Sunday, September 22, 2013

Small Stuff

Twice this week I went into places of business where sales personnel gave me generous and unexpected discounts.  In both instances they virtually put their fingers to their lips motioning to me not to disclose what they were doing.  In both instances, the employees had nothing to gain by being particularly kind to me. 
Reynard the Fox, Archetypal Trickster

And what is my reaction?  Why, I am indebted to them of course.  So far as I know, both are honorable employees, not rapscallions out to cheat their bosses.  And yet I have to wonder whether they were simply being generous to me or if on some level they expected something in return.  It is not my nature to be suspicious of people, so I would not even be asking this question were it not for the parable in today’s gospel kicking it up for me. But I am not the least in doubt as to my reaction when someone does something nice to me, especially if doing so involves a little risk, however slight.  If one of these guys should come to me and ask me a favor, there is no certainty that I would do what they asked.  But I would at the very least hear the request sympathetically, simply because they have been kind to me. 

That is sort of the way the world normally works, isn’t it?  Schmooze people and they will respond in kind.  Do a favor, receive a favor.  You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.  It is what we might call the “law” of reciprocity.  What goes around comes around.  And don’t forget:  what goes around might be harsh, cruel, snide, nasty.  Dish some of that out and you are likely to get some back yourself.

Jacob tricks Isaac and outfoxes Esau
As always, it is difficult to know exactly what Jesus actually said to his disciples, or what he meant by—or indeed how he told—the parable of the dishonest steward or manager (Luke 16:1-13).  It seems hardly the kind of thing that somebody would make up for the fun of it, even though there is a strain of Jewish folklore that honors the trickster as a kind of hero.  Not surprising, since the granddaddy of Judaism, namely Jacob, Israel himself, was the arch-trickster.  He was a cheat and a deceiver.  He bribed his twin brother to get the birthright, cheated the same brother out of their father’s blessing by deceiving the old, blind father, and figured a slick way to make off with most of his father-in-law’s flock.  There were rabbinical stories that lauded the figure of the trickster, who is invariably a shrewd, savvy character with a penchant for getting out of scrapes.  Why would Jesus, though, have told a story about a trickster?  For what purpose would he have used this to instruct his disciples?

Luke is fairly plain, though not so plain as to leave us without questions.  Jesus used the figure of the dishonest manager to illustrate how it is that disciples need to be shrewd.  That’s the first thing.  He comments that the children of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the “children of light.”  Boy, is that ever true!  Don’t press me for too many examples (I could give you a list that would run on for hours), but generally I can tell you that those who are out to make a buck in this world, whose primary motivation is to amass power, to extend control, to protect their own interests, or even simply to survive, are much better at their game than the so-called “children of light” who want to play by the rules, to be fair, to be generous, to exercise compassion.  There is an incredible naïveté about much that the “children of light” try to do.  I would like to believe that we could make lasting social change by appealing to the higher instincts of human nature.  Ha!  Live as long as I have and you will experience yourself being slowly sucked into a Calvinist view of the total depravity of human nature.  (I exaggerate, of course, but there is some truth to that.)  In the centers of power, profiteers are always plotting, with notable success, as to how they could benefit from the next war.  The “children of light”?  They are out marching in front of the White House or gathering on the steps of the capitol.  Is anybody really noticing?   The “children of this age,” as Jesus called them, are busy rigging elections, gerrymandering congressional districts to their advantage, suppressing the vote, developing and using scare tactics that work, spinning narratives with buzz words calculated to hook emotions, lobbying for laws that make legal whatever they find advantageous.  Don’t get me wrong.  The children of this age are not just the rich and powerful.  They include quite a number of the poor and dispossessed, who are not all paragons of virtue themselves.  Manipulating the system, tricking the boss, circumventing the rules—or remaking them:  talents for doing these things don’t crop up in only one class of people.  They are fairly universal.

"Take your bill and reduce it..."

So a point that Jesus is making here is that the children of light could stand to wise up.  But if we look more broadly at Luke’s message, Jesus is saying something that goes beyond that.  He consistently calls his disciples to recognize that they are approaching a moment of crisis.  Things are going to go bad for them, much as they went south for the dishonest manager.  And then what will they do?  Figure out who and what is most important to you.  Are you able to ride out the crisis, or indeed make the most of it?  We can see in retrospect that the disciples were indeed going to be faced with serious problems once the weight of the system had come down on Jesus and put him to death.  The shepherd was going to be struck and the sheep were going to be scattered.  It is not so easy to see, perhaps, what our own crisis is. But we assuredly have one, or are in one.

And what is that crisis?  One way of stating it is that it consists of, and hinges on, the question of for whom or for what are we going to live.  We can either be “children of this age” who do our best to manipulate systems to our own personal advantage, or we can throw in our lot with the kingdom, the βασιλεια,  of God, and live for the Truth as it is shines in Jesus.  And what is that Truth?  It is being authentic, not choosing for yourself the script written by family or society or peers.  It is boldly speaking the Truth—telling it “like it is,”—when all about you are claiming that what you stand for makes no sense.  It is submitting yourself to ongoing dialogue with the God who is your deepest Self, as opposed to running off in directions dictated by your own ego.  Being a “child of light” in that sense means recognizing that you are connected to, and taking your place, within a community that will help to keep you honest and rely on you to help others do the same.  To serve God as your one Master and serve God only is the challenge to own that there is no part of your life—not your money, not your job, not your family, not your relationships, not your most private sex life—is some place or time where God is not, for there is no such place and no such time.  To commit all your energies, your body, your soul, your mind to the cause of freedom, to the quest for true peace, to the ideal of wholeness, to the centrality of community:  this is the challenge.  And if you are hearing the call to do so, you are, my friend, in crisis.  It is a crisis that requires you to be as deft and as nimble as our dishonest steward.  In fact, it is a crisis precisely in that you are being called to be a steward.   You are the one now who is about to be, if you are not already, entrusted with the treasures of the kingdom, the moments pregnant with meaning, the possibilities to make a dent in the way the world operates, the promise to care as much about the life and wellness of others as you care about your own, maybe even more so.

We sometimes believe that this life of God that Jesus calls us to share as stewards of the Master is an either/or proposition.  Would that it were!  It would be nice, to say the least, to be able to be baptized into union with Christ and never again have to worry about the object of one’s loyalties.  It would be wonderful to sign on with the βασιλεια, the kingdom, of God and never look back.  Don’t even imagine that you can do it, not even in your dreams.  You are a mixture, as am I, of trickster and truth, of scoundrel and saint, of ashes and glory, of serpent and dove.  Only the alchemy of Christ can take the base nature that we are bonded with and with the elixir of grace transform us bit by stubborn bit into creatures that share his own unalloyed love. 

But you can start, or continue what you have already started.  Today or this week, it is unlikely that you will, as theologian Fred Craddock has vividly put it, “christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake.  More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat. ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.’[1]
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013

[1] Fred B. Craddock, Luke, Interpretation (Louisville:  Westminster/John Know, 1990), p. 192. 

Monday, September 09, 2013

Bearable Lightness

 Luke 14:25-33

            Sometimes I want to laugh when a gospel like the one for today is read and people say, “Praise to you, Lord Christ.”  Sometimes I want to cry.  Surely there are few here today who actually welcome a gospel like this.  Listen to it.  “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.”  I’d say that Jesus is hardly the champion of family values uttering things like that.  And what do you make of this:  “whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple”?  He is not exactly talking about carrying the cross in liturgical processions.  And the coup de grâce:  “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  And to all that we just said, “Praise to you, Lord Christ”!

            It has long been held that the harder the saying (of Jesus), the more likely it is to be authentic.  The more embarrassing it is, the more likely it is to be a trustworthy original. By that standard, the gospel of today must be reliably believable as Jesus’ own words.  But let’s be honest about it.  That he actually said and meant it doesn’t cut much ice with people who have already decided that Christianity is basically about being conventionally good and loving people.  And it certainly doesn’t impress someone who is convinced, as many seem to be, that Jesus did and would support a raft of things like supply-side economics, the notion of virtuous war, rationing health care, militarism, cultural tribalism, and unlimited gun rights.

            The truth of the matter is that, like all the generations before us, we make Jesus in our image, whether we are conservative or progressive, artistic or scientific, philosophical or theatrical, contemplative or activist.  And we pay little or no attention to what he says when it does not agree with what we have already decided to be correct.  He famously asked once, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, and do not the things that I say?”  Well, why do we?  Because down deep we believe that he really cannot possibly mean such difficult things as hating father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself in order to be his disciple.   We rationalize it all by saying that it is an example of his Middle Eastern hyperbole, just as we imagine that “giving up all your possessions” must mean something other than what it says.   I pause to note that those who tout themselves as biblical literalists generally don’t dwell on such passages as this.  “Love your enemies,” “do good to them that persecute you,” and “give up all your possessions” even to the literalist must be metaphorical, because no Jesus that we could ever follow would have said such things.

            You want to get radical?  Follow Jesus.  Believe what he says.  Take it seriously.  Start living this kind of gospel out.  Begin defining yourself and your positions not in accordance with who approves of you (family, friends, neighbors) but by wrestling with what it means to embrace a willingness to let go of everything and start redefining your whole life from scratch.  That is what taking up your cross means.  That is what becoming like a child so that you may live in God’s domain sharing God’s life means.  That is what, to quote the language of Deuteronomy, it is to “choose life, not death.”  That is why, ushering in the ministry of Jesus, John the Baptizer said, “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down.”  The gospel of Jesus and the Christian life it leads to are not just optional elements that can be plugged in to an already designed lifestyle.  They mean a complete refiguring of the way we think, the way we act, the way we desire, even the way we love.

            It is exactly at this point that I want to throw off my vestments, toss away my credentials as a preacher of the gospel, and (I speak seriously) simply ask what in the world am I to do.  I may know lots about the Bible and what it means, but I have little expertise in living the life I have just described to you.  So if you are wondering how in blazes to go about such radical living, be aware that I for one am in the same boat with you.  There have been times through the years when I have had flashes of what I thought it might mean, but there have been many more times when I have succumbed to the same thing that I have said the ages have specialized in, namely cutting Jesus and his message down to my size.  Is there no other way?

            Of one thing I am convinced.  Living a Christian life does not necessitate defanging the hard sayings of Jesus to make it all a comfortable, non-threatening proposition.  Yet of another thing am I reasonably sure.  If the gospel is true, then it must accord with the reality of our existence, else there would be no reason for Jesus to demand of us things that are totally impossible.  The gospel to be lived has to be livable. 
            So how do we do it?  Start with the notion of hating father or mother, etc.  For some people, those who have toxic parents, for example, that might come close to working.  But taken on the whole, Jesus’ teaching is not about hating.  So what he means here is for us to make a clean break with family as the mode of defining ourselves.  Since family is the basic unit of socialization in which we learn to adapt, what Jesus is proposing here is not having a nasty attitude towards the group we happen to have been born into, but that we grow into a life that is distinctly counter-cultural in major ways.  That is why Christian life depends on the creation of a new family, a new people, a new community as integral.  The things that mark Christ as different are the same things that mark his family and followers as different:  authenticity, independence, giving, forgiving, healing, subordinating ego to self, serving, praying, fierce honesty, courage, questioning, table fellowship with everyone without discrimination, and above all orienting one’s entire life towards the God who is known intimately as “Abba.” The children of Abba, led by Jesus, hang together, supporting each other as they—we—struggle to keep from getting sucked in to the competitive, striving, ego-driven, control-oriented, power-hungry, status-seeking, self-indulgent currents of the culture—nearly any culture—that surrounds us.

            Without the grace of God, by which I mean God’s very own self-supplied energy and power, independent of our efforts or deserving, we cannot.  And ironically, without our cooperation, God will not.[1]  Still, it is hard!  I hear the voice of a spiritual director of mine years ago.  One of the most deeply prayerful people I have ever known, she was driving through a snowstorm one time on a dark Connecticut night, trying to reach the Berkshires in once piece.  Partly to keep herself company, she was going over in her mind a whole string of persons on her prayer list.  She named people who were sick and dying, people who had suffered indignities and abuse, persons who were fighting addictions, those going through awful trials and divorces and losses.  Overcome by the sheer size of the pile of human tragedy, she gripped her steering wheel, and called out defiantly, “Why God, Why?  Why all this?  Why do you demand it of us?  It is too much, just too much.”  In the silence that followed she said she heard the words, not a literal voice but as clearly as if it had been, “I mean it to be too much.”  Shades of George Herbert’s poem, “The Pulley:”

When God at first made man,
Having a glass of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) pour on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.

So strength first made a way;
Then beauty flow’d, then wisdom, honor, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottom lay.

For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewel also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts instead of me,
And rest in Nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.

Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlessness:
Let him be rich and weary, that at least,
If goodness lead him not, yet weariness
May toss him to my breast.[2]

            Living the life of a disciple is impossibly hard.  But the irony is that the very difficulty that wears us down and wears us out is the difficulty that ultimately tosses us to the breast of the great mothering God who bets the whole creation that in the end our weariness with all our possessions of whatever kind will bring us home to the one who gave us birth and nurses us.

            But there is something else that is embedded in this hard saying of Jesus, something not to be missed.  He invites us to calculate the cost of discipleship.  You wouldn’t go to war without enumerating the risks (one would hope that those plotting another war are listening to that somewhere today!).  You wouldn’t start a building project, not if you are prudent, without knowing how you were going to finance it.  The grace of God is not only mediated through the community of Abba’s children helping each other; it takes shape in the lives of those children as they gradually become aware that this Jesus calling his disciples to extraordinary transformative change is not some distant leader floating around in the clouds but is indeed the Force that is within them.  Yes!  That is why the cross he calls us to shoulder is none other than the resurrection power that makes the cross bearably light.  You know that to be true.  Because you know that when you take even the first courageous step towards following your truth, and then another and another, you quickly realize that the path you are on is not impossibly hard to travel.  It is bliss, it is joy.  Surprises appear, dazzling you.  Doors open unexpectedly.  Gifts crop up out of nowhere.  And no one would ever guess that any of it is true without taking that first step, cross in hand, following the Leader who leads us through no darker nights than he has gone through before.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2013

[1] Often misattributed to St. Augustine of Hippo: “Without God, we cannot; without us, God will not.”  This might be a paraphrase of a statement in Sermon 169, “He who created you without you will not justify you without you.”

[2] “The Pulley,” in George Herbert, The Country Parson, The Temple, ed. John N. Wall, Jr., in The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York:  Paulist Press, 1981), p. 284.