Sunday, September 25, 2016


This sermon was heard at The Federated Church on Sunday September 25, 2016, the Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jeremiah 32:1-15
Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16
1 Timothy 6:6-19
Luke 16:19-31

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen

I might have told you before, and shared this with the Lunch and Liturgy participants on Tuesday, that when I look at the Sunday scripture, I look at several translations. As I said last week, all translation is interpretation. When I look at the Old Testament scriptures, I look at the Jewish Publication Society translation alongside the English language versions I use for the New Testament. I do this because I want to see how Jews translate and interpret their own scriptures and compare it to the versions used by Christians.

I find this version interesting not just because of its wording, but because of its rhythm. There’s a lilt to the way it can be read, but Hebrew is that way to someone who speaks the language well, which I don’t. But in the English, I hope you agreed.

There are a few people in this narrative you need to know, the first of course being Jeremiah. Jeremiah prophesied from the thirteenth year of King Josiah until the end of the reign of King Zedekiah. The biblical books of Kings, Jeremiah, and Lamentations are all ascribed to Jeremiah, via the hand of his scribe Baruch the son of Neriah. It was Jeremiah’s lot in life to be known as “the weeping prophet,” it was Baruch’s to record these histories and prophecies, to document the weeping. It is important to know Baruch because without him we would not know Jeremiah.

Then there is Zedekiah, the king of Judah mentioned in this narrative. Jeremiah prophesied over the reigns of five kings of Judah, Zedekiah being the last because, well, we read that prophecy today. A prophecy which came to be. As Zedekiah’s reign ended, not only did the prophesied destruction occur, Solomon’s Temple was destroyed as Jerusalem was taken.

In short, Zedekiah imprisoned Jeremiah because every time Zedekiah asked Jeremiah to prophesy, praying he would prophesy deliverance, Jeremiah would say, “Well Zed, The Lord is going to deliver you and all Jerusalem to the King of Babylon and not you’re not going to escape. In fact, you’re going to be his prisoner until the Lord decides to remember you. Fight all you want; it won’t matter.”

Jeremiah was under arrest in the court of the guard. He could wander as he wanted on their grounds and the public areas of the guardhouse, but he was not free. He was constantly being watched. He would be allowed visitors, certainly Baruch came to bring food and wine and hear and take Jeremiah’s prophecies, but he was in a fancy jail. Prophecy the reason for his confinement.

So, how’s that for a beginning. The Weeping Prophet is in jail for giving the king the Word of HaShem, the Word of the Lord. He’s wasting away. He knows that the city will fall sooner or later. He knows one day, one day soon or years away, the guard will leave only to fight the last valiant, futile battle to save Jerusalem, save Judah, and save Zedekiah; and he has a vision from the Lord. Hanamel, the son of Jeremiah’s Uncle Shallum will come to offer to sell the family field in Anathoth.

Hanamel will come to Jeremiah because he has the primary right to redeem the purchase of this land. At the time in Israel and Judah, the tribal lands had to be kept within the families, you couldn’t just put land on the market for sale. Then not only did the land have to stay in the family, there was a hierarchy of who the land had to be offered. In this case, Jeremiah had the first right of refusal.

Sure enough, Hanamel comes to Jeremiah and asks him to purchase the plot. Realizing this is the way of HaShem, Jeremiah agrees. He weighs out the seventeen shekels of silver and the deeds are prepared. One deed is prepared as a public record, the other to be sealed and put into an earthen pot, a jar of clay. This is the safety deposit box of the day. This cool dry storage will ensure the safety of the document. Baruch takes the silver and the documents to the Elders at the city gate, because Jeremiah can’t go, he’s in jail. These Elders are the official witnesses of all major transactions.

Together they make the deal.

The deal though is not complete until Jeremiah makes an important prophecy. Baruch delivers the word of the Lord from Jeremiah saying, “For thus saith HaShem of hosts, the G-d of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall yet again be bought in this land.”

Jeremiah is in prison. The city will be sacked. The temple will be destroyed. The king will be taken to Babylon. Everybody worth anything will be taken too. Judah and Israel will be left to the aged and the infirm. Jeremiah will be taken to Egypt, but before all of this happens and before all of this ends, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Judah has a future. People will return. The nation will rise again. Things will be better.

How do we know this? Jeremiah prophesies “houses, fields, and vineyards will be bought in this land again.” The people will return. There will be life. Families will return and thrive. There will be crops and there will be vines. There will be bread and there will be wine. The people will return and there will be a need for records in earthen jars, so they must be kept.

In the midst of siege, battle, prison, prophesy, fear, despair, and a king who will be the last of the Kings of Judah, there is hope. There is hope because the weeping prophet says there is. Jeremiah proclaims a future in the land for the people. Thus saith HaShem of hosts.

Because there is hope, Paul tells us through Timothy, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Promises made in the waters of our baptism.

We aren’t called to be trapped by harmful desires. Righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness are the marks of life well lived. What we consider wealth is uncertain, so Paul warns the rich not to be haughty, not to flaunt their wealth. Paul instead bids we become “rich in good deeds, to be generous and willing to share.” So that for the coming age, an age that may not be unlike Jeremiah’s, we will have a firm foundation so that we may take hold of the life that is truly life.

What is life that is truly life? I like this story from Luke’s gospel, not only for its wonderful lesson about “life that is truly life,” but for its implicit irony. You see, Luke’s gospel was written sometime between 75-85 AD. So when Jesus tells the story of the rich man and Lazarus and the rich man cries out to Father Abraham…

“Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

The irony of this is that by the time of the recording and telling of this tale, Jesus has died and risen. I like that, not the community patting itself on the back which is haughty, but the humor of Father Abraham saying “they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” after Jesus has been risen from the dead.

The main lesson though, the flashy life of the rich man is nothing in the realm of true life. For all of the abuse the world laid at the feet of Lazarus, his life was true and he receives his reward.

The hope that comes from this story is that there is hope. There is repentance. Our Lord does not turn his back on those he loves and the Lord loves us all. Yes, there are consequences for our actions. Zedekiah found that. Jerusalem found that. The entire nation found that. The rich man in the parable finds that there may be no hope for his brothers. I refuse to believe there is no hope, repentance may yet come, but if they continue as their brother did there is not.

Paul was a Pharisee and a citizen of Rome was one of those rich men. He met the man who died and rose to live again. He found the difference between the good life he led and the true life he could have, and he took it.

What does “true life” mean to us? As this part of the body of Christ what do we need to do to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness? I thank God for what we do. Meals on Wheels, the Food Banks, the Ministerial Alliance, Positive Pathways, Denominational Support, because those are good missions, that’s good outreach.

I thank God for what we do in Christian Education, teaching and learning and growing in God is important. Good examples like Jeremiah, Baruch and Timothy and bad examples like Zedekiah show us where God delights and where God does not.

But there is more. There is so much more. The Lord does not want us to be anxious. Anxiety doesn’t even sniff at that list of qualities that defines true life, things like righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. So let us pray. Let us seek. Let us plan. Let us go forward. Above all let us hope because that is true life where HaShem finds delight.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Dishonest? Unrighteous? Shrewd?

This sermon was heard at The Federated Church in Waterford, Oklahoma on Sunday September 18, 2016, the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

As you recall, last week I mentioned that there are some Sundays pastors don’t look forward to preaching. Welcome to one of those Sundays. It seems logical that the parables are ready made for sermons, Jesus tells a story, the pastor explains the story, we have coffee after church and go to lunch. Unfortunately, parables aren’t that easy. Give me an Old Testament narrative for that sort of sermon any day.

The parables are often filled with strange twists and turns that betray simple retelling. On top of twists, there are cultural variables we don’t understand. So if the pastor tries a simple retelling, it’s possible to skate across the surface of the parable glazing over important points. Skating across the text reminds me of the line from an old song, “If you should go skating on the thin ice of hot life, don’t be surprised if a crack in the ice appears under your feet.”

Jesus teaches his disciples, out loud, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.” If you aren’t confused, you aren’t paying attention. I’ve preached this passage several times and it never ceases confusing me. With this paragraph is Jesus commending dishonesty? It seems so out of character. What’s going on here?

Let’s look at the parable again. There was a manager who was being wasteful with a Rich Man’s possessions. This isn’t refuted by the manager; he squandered the rich man’s possessions. So the rich man pulls the manager aside and says, “‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.”

“The manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do now? My master is taking away my job. I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m ashamed to beg—I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’”

First, the rich man did something silly. To put this in modern terms, he fires his manager, then demands he go back to his office and put his books together so he can report on whether he was wasteful or worse. These days you’re met at your desk by security and the forensic accountant and you might get to leave with the photograph of your wife and kids; but not until security makes sure you haven’t written any computer codes on the back of your pictures.

Second, let’s give this manager some credit, he’s self-aware. Too proud to beg, too weak to dig, he needs a new job and he’s sure he’s not going to get a letter of recommendation. So what does he do, he plots to endear himself to the people who may give him his next job, people who need managers, the people who owe his master money. So he gets in contact with them and plays “Let’s make a deal.”

This is where I got the cover for today’s bulletin: The boss yells “You’re fired” and the manager responds “Okay, mind if I take care of a couple things first?”

He calls in the first debtor and asks, “‘How much do you owe my master?” Let’s pause here. There’s one guy in charge of knowing how much Olive Oil Guy owes his master and he doesn’t seem to know. If there were three or four people in the books that’s one thing but there aren’t. It’s just the manager and he doesn’t know, he should be fired for that alone.

Then again, he could be shrewdly offering Olive Oil Guy a chance to set his own terms. He may know good and well the master is owed nine hundred gallons and hoped Olive Oil Guy would take his own discount? “How much do you owe? Wink-wink.” “Ah, four hundred and fifty gallons? Wink-wink?” but this little conspiracy doesn’t play out.

Alas the manager was clueless or Olive Oil Guy was honest; so the manager says, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.” This continued with the man who owed his master wheat who got a 20% discount instead of a 50% discount.

When the rich man caught wind of what happened and scripture gives us this gem, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” This is where knowledge of the languages hurts more than it helps. The word our bibles translates as “master” is very common in the Greek New Testament, usually it’s translated as “Lord.” Imagine how dizzy that made the disciples, this is the Lord? I’m dizzy? How are you doing?

John Dominic Crossan quotes other bible scholars when working this text saying this man wasn’t stealing from his boss, he was stealing from himself. This is what made him dishonest and shrewd rather than a felon. Let me explain this in a modern setting which may make more sense.

Let’s say a big boss has someone in sales working on commission. The boss gets the quarterly reports and notices that somebody has been very naughty. Office supplies have gone missing and somebody has traded up their office chair for something nicer, a Cadillac Escalade (Boy, those “Push it in, pull it in, drag it in” trade-in sales are great, aren’t they!).

Knowing who has mismanaged corporate assets, the boss calls this shrewd employee in and as a good reformed Christian believes in grace; so the boss tells the employee to get their stuff in order and get out. Too proud to beg, too weak to dig what does the employee do? Go to the clients and give them discounts. But if there is any more theft from the boss, grace will turn to disgrace and a place on the Police Report in the paper. So the employee gives discounts from their commissions hoping for a quick job offer.

Yes, it’s a kickback. Yes, this is illegal in America, but this isn’t America. This isn’t even real; this is a parable. So Crossan and these scholars aren’t looking at the grand action of the parable like theft like I have for years. He’s seen as being shrewd; though shewed isn’t a particularly complementary word.

The Greek word used here gets a workout from the translators. Some use dishonest, others use shrewd, others unrighteous. You will hear me say this time again, all translation is interpretation. The word used depends on the intent and the theological slant of the translation committee.

Dishonest? He’s not telling anybody where their discount is coming from. The master will know. Do the debtors? The parable doesn’t say, but they might. But who would hire a crook? The parable tells us the manager was wasteful, but is that the same as dishonest? He doesn’t lie to the boss, he just discounts everybody’s debt without telling the boss. Not good, but not dictionary dishonest.

Shrewd? Yes, he is being shrewd. He’s taking his share and he’s using it to try to secure his future without telling anybody what he’s doing. Unfortunately, there’s too much melodramatic baggage with “shrewd” to suit my taste. I imagine the manager twirling a handlebar mustache while not doing his job and pursuing a soft landing. It works, but it’s not quite right.

Unrighteous? That’s the word I prefer. While dishonest and shewed can work, I prefer unrighteous because there’s a theological basis to it. Job is righteous. This guy, not so much because his actions served his lifestyle. He did whatever he had to so he could keep living not like a rich man, but in a rich man’s house. He didn’t want to do the work to be a master, a Lord, he wanted to be his slave, as long as he was a comfortable slave.

We read in 1Timothy our Lord sent his Son so that we may come to the knowledge of truth, the truth of the righteousness of Christ. Seeking righteousness in the love of cash, status, comfort—especially comfort in slavery, will never get us where we want to be, where we need to be, where God wants us to be. We cannot love these things equally. As I said last week, we must love Christ above everything if we are to love at all.

In 1987, Oliver Stone made “Wall Street” starring Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen. This is the movie where Douglas made the famous “Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good” speech. Since the movie came out Douglas has lamented that speech. Not the quality of the words or even the acting, but its interpretation by now two generations of business school yuppies who think that wealth is all that matters. He tells them that they don’t get it. They forget that Sheen’s character goes to jail. Douglas’ character is yet to be dealt with by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Greed is not good. It’s not dishonest. It’s not shrewd. It is unrighteous. We need to spend our time and commit our energies to the one who is righteous instead. Amen