Wednesday, September 22, 2010

the other six days: from preaching to meddling!

We worship God on Sunday, the first day of the week, but I want to talk about what we do Monday through Saturday, the other six days. For a Christian Sunday is the Lord’s Day; of course, it has other meanings; there is professional football on Sunday, Chick-Fil-A is closed on Sunday, the newspaper is thicker on Sunday. But for a Christian it is the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection, the day Christians gather to celebrate the good news of God’s victory over sin and death.

Sunday is important, but it is true that most of our time is spent in those other six days. And since most of our waking moments are there, what happens in those six days flows into this one, what happens in the world of family and commerce flows into the sanctuary. Sometimes we give thanks for something good; at other times we find ourselves confessing some flaw or failure.

The perspectives of the culture that we gain by participating and observing the culture also shape us when we gather as church. And so we wonder how business practices could help the church, or how other non-profit organizations are similar to the church, and we bring ideas of how the church might be different, more effective, more relevant. How might a different style of worship give us a greater market share? How might a particular kind of communication increase our fundraising? How might alternative scheduling be a better fit with a culture of leisure and sports?

The gospel for this morning, in a small way, is an attempt to ask the opposite question: how might the gospel influence what we do on the other six days, and here we are thinking about our lives as managers of households and workplaces, and where we invest our time and our resources. What does the gospel have to say to an attorney or a banker, a teacher or a saleswoman, a nurse or a supervisor?

If we look to Luke 16, the answer is not quite the one we were expecting. To be honest, it must be one of the more difficult teachings that Jesus shared along the road from the Galilee to Jerusalem.

A man is given a task, but he is wasting his time, and his employer’s money. This gets back to the boss, who plans to fire him, and this news gets back to the employee. Bad news really does travel quickly. The end is near. And so the employee comes up with a plan; what does he have to lose? He goes around to all of the clients. “We’ve been supplying you with soft drinks, you owe us $10,000, I have a deal for you, if you pay me today the price is only $5000. “We’ve been furnishing your coffee; you owe us $5000, if you can pay now it is $4000”.

And so it goes. The boss and the employee meet. As Jesus tells the story, the boss compliments the employee for being so clever, some versions of the Bible translate the Greek word as “astute” or “shrewd”. And here is Jesus’ interpretation of the parable: those who belong to the world are more clever than those who belong to the light. And in the same way the dishonest manager prepared for his future, we should prepare for ours.

It is a simple story, on the surface, but coming up with a moral to take away from it is not so easy. Our economic, religious and political worlds have been battered by dishonest stewards of what has been entrusted to them. I don’t need to read chapter and verse on that, if we have been awake the last few years it is right before our eyes. Jesus is not saying, about the dishonest manager, as he says about the Good Samaritan, “go and do likewise”.

The dishonest manager simply puts himself in the good graces of those who have resources, so they will take care of him in his upcoming hour of need. It is clever, shrewd, astute. What do we make of it? One scholar argues that the employee had taken his own commission out of the sale, and was commended for this reason. Another suggests that the employee is paving the way for others to show hospitality to him later.

And so in part the employee is looking out for himself, and Jesus commends him for this. There is a realization that, much of the time, our motives are a mixed bag! When I was a young boy I was probably one of the most awkward teenagers in the world. I would often attend the youth group at my church. Why do you think I went? Be honest. I went because teenage girls were there. Along the way some good things happened: I heard the gospel. And yes, my motives were a mixed bag. I have shared the story of Bill White’s gift of a boat to the United Methodist Church, a decision be came to one Christmas. What was his motivation? Well, he loved the church, he had an interest in missions, and he told me one time and many others, he needed to make a gift for tax purposes! Along the way the Haiti Mission was born. And yes, his motives were a mixed bag.

We go through our lives, especially on the other six days, and at times we are trying to do good and do well, help others and satisfy some need that is within us, for security or advancement or pleasure. We sometimes call this a “win-win” outcome. It is not a common biblical perspective, but it is here in the story that Jesus is telling, and I am simply repeating it to you!

If there is a point to the parable, it might be this: Followers of Jesus uses their creativity and intelligence to solve problems. In this way we can learn something from those who belong to the world.

The teaching continues with a comment that is brief but powerful—whoever is faithful in a little will be faithful in much, and whoever is dishonest in a little will be dishonest over much.
I love the realism of Fred Craddock’s commentary:

“Life consists of a series of seemingly small opportunities. Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the 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 little will be faithful in much.

Perhaps you remember the words are ascribed to Mother Teresa: “We are not called to do great things, but small things with great love.” I also love the context of that quote, which is, “What I do you cannot do; but what you do, I cannot do. The needs are great, and none of us, including me, ever do great things. But we can all do small things, with great love, and together we can do something wonderful”.

It is true that what is done in secret has a way of becoming public. Character matters. The small things, and our faithfulness in small things matters. The small things are an indication of how we would be stewards of the larger things. Maybe we don’t sweat the small stuff, but we pay attention to the small stuff. The small things, as we are attentive to them together, add up to something big.

Our gospel lesson ends with another brief proverb of Jesus: a household servant cannot serve two masters; we end up loving one and hating the other. We cannot serve God and mammon, or God and money.

Jesus took a considerable amount of time along the way to talk with his disciples, his friends about management and money. We tend to think that Jesus was spiritual, and he was, but Jesus talked more about money in the gospels than any other subject except the kingdom of God, and he often connected the two. We tend to disconnect the spiritual life and the material world, the Lord’s day from the other six days, what I do in church from what I do in everyday life. Jesus talked a lot about everyday life. And there has always been a bit of an expectation about the sermon. “Preacher, we like it when you talk to us about our relationship with God, but when you get into affordable housing or health care, protecting the unborn or the environment, you’ve quit preaching and gone to meddling!”.

Preaching is about Sunday. Meddling is about the other six days. We sometimes focus on the tithe, 10% of what we do with our income, which is the basis of what belongs to God. That is biblical and for three thousand years the tithe, 10% is the first fruits that we give to God. We do not often focus on what we do with the other 90% of our income. Does God care about that? Does it matter? Of course it matters.

“That’s my money”, you’re saying. “You’ve quit preaching and gone to meddling!”

We sometimes focus on attendance in worship, participation in Sunday School, and this is the Lord’s day, set aside for this purpose, and it has been so for two thousand years. But what about the other six days? Does God care about those? Does it matter? Of course it matters.

“What I do with my time is my decision”, you’re saying. “You’ve quit preaching and gone to meddling!”

The thread through these complex stories is that our work matters just as much as our worship. Perhaps we approach this by asking how our faith is a part of the bottom line, remembering that we will be accountable to the Lord for our stewardship of the 10% and the 90%, of the Lord’s day and the other six days. To be a child of the light is to remember that what appears to belong to us actually belongs to someone else, what appears to be something small may actually be of great significance, that we really cannot multi-task between God and money. Jesus says we have to choose.

The aha moment in the parable comes early, in verse three of chapter 16. “I am too weak to dig and too ashamed to beg”. It is a moment of crisis and clarity. We are, in this life, utterly dependent on each other and accountable to each other. And what is true in this life is even more true in the life to come. We are, in the end, utterly dependent and finally accountable to God.

What is the master calling us to do in our positions of influence? What is the master asking us to do with the decisions that are ours to make? What is the master expecting us to do with the resources that are at our disposable?

Of course, only you and I can answer those questions. These are questions that require us to think, to be as creative as that dishonest manager, but toward a greater good, and for a security that is eternal. Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you.

Source: Fred Craddock, Luke (Interpretation).

Monday, September 13, 2010

when that rough god goes riding

My review of When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening to Van Morrison appears in the Englewood Review of Books. Read it here.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

God drops and loses things

Over the past few years I have come to know a monk named Kilian McDonnell. Kilian grew up on a farm in the upper Midwest. As a boy he became very active in his church, serving as an altar boy. Someone suggested that he might enter the priesthood. He sought entrance in a religious community in Chicago, but was not accepted. On the train back home he stopped in St. Cloud, Minnesota to spend the night at the Benedictine Monastery. They welcomed him; Benedictines are very hospitable people, and the Rule insists that all strangers are to be welcomed as if one is encountering Christ himself. Although he was very ill, they made a place for him.

Kilian has remained at St. John’s Abbey for almost seventy years now. “I think I am going to stay!”, he told me this summer.

Along the way the Benedictines noticed an inquisitive mind in Father Kilian, and so they sent him to Europe for graduate school. He earned a doctorate in theology at Tubingen with a special focus on John Calvin and the Holy Spirit. He became an advisor to the Pope on the global charismatic movement. He studied with Protestant students, and saw the value in moving beyond one’s own tradition. Upon his return, he connected with a donor from Minneapolis who also saw value in this. They established the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research (see link to the right under Institutions and Foundations), and commissioned the architect Marcel Breuer to design the first buildings. The Collegeville Institute is adjacent to St. John's, which is the largest Benedictine monastery in the world. I have stayed in these residences twice now, and have experienced the radical hospitality of the Benedictines. Both the place and the people are quite extraordinary.

At age 75 Kilian began writing poetry, with no formal background in the subject. One of his poems was selected by Garrison Keillor for his Good Poems volume. You can listen to it
here. Another poem, inspired by Luke 15, is entitled “God Drops and Loses Things”. I have been reflecting on this poem in preparation for this Sunday’s sermon. It is also the title of his latest volume of poems.

I was able to meet with Kilian in August. This renowned scholar, leader and poet marveled that the monastery where he had spent 70 years of his life had accepted him when others would not. “I was no prize”, he confessed, and he seemed to mean it. He turns 87 years old on September 16. “Say a prayer for me on my birthday”, he asked as I was leaving.

I promised that I would, and I invite you to remember him on that day as well. You can send him a note at the following address: Father Kilian McDonnell, St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, Minnesota 56321.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

how i spent my summer

As it is now September 1, it seems appropriate to reflect on the summer. I do remember those "how i spent my summer vacation" essays we wrote in the third grade, and in that spirit I offer this. For better or worse, there is precious little summer left.

1. For us, the summer began when our younger daughter left for Europe with four of her friends. There were in a number of countries for three and a half weeks, they had planned this excursion for over a year, and they executed it very well. My gift was a "Konig Ludwig Hell" glass mug, which holds a nice tall drink of ice water really well, especially in the hot summer. Abby returned safe, sound and a citizen of the world.

2. Bill (also a pastor at Providence) and I spent a week in intensive continuing education at Duke's Center for Reconciliation. It was a rich and challenging experience, learning from excellent speakers (especially John Perkins and Vergilio Elizondo), taking in excellent Bible Studies by Richard Hays and Ellen Davis, and meeting men and women from across the world who are engaged in the ministry of reconciliation.

3. Annual Conference at Lake Junaluska was shorter, hotter (yes, global warming is real) and marked by an unsuccessful business session that would be repeated, revised and redeemed later in the summer, on a cool morning in mid August. I made the modest suggestion at this latter meeting that we adopt the budget, after a two hour session, and ever since I have been receiving notes of gratitude. I thank our Bishop for helping me (us) through this. Apart from all of this, I was honored to participate in my friend Robb's ordination, which was a joy.

4. Three of us (Pam, Abby and I) spent a week at Holden Beach. I realize it had been almost six years since we had really been to the beach (except to lead a two day retreat or two, which really does not count). This is our own doing; we have a small mountain place and are inclined to head in that direction. I love Holden Beach (North Carolina) and also Sunset, just below, and Calabash, also adjacent, and home of fine seafood. Some good friends happened to be just down the street, and so we had a memorable meal with them.

5. I preached July 4 Sunday morning. I made a vow, when I was an associate pastor, that if I were ever in this role I would not delegate all of the holiday and post-celebration Sundays to the other pastors (I mean the Sundays after Christmas and Easter, Memorial Day, Labor Day, etc.). And so we divide them, and I took this one for the team. I reflected on faith and patriotism, and then drove up to Lake Junaluska to see the fireworks over the lake with friends.

6. At the end of the next week Pam and I flew to Boston, rented a car and drove to Bangor, Maine to see our friends Jim and Faye-Ellen. Jim serves All Souls Church in Bangor, and we have been friends through the Center of Theological Inquiry. They drove us around the Acadia National Park, we stopped for popovers at Jordan Pond, and took in the scenery of Cadillac Mountain and Mount Desert Island. Breathtaking. We also enjoyed an honest to goodness fishing cabin on a Maine lake, which is about a peaceful as it gets. And a part of me could get used to the New England tradition of having the whole summer away to be renewed.

7. After a couple of days, we drove down to Boston (in a torrential rain) in time for the Sunday service the next day. My friend Bob had invited me to preach two consecutive Sundays at Marsh Chapel, and this was truly a gift in many respects (thank you Bob!). It is a beautiful place of worship, the staff were all hospitable, and it was fun to preach there. We had meals both Sundays with our close friend Ann, who is a pediatric chaplain at Mass General (she had been a member of Mount Tabor in Winston-Salem during our years there and was especially close to our daughters). In between the Sundays we took in as much of Boston as we could: the Fenway Park Tour, the Freedom Trail, the Italian section in the north end, the Union Oyster House, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Charles River. And I saw a Red Sox game, which I consider something of a miracle. We also caught up with one of my closest friends from high school, Scott, whom I had not seen in 34 years (18+34=52). He gave us a tour of Harvard, we ate hamburgers at Mr. Bartley's, and then we toured the Media Labs at MIT, which were quite amazing. The next day another friend, Ted, took us on walking tour of Harvard, including the Divinity School and the chapel where Emerson preached. And then, the following day we toured the areas surrounding Boston with Ann and her husband Richard. Then I preached the next day, again, and we flew home.

8. Through the summer we have focused on the Book of Acts. I won't go into much of that, except to say that I preached sermons on Acts 1, 2, 4, 7, 15, 17, 20, 27 and 28, and they are all posted on this blog. We also held Bible Studies on Mondays, which were well attended throughout the summer. And my friend David from Texas came to preach and teach. He is certifiably insane---I exaggerate only a little here--but also brilliant (he has a PhD. in rhetoric) and our congregation really enjoyed him. In fact they want him to come and be the permanent preacher. I exaggerate only a little here also. I tried to introduce him to North Carolina cuisine, which he enjoyed, and one evening he, Joe and I went to see the Charlotte Knights (aaa). As Joe and I cannot get our spouses to attend these games, we seek any opportunity we can to make it to the park. David was game for this. I really cannot recall who won the game, and in minor league ball it really does not matter. As an aside, David serves a 5000+ member United Methodist Church in Texas. In my bio, when it says I have preached in churches ranging in size from very small mountain churches to congregations of over 5000 members, I am referring to this one.

9. All summer our parsonage has been in a process of renovation. We are now in the sixth month. The end result will be quite nice.

10. At the end of six months (Jan-July), our church had received 48% of its annual need in financial income, no different statistically from the year before. For this I sing the doxology; our people are extravagantly generous and sacrificial, and I am blessed to be here.

11. I went with two friends (Jonathan and Rush) to spend 3 days at St. John's Abbey and the Collegeville Institute in Minnesota. I am being truthful when I say that I am addicted to Benedictine hospitality and the praying of the Psalms there. It is a beautifully creative setting, and we spent time there with Don Ottenhoff, Director of the Institute, Kilian McDonnell, award-winning poet whose work appears in Garrison Keillor collections (I recommend Swift, Lord, You Are Not), and Richard Bresnahan, who presides over the largest kiln in North America and is an amazing potter. Kilian, also an Old Testament scholar and an authority on the Holy Spirit, asked us to pray for him on his birthday, which is September 16...I invite you to join me in that. Richard kept pushing us to learn more about the pottery in our area, particularly Seagrove, and this is on my list. We also had a great seafood dinner with Don and his wife Kathleen Cahalan, a pastoral theologian at St. John's, and author of a very fine book on evaluation (Projects That Matter). There is more to St. John's than I have described, but, having been there twice, it is a place of pilgrimage for me. And being in Minnesota, and while I know winter has a special beauty there, I would suggest that you go in the summer.

12. My wife would want you to know that I have watched more Atlanta Braves games than usual, but they are in first place, and if there is any justice in the world they will end the season that way. And given that Brian McCann executed the game winning hit in the All Star Game, thus giving the National League home field advantage, there is a symmetry to it.

13. A real highlight was the visit from our daughter who lives and works, and now studies in China. It was simply wonderful to have her home, and now she begins the M.A. program at Peking University. And our younger daughter served in a volunteer internship with the Starfish Academy in Charlotte, which reaches out to first graders who read below grade level. She flourished in this environment. Apart from Europe she was home all summer, so this was also really nice. Oh, I also took Abby and her friend Ashley to the Carolina Panthers Training Camp one afternoon. We met the legendary ACC basketball player David Thompson. As for the Panthers, you can call me a person of little will be a long season. While we were there we had a great meal with our friends Ron and Heidi.

14. I should add that my wife continues to speak on a very regular basis about the mission in Haiti. She survived the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, but now talks more about the ongoing lives of the people there. Along with a large number of gifted volunteers---to be more precise, a number of very organized and motivated women, $33,000 was raised for the people of northern Haiti in an end of summer Attic Sale at the church. Yes, that is an accurate figure and there is no overhead. With God all things are possible.

15. I have been involved in a couple of small writing projects: a piece for Faith and Leadership on "Traditioned Innovation and Roots Music" (thanks Jason), particularly about Patty Griffin and Robert Randolph; and a piece on Greil Marcus' new work, When That Rough God Goes Riding: Listening To Van Morrrison, which will appear in the Englewood Review (thanks Chris). And some blogging for Day 1 and No Depression. I also read The New Rabbi by Stephen Fried, which I found fascinating, and Atul Gawande's The Checklist Manifesto, also great. And I made my way through three commentaries on Acts: Will Willimon, Jaroslav Pelikan and Anthony Robinson and Robert Wall. Each different, each helpful. Next in line: a biography of Henry Aaron and a memoir by Rosanne Cash.

So, the summer is almost over. For me it has been rich and full, and this mostly because of the intersection with friends and some time spent in a couple of beautiful places. And now the fall season approaches.