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Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Baptismal Love Letter to Mia Beatrice

"If you are faithful in little things . . .”
(Luke 16:1-13)
September 23, 2007
Pentecost XVII
The Episcopal Church of St. Paul

Dearest Mia,

Well, much to the joy and delight of your grandmother and your priest, and the eternal relief of your parents, godparents and grandparents, the day of your baptism has finally arrived.

It’s been a bit of a feat, coordinating this around schedules and cross-country trips and unexpected and unwelcome trips to the hospital. But, you are here and the hour has come and now is, and, by the endless grace and mercy of God, we are about to have us a proper baptism.

I wish we could have provided a better gospel story for you today, but the truth is that they’ve all been a bit difficult the past few weeks.

The parable of the “Dishonest Steward” hardly seems appropriate for the baptism of a very sweet little girl. It raises many difficult questions which can not be easily answered and are clearly not the appropriate topic for a less-than-ten-minute ‘love letter’ for your baptismal sermon.

You’ll find, Mia, that the gospels in general and Jesus in particular tend to do this – raise difficult questions at inappropriate times in your life.

The gospels often raise questions that tell inconvenient truths and the church does not have a history of handling these questions well. This is one reason many people turn away from the institutional church.

And, well they should. As you grow older, Mia, you’ll have questions, too. I have always loved the questions kids ask me. Questions like:

What does God look like?

When my pet hamster Ernie died, did he go to heaven?

Is it okay to get angry with God?

Does God really know what I’m thinking or what I’m going to do – every minute of every day?

If God is so good, why is there so much bad?

If there is one God, why are there so many religions?

I don’t always have answers to all of those questions, Mia. As you grow older, you will discover the larger answer to your questions – that having the right answer is not always the stuff of faith.

Faith is, more often than not, having the right question, and following it faithfully – courageously, expectantly, hopefully – into the answer.

Part of the problem is that the institutional church, (bless her heart) in an honest effort to try and help, offers us easy answers about some of the more complex questions raised by the gospel.

For example, author James Breech (Jesus and Postmodernism), reminds us that this parable, this story, is not about the dishonest steward, as the church has named it. Rather, it is about the rich man who had no concern for his wealth.

He seems to live out of a radical freedom that was as prodigal (or extravagant) as the father of the self-absorbed son in so-called parable of the Prodigal Son that immediately precedes this story.

That radical freedom from concern about wealth led him, ultimately, to care more about the intention with which the manager tended his money.

The wealthy man in this parable is, obviously, representative of God, who ultimately has such a radical freedom from concern about wealth that God can be, and indeed, is prodigal or extravagantly lavish with the gifts God bestows upon us.

More importantly God also gives us this gift of radical freedom from concern about how it is we use these gifts. God’s only concern is that we don’t squander them senselessly – that we use them with some intentionality and thought.

That we use the gift of our intelligence when we use any of the other gifts God gives us, saying, ‘if you are faithful in a very little, you will be faithful also in much; if you are dishonest in the little things, you will be dishonest in big things, as well.’

Jesus ends the parable by reminding us that we can not serve two masters. Jesus, the great Teacher, is providing a lesson in this parable that that tells us that, in truth, when we serve the higher good we are, in fact, serving God.

When our impulse is first to altruism, of selflessly serving others, this provides endless delight to God. When we serve others, we enjoy the radical freedom that God comes from the very heart and mind and soul of God.

Some of the kids who went on the mission trip to Belize learned this. At the end of a very long and hot day, filled with the hard work of painting a building or lifting and cutting heavy pieces of mahogany to build the playground, the last thing anyone wanted to do was to run around a school yard and play football for an hour.

And yet, at 3 PM every day, at the end of the day, when the little boys from the village came around the worksite in their sandaled feet and beautiful brown skin, their charming smiles melted away our exhaustion when they asked, “American football?” Up we would go to the field where God’s radical freedom turned everyone – even the little boys from San Antonio – into their favorite football hero.

I call this “everyday ordinary altruism”. There are, of course, examples of the kind of altruism that turns ordinary everyday people into heroes.

Disasters have a strange way of bringing out the best in people. I am haunted by the words spoken by a survivor of 9/11 who said, “On that day, we didn’t try to save ourselves. We tried to save each other.”

I submit to you, Mia, that heroes are just ordinary people who are faithful in the very little things of their ordinary lives so that, when life brings Very Big Things into their lives, they are faithful in much.

Your grandmother Gail is one of these heroes, Mia. Her ‘Kaleidoscope of Hope’ foundation does this for so many other people, yes, but it is the courage with which she lives out her daily life that brings me hope.

You will understand this more as you get older and prepare yourself for the Very Big Things in your life and begin to look for examples and role models of how to be faithful in a very little.

Your parents and godparents will help you, as well. They will tell you stories about where you came from and who your grandparents were, and all this will help you understand where you’ve been so you can better know where you are going.

That’s really all the gospel stories are about, Mia. They are stories filled with everyday people who live ordinary lives of whom God, in God’s radical freedom, bestowed opportunities to find the centers of their own divine spark – to be prodigal and extravagant and lavish and even foolishly wasteful with love, as God is prodigal and often foolishly wasteful in God’s love for us.

I want to close by sharing with you some words written by Garrison Keillor, one of my favorite preachers in the church. Oh, he would never call himself a preacher, but I listen to him faithfully (my family says ‘religiously’) every Saturday night on his radio program ‘A Prairie Home Companion’. It is my sermon.

This week, Keillor was reflecting on the life of Frederick Douglass, an African American man who was an inspiration to the other Abolitionists, working to free those held in the cruel bondage of slavery. Many do not know that Douglass was also an inspiration to the Suffragettes, women and men who worked for the right for women to vote. Douglass understood something about freedom – that if one is not free, none are free. I think Keillor’s words about Douglass’ life provide yet another parable for us: He writes:

"When it is finally ours,
this freedom,
this liberty,
this beautiful and terrible thing,
needful to man as air, usable as earth;
when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct,
brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action;
when it is finally won;
when it is more than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass,
this former slave,
this Negro beaten to his knees,
visioning a world where none is lonely,
none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic,
this man shall be remembered.
Oh, not with statues' rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life,
the lives fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.”

The beautiful, terrible, needful thing of radical freedom is ours, Mia.

It is yours now, in baptism, this liberation in Christ Jesus. You are free to do the right thing, even if the world will tell you its wrong.

It is your foolish mistake to make, your imprudent lesson to be learned. And God will love you for it, anyway – foolishly, imprudently, prodigally – so you can do the same.

Because, if you are faithful in the little things, Mia, you will be faithful also in much.


Reverend Elizabeth


RonF said...

For example, author James Breech (Jesus and Postmodernism), reminds us that this parable, this story, is not about the dishonest steward, as the church has named it. Rather, it is about the rich man who had no concern for his wealth.

Interesting. We did not have our regular priest this week. Instead, he got a friend of his who was a campus chaplain for about 20 years to preside instead.

He thought that, in fact, this was all about the dishonest steward. His premise was that the steward, having been caught out, found that he was the recipient of grace. His master could have had him tried and jailed. Or beaten. Or had all his property confiscated. He could possibly have even had him killed.

But instead, his master showed him mercy and grace. He simply cut the steward loose, to make his own way the best he could.

And what was the steward's response upon receiving this grace? Why, he passed it on to others. Freed from his burden of sin, he called in the people that owed money and reduced all of their debts, debts that he had very likely inflated so that he could skim off graft.

That was the lesson that this priest taught us from this gospel. God gives us grace and the free will to do something with it. When He does so, the wise thing to do is pass it along.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Not at all a conflicting message, ronf - whether your perspective is that it's about the Dishonest Steward or the prodigal Rich Man.

What an amazing gift this scripture is, eh? Everyone gets to break open the Word and feast and be fed and nourished for the particular work God gives us to do.