Sermon for Pentecost 19 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In his Second Epistle to Timothy, the Apostle Paul encourages his young protégé to “be unfailing in patience” to “always be steady [and] endure suffering” for the sake of his ministry. Timothy could have had all of the skills we associate with effective ministry: a clear understanding of and passion for the Gospel, an engaging preaching style, a “thick skin” (a critical trait for a priest to have), but none of that would get the job done if he had not the patience to persevere. Perseverance, Paul knew, was the most important factor for a successful fisher of men.

I must admit that patience is not my most well-practiced skill. Let me explain what I mean, because I suspect there are at least a few here in the same boat, as it were. I think I have a fairly good amount of patience with people. This is important in my position because I deal with all sorts and conditions of people every day, each with a unique problem or concern. Most of these people (you people) are pretty easy to get on with, to love even. Sometimes people, no matter how much I love them, can be a bit annoying, especially to an introvert such as myself. But, I can be pretty patient with people.

I am not, however, patient with God. When I want some kind of help from on high, some affirmation of myself or some experience of consolation, I want it fairly quickly. Sometimes, deep down, I convince myself that I could do God’s job more efficiently than God does. Of course, that’s the kind of pride which preceded the fall, and which precedes my own embarrassing falls from time-to-time. I can be pretty patient in my relationships with each of you, I can even force myself to be patient in my relationship with people on the other end of the telephone line at the internet company or pension group helpline. Believe it or not, I’m getting more patient with people in the left turn lane who never want to go right when the light turns red. (I insist, at least two, and possibly three cars can legitimately make a left at that point, though my wife has a different opinion). All that said, though I’m getting more patient on those fronts, I have trouble being patient in my relationship with God.

I wonder if Jacob had that problem, too, and that’s why God decided to wrestle with him at Penu’el. You’ll remember that up to this point, Jacob had done pretty well at getting what he wanted, even if it meant being a little less than honest. Perhaps, Jacob needed to learn an important lesson which had heretofore been beyond him, namely, that the blessing of God, which once seemed so easily forthcoming due to Jacob’s cleverness would eventually require more persistence. Jacob’s struggle with the Lord at Penu’el would be realized by the nation of which he was the father, which had to fight to remain faithful, whose relationship with God would indeed become an extended struggle, as they strayed and wrestled with the sin that led them astray and, indeed, with the prophets whom God appointed to bring them back. God’s persistence in remaining faithful to Israel demanded that Israel itself show such persistence in maintaining its end of the relationship.

Likewise, the widow in the parable from Luke is meant to stand as an example for believers who must remain persistent in prayer. Just like the children of Israel had to persevere in keeping the law, to wrestle with the powers that would prevent them, so too must the Christian wrestle with the pride and indolence which tears her away from maintaining her relationship with God—a relationship which requires the Christian to pray diligently, to read the scriptures faithfully, and to receive God’s Grace in the Eucharist regularly.

But persistence is not required only because sloth can creep up on our souls. Persistence is necessary because our expectations can sometimes lead to disappointment: when our prayer seems hollow and God seems not to answer, when our study of Holy Scripture seems to leave us with little inspiration, when the strength and consolation we once drew from the Sacrament seems to have ceased, as water ceases from a well that’s dried up.

Christian mystics, like St. Teresa of Avilla, whose feast day occurred this week, call this phenomenon “aridity”, which means “dried up”. We’ve all probably experienced this at one point or another. It can be discouraging, and it can elicit some unfortunate reactions if we’re not ready for it.

We can stop praying and reading the bible and receiving the Sacrament altogether. This is like assuming the oasis in the distance must be a mirage, so it’s better to sit down in the desert and dehydrate to death instead of venturing toward the potential life right in front of us.

Or, we can blame the Church. This has become a very popular way of avoiding the call to persevere.

The proper response, I think, is to keep praying and reading scripture and receiving the Sacrament. The proper response is to keep at it. You’ll make it to that oasis in the desert eventually. You’ll experience Grace and consolation eventually. Don’t let discouragement get hold and decide to just pack it in. Keep at it, and in the end the struggle will seem a distant memory compared to the abiding peace we can experience in Christ Jesus, in this world and the next.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 16 2019

+In the Name the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I might have said to you before that conjunctions are always a little tricky when they show up in Paul’s epistles. When you read a “therefore” or an “even so”, even if it’s in the middle of the reading, it may well refer to a point some chapters back, or even to Paul’s argument in everything that precedes it in the letter. Such is the case with this week’s epistle. “But as for you, man of God,” writes the Apostle to his beloved disciple Timothy, “shun all this, pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” St. Paul contrasts the Christian life with something else. But what is the “all this” that we are meant to “shun”? You’ll remember that Paul had just been talking about money, which he calls “a root of all kinds of evil,” and those who developed the lectionary took that and gave us a theme, as it were, for all of this week’s readings: namely, the dangers of wealth. But, in fact, St. Paul spends much of the five-and-a-half chapters which precede today’s reading spelling out what the “all this” he desires Timothy’s church to shun, and love of money is just one aspect. Reading this rather discursive letter as a whole, we find that Timothy’s church in Ephesus was beset by a myriad of false teachings and false teachers. Impious superstitions; speculation which both wasted time and drew people away from the Faith once received; consent to scandalous and illegal behavior; condemnation of perfectly proper, Christian activities, like getting married and even eating.

False teaching was legion in this little church, and so were those who propagated the heresies. Worst of all (and here’s why money is the last danger Paul mentions) these false teachers were making a killing. They worked not only for their bread and butter, but for the kind of wealth that would make Solomon blush. They put their faith in mammon, hoping that wealth would save them. This is what in theological terms is called a “false soteriology”, which is simply the bad habit of trying to find life and truth and purpose and salvation where they are not to found. I call it a bad habit because it is something that we fallen people fall back into, time and time again. So did Blessed Paul, who counted himself the foremost of sinners. And so do we.

We are not in a world much different from Paul’s, I’m afraid. I know that I am barraged every day with false objects of hope, and sinner that I am, sometimes I put my trust in those things, hoping to find salvation there: whether it’s money, or the positive regard of my fellows, or self-sufficiency, or any of a number of countless idols the world constructs for me or I for myself. I suspect few of us are saintly enough to avoid placing our trust in these things from time to time; but it is not at the altars set up by this sin-sick world where we find salvation.

Anyway, that is what it is to live life on the terms that the world has set for us, and that is what the apostle is warning us against. The good life, he says, is forged by virtues like righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. These are what St. Paul tells us to pursue, but the pursuit of these virtues isn’t what leads to salvation, either. Rather they are the proper response to the gift of salvation already wrought upon the cross and given freely to those who would accept it. Salvation is not about who we are, but who it is we follow. Salvation is not even about how we live our lives, but who it is that gives us life.

Indeed, after he lists the virtues of the Christian life, Paul goes on to explain why we ought to cultivate them: Fight the good fight, keep the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. Our Lord made the good confession before Pontius Pilate, Paul tells us, and we find that confession in St. John’s Gospel: My kingdom is not of this world. We are meant to live as a people set apart, because we really are. We, by virtue of our Baptism, are made citizens of a kingdom that is not of this world. We are a priestly people, brought by Baptism into the Mystical Body of Christ and continually fed and reconstituted by the Very Body of Christ. This is what Catholic man-of-letters William Cavanaugh was getting at when he said that we Christians find “the whole world in a wafer”. We are, in a very real way, intimately connected to each other by the sacrament of Baptism, and we renew that connection at every Eucharist.

We celebrate the Eucharist at least a couple of times a week. I encourage you to treat each of these occasions as a reminder, just as each time we have a Baptism it serves as a reminder. Remember that good confession which you made all those years ago in the presence of so many witnesses. Recall your own renunciation of Satan and his wickedness, of all those evil powers and sinful desires which turn us against God and each other. Recall your own commitment to turn to Jesus Christ and accept Him as your savior, to put all your trust in him, to follow and obey Him as your Lord. These are not the demands and expectations of this world, but of the Kingdom into which we have all been adopted as God’s servants and handmaids, His daughters and sons.

In the Fourth Century A.D., St. Ambrose of Milan, that Doctor of the Church and champion of the Faith in one of Christianity’s darkest hours, wrote a hymn which remains popular on the feast days of Apostles. The hymn extols the virtue of those whom the church recognizes as saints, but much of it applies equally to the ordinary saints of the church, the regular saints, like you and me, who are saints not by virtue of wondrous deeds, but by a simple confession of our belief in our Lord and our Baptism into His Body. From the third verse of that hymn:

Theirs is the steadfast faith of saints,
and hope that never yields nor faints;
and love of Christ in perfect glow
that lays the prince of this world low.

These aren’t miraculous acts, but the simple acts of faith we are called to live out as baptized people: to pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance. It is in living by these uncomplicated, but sometimes impossibly difficult virtues that we show forth to the world that though we are in the world, we are not of it. We show the world the power of the God in whom we find salvation. We show that in the waters of Baptism we are truly changed and will never be the same. We show the world that a little tasteless bread and bad wine are a greater source of strength than the great feasts of the rich man. We show to the prince of this world that the Kingdom of God will prevail, and for this there is much rejoicing in Heaven.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sermon for Pentecost 15 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning’s Gospel contains what is probably the most baffling of Jesus’ parables. If you were paying attention it might have struck you as more than a little odd. It might have seemed like I misread something to horrible effect, because it seems to run counter to everything we know about Jesus: And I tell you, [he says] make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.

So troubling are these words that, even from very early on, some Christians have tried to argue that this is a mistake in how Luke recorded our Lord’s words, and critics of Christianity have used it as proof of the faith’s inconsistency. Julian the Apostate—the Roman Emperor who reverted to paganism after his uncle Constantine and cousin Constantius had turned toward Christianity—claimed this passage as proof that Jesus was no more God than any other fallible human. And if we look at the text, it appears that Luke himself might not have known what to do with this saying. Surely, he included it because Jesus said it, but then he follows it with a number of Jesus’ other, apparently contradictory sayings about the dangers of money. So, we go from “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth” to “you cannot serve [both] God and wealth” in the span of a few verses. Now, I don’t doubt Jesus said all these things; I’m just suggesting that Luke might not have done the best job of editing and making sure everything was in its proper context.

So, what the heck are we going to do with this? Let’s start with a couple of important points about how to read parables. You will remember from last week that we sometimes misunderstand parables because we reckon their protagonists to be us rather than God. Keep that in mind.

Another thing about parables to keep in mind is that theymay have allegorical features but they are not mere allegories. An allegory is basically a work in which there is a one-to-one correlation between characters and actions in the text and in real life.

But parables are not simple allegories. They give us an insight into the nature of God or of the Christian life, but not every detail is meant to sync up with the reality. So, in last week’s Gospel we heard the parable of the lost coin, and determined that the woman was to be seen as God and the coin as the lost soul (these are, no doubt, allegorical features) but the woman’s poverty is a plot device rather than a symbol suggesting that God is somehow poor or lacking something in himself.

So let us apply these two facts—that we often mistake whom the parable is about and that parables are not mere allegories—to this morning’s Gospel. Remember what happened? The steward is fired for defrauding his master, and he proceeds to collect less than what is owed from the master’s debtors in order to ingratiate himself to them. Ultimately, the master commends the steward for his shrewd rejection of justice. The just, or righteous, path would have been to collect all that was owed, but such justice often lacks mercy. The steward is less interested in what is fair than he is in what is effective in bringing about rapprochement.

Now, what if this parable is not about us and our business dealings? What if it’s actually about a different sort of economy, namely the economy of salvation?

This would seem to be in keeping with the interpretation we gave last week regarding the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. It’s also, I think, the principle meaning of the parable our lectionary skipped over between last week and this morning (namely, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, skipped not because it is unimportant, but rather because it is so important that we heard it at Mid-Lent). This suggestion that the parable is not really about money but about salvation requires us to accept the suggestion I made a little earlier that while Jesus did, in fact, present these four parables as a unit, the inclusion of the last four verses of this morning’s reading was a perhaps ham-handed editorial choice made by Luke.

So, I don’t believe the parable of the unjust steward is really about money at all. I’ve seen some modern interpretations that claim the opposite, that try to give the parable a sort of Marxist gloss; some of you will disagree with me (and that’s fine) but this does not strike me as a terribly likely or faithful reading of the text.

Also remember, parables aren’t simple allegories, so we don’t have to see the steward’s initial unfaithfulness and incompetence as anything other than a plot device to get the story going. His moral status and business skills at the beginning of the story isn’t the most important thing here. The important part is what he does with the debtors. They owe something, and the steward cuts them a break so that he might be taken in by one them.

This is called “dishonest” in our translation of the parable, but I think this is one of those occasions on which the New Revised Standard Version yields an inferior translation to its predecessors. The Greek here reads “τοῦ μαμωνᾶ τῆϛ ἁδικίαϛ”: “the wealth of unrighteousness.” The point is not that the money is dishonest but that it is unrighteous. Now, in Jesus’ context “unrighteous” would have been reckoned a synonym for “unlawful”, because that’s what a first-century Jew would have understood the word “unrighteous” to mean. The law demanded full payment.

So, if the unjust steward is supposed to be Jesus himself, I contend that the parable is not about money at all. It is rather about the human soul and sin and our just deserts. By all rights, we’ve got a debt we cannot pay. The fair thing, the lawful thing, the righteous thing, would be for each of us to suffer the consequences, and those consequences would, no doubt, be eternal. But just like the steward, who desired to live with one of the debtors, Jesus desires to dwell with us and within us. And just like the steward, Christ knows that that can’t happen if he follows “the rules”.

That we can have a relationship with Jesus is not fair; justice would demand the opposite. If a friend were to constantly turn his back on any one of us, to break faith and defraud us, we would be just to end that friendship. So, too, would God have been within his rights to cut us loose. The children of Israel had what we might characterize as a conditional relationship with God. God promised to remain faithful if and only if they kept their end of the bargain, if they followed the laws and ordinances of the Old Covenant. They didn’t. We are supposed to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind and our neighbors as ourselves. We never did a good job of this, and we still don’t. But then what God did was shocking, an affront to fairness and justice. He said “no more conditions. I will love you unconditionally.” That wasn’t the deal. He didn’t have to do it, but He loved us so much that He desired to stay in relationship with us whatever the costs to Himself, knowing that the cost would ultimately be His own life. Mercy has trumped fairness; love has overcome the law.

As I’ve said before, this doesn’t mean that we don’t have any expectations. What it does mean is that there isn’t anything we can do to make God stop loving us. He’s broken the rules for us already; He’s bailed us out when we should have been left in chains. Thankfully we have an opportunity to do a little toward repaying this debt which has already been forgiven. We can offer our thanks, which is why we keep showing up here week after week. We can try to love Him back, even if we haven’t enough love in us to go very far in that regard. Most of all, we can permit Him to live in our hearts. That is not a one-time deal, no matter what the televangelists tell you. That is a daily choice. We can let Him in or evict Him. But before we do the latter, let’s remember that that’s why he bent the rules in the first place. That’s why he showed mercy when justice demanded wrath. He who on earth had no home, wants only to live in us.

This leaves us with one remaining, potentially uncomfortable question. Somebody is getting defrauded in the parable. The rich man doesn’t get paid back, and the unjust steward clearly realizes that his choice of mercy over justice will make him unpopular with his former boss. Now, we could just say, as I said a few minutes ago “parables aren’t allegories, and this is just a plot device”, but I think if one scratches under the surface of this question the plot, in fact, thickens.

Has Jesus Christ, the Son of God, been unjust toward God the Father? Has God himself been defrauded? By no means!

This would indeed be a problem; it would render meaningless the Church’s definition of the Trinity and it would further mean that God was somehow incapable of maintaining perfection. However, in the one perfect offering, sacrifice, and oblation of Christ on the Cross, the sin debt has been paid and God’s honor has been satisfied.

Who then is the rich man laid low by the operation of God’s Grace? The Church Father’s present us with an ingenuous solution. Jesus did engage in defrauding Satan, and the powers of death and hell are left comfortless and without recourse to collecting their due. This, the Fathers argue, is what it means when the author of today’s Epistle referred to Christ Jesus as a “ransom for all.” We owed everything, and a kidnapper tried to collect on the debt, but the Great Creditor paid Himself, and in a manner which at the same time bankrupted the one who thought himself so clever.

Think of it this way. It’s like the Crucifixion was one of those heist movies where the thief gets double-crossed and opens up the suitcase to discover it’s full of underpants or something instead of money. There was a switcheroo, and the thief is never going to get paid. In this case, it’s like the devil and he thinks the suitcase is full of souls but it’s got a time bomb in it instead.

St. Augustine put it this way:

The Redeemer came and the deceiver was overcome. What did our Redeemer do to our Captor? In payment for us He set the trap, His Cross, with His blood for bait. He [Satan] could indeed shed that blood; but he deserved not to drink it. By shedding the blood of One who was not his debtor, he was forced to release his debtors.

Or take those moving words from the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom, which I read every Easter Vigil:

You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.
Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

So, the Lord God has done some creative accounting when it comes to the economy of Salvation, but I for one am not going to lose any sleep over the one it forced into filing Chapter 11, because Hell is one corporation that could stand to benefit from some administrative restructuring.

My earlier point about the Marxist reading being inappropriate notwithstanding–since we’re talking about something much more important than money here–I suppose this is the one kind of redistribution of wealth we can all get on board with, regardless of our political philosophy. We are all beneficiaries of the economy of the Kingdom of God so long as we permit that clever, wily, unjust manager, whom we welcomed into our homes, and into whose own eternal home we will ourselves be welcomed on the last day.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.