Sermon Sunday September 23, 2001
How Do We Build the Community of God?
I really struggled with the scripture passages this week. Each passage was rich and full and worth its own sermon. The struggle was not about what to say. The struggle was about what not to say.
With more than five thousand people assumed dead, I still find myself weeping with the prophet Jeremiah. "Since my people are crushed, I am crushed; I mourn, and horror grips me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of my people?" (Jer. 8:21-22)
After having spent six weeks this spring sitting with the Psalms and feeling their passion and emotion, I read Psalm 79 and think, "Yes, they invaded us. Yes, they poured out blood like water. So, yes, I want you God to get them, pour out Your wrath." On the other hand, when I read Psalm 4 I cannot help but wonder the same questions and examine my own life for how I may have caused what occurred on September 11.
In the light of September 11, the instructions in I Timothy 2 are not easy to hear. As it is likely this letter was from Paul when Nero was in charge, I do not find the instruction to pray for all those in authority easy. Nero found sport in murdering Christians. Nero enjoyed his own music composition while letting his responsibility, the city of Rome, burn. If those Christians were asked to pray for Nero, it is clear to me that I should be praying for Osama bin Laden. I don't want to.
Nevertheless, enough said on the other passages. I read the Gospel passage and I get stuck. I know that when I am stuck, I need to pay attention.
Jesus tells the parable of the dishonest steward or manager. While it is not clear what the steward had done to be dishonest, it is clear what the steward did to get ready before being fired. He went around and reduced everyone's debt; that way, these people would feel a sense of obligation to him and help him out later. His boss ends up commending him for his actions.
There is enough in this piece of the Luke passage, and I will return to it, but that does not appear to be the end of the story. Some additional pieces confuse me even more. Jesus recommends that Christians be shrewd. People should use their money to make friends. The next few verses address trustworthiness and then we end with an admonition about loving God or money.
I want to put the pieces together but do not fully understand how they fit. Unfortunately, some of the Biblical commentaries were not helpful in this matter. The Jesus Seminar people think these last few pieces were later additions to the text, attempts by the early church to soften the impact of Jesus saying that the steward who ripped off his boss was doing a good thing. One commentary supposed that the dishonest steward was dishonest by having charged interest to all the people who owed the owner. When the steward reduced the debts, he did not really reduce the debts; he just made them what they should have been in the first place. The owner could commend the steward for making things right. One other commentary just wrote off the concept of the steward being dishonest and only focused on being shrewd. Some other commentaries just admitted they did not get it either.
After sitting with Luke for a number of days, I think I understand something differently. Money is not the primary value in this story. Money is not the Lord of life. The owner in this story is inviting us into a role of stewardship that frees us from serving money to serving others.
I really was hooked on the money piece of the story. At work, we are in the process of spending end of the fiscal year money. The cycle is chaotic and routine. Because we often get the overall budget late, we do not have enough time to do some of the other activities earlier in the calendar year. Therefore, in the last few months we try to accomplish what should have been done over the past 9 months. I am acutely aware of spending money right now. Moreover, I have been acutely aware of money because I made a mistake with a small amount of funds just recently. The issue of being accountable for how I use money grabs me this week. I am hooked as the steward/manager in this story.
A part of me really would not mind having my boss say I was a failure and was going to be fired. I am tired of my work; it is no longer my call. Nevertheless, that is not how my work story ends.
Now the steward in Jesus' parable, the steward is much more creative. The steward thinks about what authority he has, what resources he has available to him and comes up with a plan. He reduces the debts of the people that owe his boss. He anticipates that if these people have lesser debts, they will feel grateful to him and, hopefully, help him out in the future. The steward is using his authority and resources to build himself a community. For the steward, the value of money is no longer in making more money; it is in using that money to build community. He is serving others and using what authority he has in his position to do it. Moreover, his boss commends him for it.
For Jesus, money was not important. Building community clearly was important. Jesus relied on the generosity of others to survive.
For the owner, the boss in the story, money was not important, either. What the steward did reduced the income the boss would get. If the value of money were in making more of it, the boss would not be pleased with the steward's actions. The boss commends the steward for building community.
Here is where I think about myself in the boss' position. I do have resources, including money. Money is part of how I live in this American social system. I often want to invest money in things that will bring me more money later. I often use money as a measure of my own worth or the worth of others. I am not sure I want to participate in providing the finances for someone else's efforts in building community. At the same time, I know I am being hard on myself and could cite ways that I have built community.
With the incidents in the past weeks, I have been considering where the boundaries of my community are. With the American leadership conversations about retaliation, I cannot ignore the questions, "How much do I value money? How far will I go to use my position and its benefits to build community?"
In Jesus story, I also want to look briefly at the folks who owe things. They did not know why the steward was calling them in. For all they knew, they may have been asked to pay up immediately. Instead, they just had their debts reduced. We do not know how they felt about it.
It is easy for me to assume they felt grateful. However, I am not sure that is all there is to the story either. I have lived for a period of my life close to the bottom of the social system. While I certainly needed the additional money that came my way from other people acting generous, I also felt ashamed of myself for needing it. I also found it easier to accept gifts when they did build community. My example of this was for a number of months one family had me over for dinner regularly. The nearest experience in my life now is the ending to the story of what happened at work about my mismanagement of money. My boss figures this is a learning experience. I have been given forgiveness and it is not easy to handle.
This story Jesus tells about using a person's authority and their resources, like money, to build community has captured my interest. It has been applicable to my life. However, I will take the plunge and bring the story to the context of Seekers.
Today, we are dealing with the building fund issue. I had already embarked on this sermon before I knew that, but it also fits into my concerns.
The role of money in Seekers troubles me. Within Seekers, we have individual participants who do reflect the same diversity as the story. Moreover, within Seekers, we have to all deal with the societal messages we have lived with about the value of money, societal messages about the relationships between money and power and authority.
How do we, as members of Seekers, ensure no one is wounded by our wealth? How do we, as members of Seekers, learn to treat money, not as a god, but as a tool to make friends, to build community? How do we minimize the impact of money in our lives, both individually and corporately? How do we, as members of Seekers, use our authority, our resources, to build up the community? How can we be enterprising (creative) in building the community of God?
If you were able to participate in the money classes in August, you know some of us were beginning to wrestle with these questions. Some of us felt guilty for worrying about our retirement funds when we knew there were other Seekers who were worrying about today's bills. Some of us felt regret and shame for not being able to provide funds to the building fund. Some of us felt jealous of the status, the authority, the possessions, the wealth of other Seekers. As I left the money class that evening, I found myself confessing, individually and for Seekers, I have work to do to tear down the god of money. Moreover, I confess I do not know what all the steps are that we, as Seekers, need to take to do that tearing down.
At the same time as we, members of Seekers, tear down this money god, we also need to be about the important work of building community. Thankfully, I see many examples of how that is happening. We build community through the monthly sing-a-longs. We build community by the meals, the rides and the other services we provide the rest of the community. The many ways we have been able to help the Dragoo's and others in the past. We build community through overnights. The list goes on.
I want to invite Seekers into recognizing, naming and valuing those actions that build community. Those actions do not translate well into monetary values. I am glad they do not. I also know those actions can be risky. Those actions demand a new level of trust with each other.
"If you can trust others in little things, you can also trust them in greater." If I can trust your acceptance of my small acts, I need to trust you with bigger ones.
In my journey of faith with Seekers, I have been challenging myself with how I spend my time and resources to build community. I have been working with this question apart from the money question or as a broader context than the commitment of money. I have wanted to take seriously the challenge to commit more to Seekers and have that commitment be good news.
Two weeks ago, you were witness to two ways that happened: Elizabeth asked me to lead you in song and this quilt showed up as the altar decoration. Both actions are an offering to you of my gifts and resources and they have not been offered to the community in this way before. Both actions do not translate well into monetary value. Two weeks ago, I was scared. It felt like stripping. Right now, my fiber art is what I hold dear. Leading singing was a different place of authority than I have ever been in before.
If my small acts can build community, maybe I can be creative, imagining more acts, and trust you enough that I can do them. If my small acts can build community, maybe they can encourage you to offer your talents and gifts to build community as well. If I trust your work, your small acts, towards building the community of God, I can learn to trust your other actions too.
I know what I am asking is risky. In the money class one night, we all brought an item of value to give away. The dining room table was filled with things. Then we came to the point where we were to either pick something or give our item to someone else. It was scary. After the distribution of the items, there were things left on the table. I do not know what emotions people felt if their item was still on the table. I had visions of the days when I was the last picked for whatever team sport we were playing in grade school. Maybe the gifts on the table are an opportunity to expand the boundaries of our community, to find the person who needs that gift.
Let me be honest and admit I want us to move forward on Carroll Street. I am glad of the work that took place there yesterday. I hope to participate in some of the future work parties. I will participate monetarily. I pray our efforts on Carroll Street will build community.
The events in New York and here have changed me and challenged me. I do not have easy answers for myself about how do I use my authority, my gifts and my resources to build the Seekers community and the wider community of the world in which I live.
I do not only want to invite Seekers into recognizing, naming and valuing those tangible actions that build community. I challenge us to examine our lives and our actions, to be creative in seeing how we can contribute in new ways to building community, to risk and trust each other in offering these new actions.