Occupy: The Kin-dom of God

There are some places in Bible that, if we take them literally, make it really hard to find good news. Some of these difficult stories never appear in the lectionary. Take, for example, the tragic tale of Ananias and Sapphira from the early days of the church in Acts 5.

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The Grim Tale of Ananias and Sapphira
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.
But a man named Ananias, with the consent of his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property; with his wife’s knowledge, he kept back some of the proceeds, and brought only a part and laid it at the apostles’ feet. ‘Ananias,’ Peter asked, ‘why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, were not the proceeds at your disposal? How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You did not lie to us but to God!’ Now when Ananias heard these words, he fell down and died.

After an interval of about three hours his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter said to her, ‘Tell me whether you and your husband sold the land for such and such a price.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that was the price.’ Then Peter said to her, ‘How is it that you have agreed together to put the Spirit of the Lord to the test? Look, the feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out.’ Immediately she fell down at his feet and died.

Geez! Imagine this as your text for stewardship Sunday!

Well, today’s story did make into the lectionary – to many a preachers’ dismay. The obvious problem is that if we treat The Parable of the Talents as an allegory, then the landowner is God. And the landowner is not a nice person.

Another problem is that Matthew’s version of the parable is put in here at end of church year, when the lectionary wants us to think about the Second Coming of Christ and/or a Day of Judgement. His closing line from Jesus, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” doesn’t appear in Luke’s version.

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Character matters
In spite of its difficulties, this parable is often used for stewardship Sunday! The idea of risk – investing time, talents, treasure for the kin-dom of God – is a popular theme. And that’s initially where I was going. But to be honest, I just couldn’t get past the character of the landowner. It seemed like I had to do a lot of exegetical gymnastics to get around this elephant in the room. If indeed “character matters,” how could I ignore this man who did not disagree with the slave who called him “a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter”?

Parables 101
So instead I decided to go back to Parables 101. I’ve gained a lot of perspective on Jesus’ parables from John Dominic Crossan’s The Power of Parable. So:

Rule #1: Remember that it doesn’t usually mean what we think it means. These stories have become so familiar, domesticated; we think they confirm what we already know or think is the right answer. But that’s not how parables work.

The word ‘parable’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘to put parallel or put alongside.’ It implies that two things are being thrown together, a kind of biblical mashup. Jesus used this form of teaching, not to moralize or to tell his listeners how to be good religious people. He told parables to stir things up, to encourage debate, to engage in the great Jewish tradition of lively discussion, spirited theological banter. This might seen like arguing to us, because it’s something Christianity lost along the way and really must recover. The video series Living the Questions is a good example of this recovery, as we learn that it’s OK to ask questions, even to disagree. Because in the exchange of ideas, when texts are questioned, wrestled with and explored, new insights and understandings can emerge for our collective edification.

Rule #2: Try to imagine what your reaction would be if you were in that 1st century Jewish audience. In other words, read the parable within its historical and cultural context.

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Three bazillion dollars!
First of all, we’d have understood what a talent was. It wasn’t referring to your ability to sing or dance. A talents was an amount of money. A talent of gold weighed about 30 pounds and was worth about 6,000 denarii. One denarius would be a worker’s daily pay. So we’re talking millions of dollars in our time. Jesus got the attention of his audience with a “fairy-tale” amount of money. Like, “So there was this landowner, and he gave the first slave three bazillion dollars.” Now that would get your attention!

About the slaves
As 21st century people, we have to recognize our discomfort with the fact that those given this money were slaves. There’s no getting around the fact that slavery was an accepted reality in the time of Jesus. And we unfortunately know that this fact was used to support the institution of slavery in this country for far too long – another reason to take biblical exegesis – historical/cultural context – seriously. Taken with Jesus’ message of liberation, it is impossible to find justification for one person ‘owning’ another.

About the interest
Then there is the matter of interest. We hear this parable in light of our own economic system and think the first two slaves made sound business decisions; they invested their money and got a good return. But Jesus’ audience would have been shocked. This story is the only place the New Testament where the word ‘interest’ appears. It’s in many places in the Old Testament – in a negative light in each one.

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It’s Mr. Moneybags
The subject of interest is not a good thing. The landowner is not a good person. He represents oppressive business practices. He doesn’t care how the slaves made more money for him. He’s not bothered by the third slave’s description of him. The “joy” into which he welcomes his “faithful” ones is entry into the 1%: excess wealth gained by systems that made him a perpetuate oppression. We shouldn’t have any trouble thinking of people like that today, people considered ‘smart’ for their ruthless and immoral practices that have made them extraordinarily wealthy.

But the third slave was having none of it. His act of resistance to this ‘harsh’ system made him a representation of the 99%. If it was Jesus’ intention to stir up some good conversation, this parable would have done it quickly. The people in his audience lived in the mash-up of Roman tradition which was pro-interest and the anti-interest teachings of the Torah.In this interpretation, Jesus is clearly siding with Torah – and with the 99%.

But it wasn’t just about money. This wasn’t a call for the Judean version of Occupy Wall Street. It was a call to Occupy the Kin-dom, which includes all our interactions in the mash-up of our beliefs and the ways of the world. Of course, then as now, money plays a very large part in our individual and corporate lives. So if we do interpret this parable with the third slave as the one who was really faithful in Jesus’ eyes, then we are called to make our financial choices accordingly. And now, as then, it can be complicated and controversial. For example:

Where are my pension funds invested?
I remember when the ELCA wrestled with the decision to divest from companies trading with South Africa in the time of apartheid. Today, I can choose to employ screens to eliminate companies, such as fossil fuel industries, weapons manufacturing, and those identified with the denial of human rights. These may or may not yield the highest interest. What is the criteria of the kin-dom in making these choices?

Where do I bank?
During Occupy Wall Street, we were encouraged to take our money out of the big banks. I made the decision to move over to a credit union, but I confess that I still have accounts in one of the offending banks. I haven’t yet been able to wean myself off of the security I feel (rightly or wrongly) in it. But I am aware that in that choice I am aligning myself with the ‘harsh master’ and a different choice needs to be made.

Do I buy clothes made with child labor or pay more for goods made in a union shop for fair wages and benefits?
When you’re on a budget, it’s tempting to go for the cheaper goods. But I also recognize that many people on a much tighter budget than mine do not have the privilege of choosing the higher prices. As a consumer, I can make my own choices. But as a follower of Jesus, I must also advocate for a standard of living for all of us, that is also fair to local economies and the environment.

What about politics?
It’s popular in many parts of the church to warn pastors to keep out of politics. However, in this reading of The Parable of the Talents, Jesus (as he so often does) addresses issues with political implications. I vote according to what I believe are the ways of the kin-dom of God. It’s not left or right, Democratic or Republican. It’s about the choices I make when my spirituality is mashed up with our current culture.

I believe we can read The Parable of the Talents in at least two different ways. On any given day, I might be challenged to be the wise investor, to take a risk with my time, talent, and treasures. But at the same time, I can be challenged to look closely at whatever systems are in operation today that are not worthy of my investment, and even in need of reform.

Bottom line: Occupy the Kin-dom calls me to invest and/or divest in all things in light of the way of Jesus. Can I get an Amen?

Matthew 25: 14-30
‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, “Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, “Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.” His master said to him, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” But his master replied, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Live Abundantly – Even When Your Tank Is on Empty

008-gnpi-053-feeding-5000Sermon for the 9th Sunday after Pentecost

How do you explain the Feeding of the 5000? This story is so familiar, maybe your ears just tuned it out. But what really happened? How did Jesus turn five loaves of bread and two fish into lunch for thousands of hungry people?

Only two choices?

We might think we have two choices here. Either we accept that this is a factual account of a miraculous multiplication of food. These are the folks with the bumper stickers that say: “The Bible said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Or we look for a rational explanation. Many have tried over the centuries to give rational explanations for miracles.

Here’s one version from the World War II era:

A teenager was riding in a crowded compartment with five strangers. His mother had given him a sandwich wrapped in a handkerchief for his lunch because rationing made food for travelers hard to come by. Noon came and he was hungry, but he didn’t want to eat his lunch in front of the others. He decided to wait until they got out their lunches, but no one moved.  An hour passed and then another. Finally, he decided he had no choice. He needed to eat, and so did the others. He reached in his pocket and took out the handkerchief. He spread it on his lap and carefully broke his sandwich into six pieces while the other passengers watched. He said a brief blessing and gave each one a part of his sandwich. Then everyone else reached into their pockets and bags and took out the food they had brought – and not wanted to eat in front of others who might not have anything. The food was broken and shared around the compartment with a sense of feasting. Stories and laughter were shared along with the food.

And then there’s Woodstock.

I remember hearing a similar version in a sermon back in the 70s. The people out in the desert with Jesus simply shared what they had with one another.  And at the time, that made sense to me. Woodstock had just happened. Food vendors had quickly been Unknownoverwhelmed by the thousands who had descended on Max Yasgur’s farm. But a group from CA, led by Wavy Gravy  (yes, the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor was named for him) stepped into the breach. On Sunday morning, Wavy Gravy stood on the stage and famously announced, “What we have in mind is breakfast in bed for 400,000.” One common thread in stories told about that time is that everyone remembers two things: the food ran out fast and everyone shared what they had.

These are both lovely stories, which could have happened. The problem, though, with this explanation is that there’s nothing in the Bible story to suggest that is what Jesus or Matthew had in mind.

Remember that in this series of teachings from Jesus, we’re always looking for how he’s continually trying to convey what it means to live in the realm of God – or the realm of heaven, as Matthew calls it. We’ve been reading parables over several weeks – stories told by Jesus to get us to think differently about everything.

Is this a parable ABOUT Jesus?

You might have noticed that there are different kinds of parables. For example, there are riddle parables. These were used to confound outsiders or opponents, so they couldn’t understand what was being said. Only insiders, like the disciples, were able to get the message, usually with some further instruction from Jesus.

Then there are example parables. These are moral or ethical stories that deliberately point beyond themselves to wider implications. Think of the Parable of the Poor Man’s Lamb, which Nathan told to King David to get him to realize that the rich man who took the one lamb (Bathsheba) from the poor man (Uriah) was David himself.

Others are challenge parables, like The Good Samaritan, are meant to make us think and discuss, and decide how they apply to present times. This was a common teaching style in Jesus’ time. Many of his stories are challenge parables.

So we’ve been reading different kinds of parables by Jesus. But there’s another type that we don’t hear about so often – that is parables about Jesus. This feeding of the multitude is a good way to illustrate this. All four gospel writers tell a version of the story. Mark has two versions with different details. John is the only one that has a boy with bread and fish. By looking at these accounts side-by-side, we realize – not that they were confused about what had really happened – but that they each had a point that they wanted to convey about what Jesus was doing.

So, debating whether this was a miracle or an example of human sharing is not the  point. The story assumes that there is a sign for us here in the feeding of the people. As a parable, then, the question is: what is Jesus teaching us about the realm of God?

And because parables can shift meanings depending on times and circumstances, the question gets even more specific:
what is Jesus teaching us about the realm of God – today?

We can’t forget that in Matthew, this story occurs just after Jesus learns of the death of his cousin John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod. His sign is accomplished in the midst of political turmoil, grief, and fear, not to mention the ever-present reality of poverty and illness among his people. We can’t see the crowd as a bunch of party-goers out for a good time. They were looking for a sign – that somehow, in the midst of all this bad news, there might be a word of hope.

And Jesus gives it: in the realm of God, something can come out of nothing. Even we, who enjoy a standard of living that might cause us to think this doesn’t apply to us, surely know those times when we feel we’ve got nothing: nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to give. We’re like the disciples who, when Jesus says “Feed these people,” throw up our hands and say, “Sorry Jesus, we’ve got nothing. Oh yeah, a couple loaves of bread and a little bit of fish. But really, what good can that do? The need is too great.”

shutterstock_58909408When you’re running on empty
Think about those times when you feel like your tank is on empty, there’s nothing left. But life doesn’t stop: phone calls, texts, emails keep flooding in, work, school, and family demands intersect and collide. The news of the world is draining. And, oh, yeah, we’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Who wouldn’t feel depleted?

And then you come to church and hear the pastor asking for even more! Sheesh! The potential for burn-out is a real concern. But here’s the good news of our life in the kingdom of God: the success of your discipleship, as a follower of Jesus doesn’t depend on how much you have or what you can give, but rather on how much God gives by multiplying what you have – no matter how small or tired or frayed it might be.

Jesus said, “Feed them.” They respond, “We have nothing—only five loaves and two fish.”
Jesus says, “Bring your nothing to me.” He blesses the fish and bread and proceeds to distribute the food and the bellies of each one of them was filled.

And there were leftovers!

This story reminds us that in times when we feel depleted, all Jesus is asking us to do is to give our nothing – and then to stand back and watch Jesus teach us how God’s economic system is not like our own. In the realm of God, an economy is grown by God’s abundance.

Tikkun Olam
As I write this, I am aware of how naïve this sounds, especially to anyone experiencing unemployment, the very real possibility of eviction from their home, and any number of troubles so many are facing today. But this message from Jesus begins with the command to feed the people. This isn’t a promise of a free ride because God’s going to come and fix everything.

No, we don’t get a free pass. We, as I’ve learned from my Jewish friends, are to be practitioners of ‘tikkun olam,’ Hebrew for ‘world repair,’ signifying social action and the pursuit of social justice. We have to be concerned about unemployment, home evictions, and all the social ills of our day.

But when we look around and see the immensity of what needs repairing, it’s tempting to back away and say, “there’s nothing I can do” or for a church to think, “there’s nothing we can do.”

Especially now. A global pandemic ratchets up our garden-variety fears and anxieties so high that we don’t know what to address first. Our health and safety, the health and safety of others, our shaky economy, the sustainability of our education system, the future of our democracy, our family and friend connections frayed by either physical distancing or by too much togetherness in quarantine – to name just a few. It is a scary time.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

And then there’s the church. Every time I come to the church and see the sign that says the building is closed, I kind of feel like I’m going into a building that’s been condemned. That is not what it says, but it’s a scary time for the church, too.

Rev. Erin Wathen writes in If We Weren’t Afraid: What Is The Post-Pandemic Church Going To Be?: 

“Once, there was a little church in a big desert. And it was dying. Money was tight; fewer and fewer people were coming to worship; there was no youth group, and nothing for children past the nursery. Their mortgage kept them from being a generous mission church. They knew things had to change. But like most churches that find themselves in such a spiral, they were uncertain about what to change.

“The reason I tell this story is because it has such a miraculous twist – because that church learned to live again. They tripled in size. They paid off the mortgage. They grew and found resources for outreach. They changed their ministry model and evolved from maintenance to mission. And it was something to behold. In this age of mainline decline, such transformation rarely occurs. Past a certain point of financial struggle, conflict, and general lethargy, there is often nothing a church can do to change its story. But this little church in the desert found its breath, its heart, its spirit again. And I was there to witness it. Because I was their pastor.

“And here’s why else I tell it again– because I can pinpoint the precise moment when everything changed. And it wasn’t a big influx of cash, or an innovative new program, or a viral YouTube video that flipped the switch. It was a single question, posed at precisely the right moment. Knowing things needed to change, a group of leaders from the church started a discernment process with other congregations in our area facing the same challenges. At the first gathering of the group, the facilitator asked us to discuss the following question: what would you do if you weren’t afraid?

“We looked at each other– and all the lights came on. This was new. We’d spent many a late night church meeting talking about how to reach out to the neighbors; how to generate more income; how to tweak our worship service and make it more engaging or modern… and on and on. We’d asked endless questions amongst ourselves about what we were doing, and how we were doing it, and whether we could change. But nobody had ever asked us– what would you do if you weren’t afraid? For the next several years, that question drove everything. And it changed everything.”

I share her story because I think it’s a fine example of a congregation going into the discernment process with nothing. And God took their nothing and multiplied it – just like God does, according to Jesus. Whatever growth they experienced wasn’t because they were smarter or worked harder or had more faith – it was because they trusted that in in their vulnerability, in their hunger, in their need – God would feed them. And they, in turn, could then even better than before, participate in ‘tikkun olam.’

Scarcity ORAbundance

Really, it all comes down to deciding whether to live in a state of abundance or of scarcity. If we believe that an economy in the realm of God is grown by God’s abundance, then an attitude of scarcity doesn’t track. Although it’s understandable. There’s a myriad of messages telling us that we don’t have enough, that we’re not enough. But that’s not the message of the gospel, so we have to choose which one to believe.

There’s plenty to be afraid about as well. But there’s no harm in asking: what would we do if we weren’t afraid? (caveat: not about not wearing a mask or believing And then standing back to see where God’s Spirit might lead us. If Jesus is right, we’ll have enough to fulfill our needs – and we’ll have leftovers!

That’s the miracle.

Amen

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Matthew 14:13-21

When Jesus heard about the beheading (of John the Baptist), he left Nazareth by boat and went to a deserted place to be alone. The crowds heard of this and followed him from their towns on foot. As Jesus disembarked and saw the vast throng, his heart was moved with pity, and he healed their sick.

As evening drew on, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late. Dismiss the crowds so they can go to the villages and buy some food for themselves.”

Jesus said to them: “There is no need for them to disperse. Give them something to eat yourselves.”

They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves and a couple of fish.”

Jesus said, “Bring them here.”

Then he ordered the crowds to sit on the grass. Taking the five loaves and two fish, Jesus looked up to heaven, blessed the food, broke it, and gave it to the disciples, who in turn gave it to the people. All those present ate their fill. The fragments remaining, when gathered up, filled twelve baskets. About five thousand families were fed.