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Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Obvious Truth



The obvious truth (Luke 16:1-13)

September 21, 2013 – Proper 20 C RCL

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Georgetown, DE
(the Rev’d Dr.) Elizabeth Kaeton

Sometimes, the obvious truth is the easiest to avoid.

You have to know the whole story before you can understand one piece of it.  Or, in other words, context is as important as content.

This morning’s gospel is a good example. If you found this Parable of the Unjust Steward confusing, take heart! You’re not the only one. Many people throughout the ages have puzzled over how it is that an unfaithful steward, about to be relieved of his position, gains praise from his employer when he ends his career by stealing more from him?

This is especially confusing because it is Jesus who is telling the parable. Is he somehow condoning this deceit? Is he saying that it’s okay to cheat God, as long as we’re clever and creative and shrewd about it?

Well, before you can answer those questions, you have to know the whole story. You have to go back to the 15th Chapter of Luke when, “….all the tax collectors and sinners drew near to Him to hear Him. And the Pharisees and scribes complained saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2).

It’s an old trick: If you can’t attack the person, attack him by ‘guilt through association’. If the man hangs out with sinners, he must also be one.   

So, Jesus responds by telling the Pharisees and scribes four Parables: The Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7), The Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10), the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and then this one, The Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-3).

While we might be confused, keep in mind that, when Jesus says, “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” remember: Jesus was talking to the Pharisees and scribes.

Jesus goes on to say, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” 

In this morning's first lesson, I hear the cry from the heart of Jeremiah (8:18-9:1) as the cry from my own heart about the status of the poor in this country. It's tempting to think that Jesus is talking to those politicians who voted to cut into the Food Stamp Program – the very governmental subsidy that is keeping 4.5 Million Americans from sinking below the poverty line. 

Or, perhaps we might imagine Jesus is speaking to the politicians who voted to shut the government down unless the Affordable Care Act is de-funded.

It’s important not to take the story out of context. Jesus was talking to the Pharisees and scribes of his day. Keep in mind that they knew that Jesus was talking about them. 

Indeed, in the very next verse we read, “Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, also heard all these things, and they derided Him.” (Luke 16:14).   

Let those who have ears, hear. 

It’s easy enough to take things out of context, to lose our focus, and to make mistakes. Take me, for example. Even though I am passionate about injustice wherever I see it, I’m far from perfect. Being zealous about injustice can also be blinding. 

Let me tell you a personal story.

Ordained less than five years, I found myself Vicar of a small, struggling congregation in the inner city of Newark where I was also Executive Director of the AIDS Resource Center. The church and their agency decided to pool resources and provide Thanksgiving Baskets to those in our neighborhood and those who were our clients. 

Actually, I was pretty shrewd, if I don't say so myself in convincing my brothers and sisters who were rectors of affluent congregations to contribute money and frozen turkeys and fixings for Thanksgiving Day. We got lots of both, which allowed us, in turn, to be generous.

By some small miracle of Loaves and Fishes we came to the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving Day having distributed 250 baskets filled with frozen turkey, stuffing, fresh and canned vegetables and fruits, and even an apple pie for each basket. We were exhausted but thrilled, feeling we could go home to our families and truly give thanks for God’s bounty.

Until SHE came in. At exactly 3:55 PM.  Just five minutes before I was to head out the door, stop by the grocery store for a few last minute items, and then home to prepare for my own family. 

She was out of breath and waved a slip of paper in her hand as she announced, “Wait. Don’t leave. I’m here for my turkey basket.”

My heart sank. I had nothing. No turkey. No stuffing. Not even a can of string beans. I put my coat over the chair and said, “I’m so very sorry. We have given out our last turkey.”

She was enraged! “But, I’m homeless! I don’t have anything. I need that turkey. I have a slip from my social worker and everything. You’re a priest. You HAVE to find me a turkey.” I flushed with frustration and shame because I didn’t have anything to give her.

I took the slip of paper while she went on and on about her homeless plight, thinking of various alternatives, when she encouraged me to call her social worker to verify her claims. Hoping that he has already left for the day, I was surprised to find him still at his desk. When I told him the situation, he also started to berate me, “But, she’s homeless! What kind of priest are you, anyway? How can you be so heartless? It’s Thanksgiving! And she’s homeless.”

As I was deliberating whether or not to take my last $20 bill and give it to her, or to take her shopping and let her buy $20 worth of food in my sight, I suddenly heard something. Something obvious I had completely overlooked. 

Perhaps you’ve already figured it out and you are silently snickering at me in your pew. Go ahead. Twenty-five years later, I’m looking back on that well-intentioned, passionate young priest and snickering at my own naivety.

Homeless. “Homeless,” I said out loud. “Homeless,” I said, looking at her while talking into the phone. “Yes, “ her social worker said sarcastically, as if he were talking to a moron, “she’s homeless. As in SHE HAS NO HOME.” 

“Well,” said I, clearing my throat, “If she’s homeless, and I believe you when you tell me she is, she has no home. Right. That means she has no oven in which to cook the turkey; no stove on which to cook the vegetables, not even a table on which to serve this meal or the dessert. Is that right?”

There was stunned silence on the other end of the phone. The woman stood in front of me, slack-jawed. We had, all three of us, stumbled onto an inconvenient truth: The obvious truths are the easiest to avoid.

I don’t blame the woman. Hunger and poverty can make you crazy – or make you think there’s something wrong with you that you don’t have at least the very basics of what everyone else in America has on Thanksgiving Day.   

Her social worker and I were so focused on filling voids and solving problems that we had forgotten that before you can do that effectively, you have to sit and listen to a person’s story. Before whatever help you are offering can be effective, you have to understand the context.  

Context is as important as content. Sometimes, even more so.

So, I assured the social worker I was on it. I brought the woman into the parish hall kitchen and we talked while I fixed her a cup of tea. We sat and talked for a while. She told me her story. How she had lost her job and her apartment and was living in her car. How she was mortified and embarrassed. How she hadn’t told anyone in her family – especially not her kids. How she had promised to bring a turkey to her sister’s house where she would spend the night.

After we finished our tea, I took her in my car to the supermarket where I spoke with the store manager – the guy from whom I and my parishioners had bought all those turkeys with the money I had cajoled our sister suburban congregations to donate. He quickly put together another couple of bags of Thanksgiving stuff, including a 10 pound frozen turkey.

Was I, in my shrewd handling of suburban congregations and local markets, just as guilty, at least in principle, as the Pharisees and scribes? I’ll leave that for God to judge. 

What I do know is that I – and that social worker – were like the Pharisees and scribes. The true problem was that we were all too caught up in our current lives. We had lost the proper perspective.

I suppose the politicians who voted as they did to cut Food Stamps and to hold the economy hostage to their ideology about the Affordable Care Act have also lost proper perspective. Many of them claim to be Christian and often quote scripture but I wonder if they are aware of the hungry face behind their vote. The face of a man. Or, woman. Or, child. The face of Jesus.

It’s easy to lose sight of the spiritual goal and make a priority of living in the physical realm. Jesus says, “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to one and despise the other. You can not serve God and mammon.” (Luke 16:13).

Something must give. We all must make a choice regarding who we will serve – our own anxiety or the peace of God that passes all human understanding. You can’t make that decision without hearing the content of the whole story in its proper context.

And so, we must listen to each other; to hear each other into the ability to tell our stories. It’s not easy. It’s so much easier to live in a world of forms and criteria and check marks. 

Jesus did say to his disciples, “So be shrewd as snakes and innocent as doves.” We need to make the most out of the resources God has given us to our best advantage. 

That takes being clever and creative and yes, sometimes, shrewd.  If it is done for God’s glory and not our own, I believe God blesses it.

Sometimes, the obvious truth is the easiest to avoid. Amen.

4 comments:

Mary-Cauliflower said...

I'm currently on a hiatus from taking mission trips because I realize that I react from a very U.S. -ian, Gringa kind of space where I'm constantly seeking a financial answer to a problem of justice. So, no, I was not snickering from my pew (which is at present a beat-up armchair with two cats). After much prayer I'm sometimes able to glimpse the problem inside me, that I've internalized the notion of simply transferring goods to redress the balance. As you showed, it's necessary to meet the material need, but first it's important to know exactly where the wound is.

Lisa Jones said...

Hello!
I have started an Episcopalian Bloggers linkup at my blog, TheJonesesBlog.com, and wondered if you were interested in joining. The Episcopalian Bloggers linkup's purpose is to promote the diversity of Episcopalians by advertising your church membership through a blog badge and blogroll. Having a collection of blogging Episcopalians in one place would be amazing for anyone interested in knowing exactly who Episcopalians are. (Which is to say, they are a diverse group of people.)

To join the linkup, simple visit the Episcopalian Bloggers page on my blog @ http://www.thejonesesblog.com/2013/09/episcopalian-bloggers.html, retrieve the badge code, and add your blog's information to the linkup. If you have any questions or concern, please contact me. I would love to have you join us!

Lisa Jones

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks Mary Cauliflower. It really requires listening to people. That's all. When I was in Thailand, I gave myself a headache asking, "Why don't they do _______?" You know. Like we do "back home." And then, I listened to myself and heard my arrogance. So, I starting asking, "Hmmm.... I wonder why they do it this way?" and started asking questions. Turns out, I learned an awful lot - more about people and their lives than the thing that originally peaked my curiosity. It's not an easy lesson, but eventually, we learn to live into what it means to be a "servant leader".

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks Lisa. I checked it out and I've joined. YAY.