent district. His faithful patron, she offers to give a Thanksgiving dinner, expecting a crowd of university students stranded on campus during the holiday weekend. Her grand house, Revenoc, is immaculate, ready for the occasion. Wreaths decorate the big lions at the end of the driveway, whose gravel is carefully raked. Caterers deliver the makings of the feast to the house, all decked with chrysanthemums throughout. And when nobody comes, Bebb gives a little homily about how much there is to eat and how few there are to enjoy it, just as it was in Jesus’ story. So Antonio gets into a friend’s rusty Chevy. They go hunting through the nearly deserted streets of Princeton, rounding up unsuspecting people to come for Thanksgiving. Gertrude gets on the phone and calls some of her pearls-and-blue rinse friends. A miscellany of people, like “ants and anteaters, cats and dogs, lambs and lions…were stabled together there in uproarious harmony while outside the chilly sky darkened.” And there followed an amazing love feast where differences melted faster than the stock market last week.

Matthew’s story is not quite as nice as Buechner’s, let’s admit. Matthew got his story from Q, another author, and rang some changes on it to make some of Matthew’s own favorite points. Luke had a version that was closer to Bebb’s and Buechner’s, and the Gospel of Thomas told one, too. But Matthew wanted to let folks know that this was not just anyone behaving like Gertrude Conover with her slip showing innocently, but the God and father of Our Lord Jesus Christ who had given a banquet for his Messianic Son. Prophets of old, like servants of a king, had given out the invitations. They had been shabbily treated to say the least. So God, fed up with the combination of ungrateful guests and murderous villains, fell into a rage and up and burned the place down, presumably his own town, while dinner had to wait. Not a pretty sight! Then he gave the order to go into the main streets and invite everyone they could find to the wedding banquet. And just as at Revenoc, the wedding hall filled with guests. But Matthew wants us to know that the real messianic banquet, much more serious than even the parable would have it, was not a come-as-you-are affair. It involved complete conversion, symbolized by a new suit of clothes. All of that is the way that Matthew read history and understood it as a narrative of a gracious and just God who extended a generous invitation but was definitely not to be trifled with.

Ah, there is so much here if we want to mine this parable for some cues as to how to practice our Christian faith! There is a message about carelessness and one about carefulness. There is a message about generosity and one about profligacy. There is a lesson about welcoming, balanced by another about presuming on the graces of the host. Where to dig in?

If it is all right for Matthew to take a story and use it to convey an urgent message about getting ready for the coming Reign of God, then might we not take the bones of the story and flesh them out with a slightly different point, one that serves the cause of the same Reign of God, but addresses the particular concerns of this week in this place?

This week I opened several statements that have come at the end of the third quarter to find what many of you have likely discovered. What I have socked away for my future has rapidly dwindled. I don’t even want to ask how bad it is. It is that bad. And while I received a reassuring letter from the Church Pension Fund, my first instinct is to be angry, which is the mask my fear usually wears. When threatened, we frequently resort to the default position, which is to hold on tighter rather than to let go, to grasp rather than to trust. It is precisely at this point that I am learning the Christian practice of stewardship. Sometimes that is described as “holding something in trust,” as stewards typically do. But I am beginning to think of it as “letting go of something in trust,” which is counter-intuitive.

I read something a few months ago by a person who encouraged living more generously than necessary. Tip generously, he said. Never let it be less than 20% unless the service is just abysmal, and let it be more if the service is really good. Frankly, I had always been a 15% man, even though I remember quite well the days of my own life as a waiter. Now I am hearing another voice when it comes time to pay the bill. That is the way one gets ever closer to giving a great banquet, like the one in the gospel or the one in Princeton. You give a little here and a little there, not counting the cost and soon you find that the universe is humming in harmony with you, or you with it. The occasions multiply. The amounts grow. And the worries lessen.

Suppose there were a financial meltdown and nobody cared. Suppose we were all as drunk on the joy of giving as the proverbial “Wall Street gang” is reputed to have been during the sub-prime mortgage spree. Suppose we honestly didn’t care because we knew that if God clothes the birds of the air and the lilies of the field how much more will he clothe us? I don’t know that I can do that. But I don’t know that I will in fact have much choice. Might as well make the most of it. Hoarding has never been known to do much besides harden a heart, like that of Moliere’s Misanthrope counting out the contents of his pathetic strong box.

Suppose there were a financial meltdown and nobody feared. What might happen if we said, in effect, as long as I have resources and others have fewer; as long as I have food, and there is someone who is hungry; as long as I have a hand to give, I’ll give? The funny thing is that it has never been prudent to wait until you have abundance, let alone security, before you give anything, because in all probability you’ll never cross that line. Abundance only comes after you have learned to give it away. Those who have not yet learned that have not yet learned one of the open secrets of the universe.

Years ago when I was a young pastor in Charlotte, I learned the lesson from someone who modeled for me what it means to live like a king throwing a wedding banquet. His name was Holt, and his titled was Elder. I think he was the pastor of an off—shoot of the AME Zion Church, maybe. Elder Holt called one day and wanted to come see me. He sat and told me about his project. He drove from Charlotte to Morganton each week to visit the patients at the large state mental hospital there. He had no agenda but to build relationships with the patients, many of whom had been abandoned by family and what friends they might have ever had. Elder Holt would invest in trinkets, candy, little favors, plastic flowers, maybe, anything that he could use to strike up a conversation or to meet some small need. I had a paltry discretionary fund, but I gave him what I could. One time I bought a putter from him when he was selling some golf clubs that someone had given him. Over several years I got to know him. One day he came asking if I could help him get his car fixed. “Elder,” I asked, “what will you ever do if you get out of debt, when you are free and clear, when your wife no longer fusses at you because you spend all this money on mental patients?”

He looked at me without hesitation and said, “I’d go right back in.” Elder Holt is one of that company that includes Saint Xenia of St. Petersburg and St. Francis of Assisi that are known as “fools for Christ.” Most of them are anything but fools, except by the world’s standards. They simply have learned how to give without counting the cost, until it becomes first a joy and then an all-consuming passion. None of them would be the least bit bothered by a financial meltdown. They have a gold not of this world, which strangely enough knows precisely what to do with the gold of this world, and that is to keep it moving, giving it away.

Everything follows that. Hospitality follows, because it is simply another form that generosity takes. Openness, too, grows, because money is incidental to the more basic work of the soul, which is its own opening to embrace the other. Forgiveness, patience, thanksgiving: they all grow from a common seed as fruit sharing a stalk.

Every virtue, like generosity, has its counterweight in the form of a vice. It would be easy enough to say, quite reasonably, that the vice opposing generosity is profligacy. And that might well be. But I think there is another vice more dangerous than being a spendthrift. And that is ingratitude. Grace is the essence of generosity, and charity is the essence of grace. Grace finds its expression in a sustained attitude of thanksgiving. And so its opposite is ingratitude, pictured like the wedding guests who made light of the king’s invitation, oblivious, no doubt, to the hurt that rode on the arrowshaft of bad manners.

Suppose there were a financial meltdown and nobody stopped giving. Sharing simply increased. People laughed instead of wringing their hands. And got into theirs and their friends’ beat-up old cars and pick-up trucks, and combed the city streets and alleyways looking for people to invite to dinner, where “ants and anteaters, cats and dogs, lambs and lions, were all stabled together in uproarious harmony, while outside the chilly sky darkened.”

© Frank G. Dunn, 2008

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