Psalm 91, and Taylor and Luke 16
2007-09-27 by David von Schlichten

Psalm 91

Rick Brand reflects pastorally on Psalm 91 in the blog entry below this one. I agree that Psalm 91's promise that God will protect the righteous does not guarantee that bad things will never happen to good people. Indeed, the book of Psalms as a whole presents a more complex picture of the relationship between righteous living and suffering. Sometimes the psalmist suffers precisely because evil people are persecuting her or him. It's a good thing we have 150 psalms and not just Psalm 91.

For that matter, thanks be to the Spirit that the Bible is far more than Psalms. Whenever I meet Psalm 91, I remember Satan trying to tempt Jesus in the wilderness by quoting that magnificent psalm. Jesus responds by quoting Deuteronomy, another part of Scripture. Satan is proof-texting, while Jesus recognizes that Psalm 91, along with every passage in Scripture, must be understood vis-a-vis the larger scriptural context.

Perhaps we can help our hearers to understand this crucial hermeneutical principle. We are to take the Bible as a whole, even when focusing on one verse in one chapter of one book.

Barbara Brown Taylor and Luke 16:19-31

In Bread of Angels, Taylor has a wise sermon on this text from Luke. She begins “A Fixed Chasm” by critiquing the simplistic notion - this point fits well with Rick Brand's comment in response to Psalm 91 – that we are wealthy or poor because of our own hard work, God's blessing, or a combination of the two, but not because of factors beyond our control or outside of God's will. Taylor preaches, “The great American myth is that anyone willing to work hard can win first prize” (p.109). She says that might be true if everyone had the same auspicious circumstances at the beginning of the race. In reality, “Some start so far back that they can run until their lungs burst and never even see the dust of their front-runners” (110).

Also pervasive is the belief that a person is poor because of God's wrath. Such a mentality often begets a fatalistic attitude toward the poor among us rich people. A person is poor because that is God's will, so I should just not bother to try to help her. A person's poverty is fate or part of God's plan, so I am to leave the poverty alone.

Taylor goes on to declare that Jesus hated this kind of “health and wealth theology” (111), reminding people of the scriptural call to care for the poor and doing so himself through word and action. Jesus also made this point by telling stories, and now we come to the parable of this Sunday's Gospel reading.

Taylor proclaims that the point of the parable is not to induce guilt but to induce change. She notes the absence of guilt in the parable and adds, “God could [sic] care less about our guilt. The only thing guilt is good for is to move us to change” (111). If we simply feel guilty but don't do anything to improve our behavior, what good is the guilt?

Taylor continues by pointing out that the story teaches us that we create our own misery. Just as the rich man has doomed himself with his self-indulgent lifestyle, so also do we generate our own misery when we cut ourselves off from each other and God because we are too busy chasing after bling, thinking that we deserve it and that the poor deserve their poverty. She preaches, “Who do you think fixed that chasm in the story? Was it God or the rich man?” (113)

She concludes the sermon by reminding us that we are the five brothers. It is too late for the rich man, but it is not too late for us rich women and men to care for the Lazarus lying in our driveway in front of our two cars.

Returning to Rick's thoughts about theodicy and Psalm 91, an additional point is that one way God lifts us and protects us is through the compassion people show us and we them. When we pray for God to help the poor, God responds, “Good idea. Let's get to work, you and I, together.”

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, poedifier





Thirty years
2007-09-27 by Rick Brand

Jimmy Buffet has a line in a song about it's been thirty years since my last confession, so if you have all day, Father, let's get started.

I have been plowing the lectionary lessons for more than thirty years and so I have finally focused on plowing in the Psalms.  According to my lectionary that is Psalm 91.

A. This is a magnificent psalm of celebration of the goodness of God's steadfast care and protection for somebody who has had an experience that convinces them that God has been there for them. I have heard this kind of testimony of people who survive tornadoes and other horrors.

B. But it is a dangerous Psalm to try to preach if we go so far as to say that all who love the Lord will feel this kind of protection.  At least, I would never say to the congregation that if you love God you will be protected from all harm.   One has only to read Mother Teresa's letters to know that one as devout as she was felt deserted and apart from God. 

I certainly do not have any interest in trying to say who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, i.e. if you get hit by a car, you must not have been under the shadow of God's wings.

C. But all that does make you wonder, well, who do you trust yourself to.  You going to believe you can look out for yourself?  Do you believe your security will be in the Patriots' Act?  Do you really believe George Bush can keep you save from terrorits?  Is your security in "the piece of the Rock" insurance company? 

D. Which drives us back to the Psalm that in our faith in God do we find the only comfort and security that there is for us finite creatures. If we do not trust the Creator to keep creation, then nothing else will be able to keep it. If we do not believe that God will gather God's children into God's care, then we are without much grounds for hope.

I wonder if someone else has found a better word in this Psalm.





Myanmar and Highlights from this Week's "Lectionary Homiletics" Articles
2007-09-25 by David von Schlichten

The monks in Myanmar protesting against that nation's oppressive government remind us of the importance of stepping away from our fast-food filled tables to work for changes large and small that help the hungry and excluded. As we do this, we are to be full of, not self-abusive (and sometimes self-indulgent) guilt and shame, but repentant acknowledgment of culpability and joyful relief that salvation is for all.

 At our samples section for this coming Sunday, you will find something new: free snippets from Lectionary Homiletics of all the articles for this Sunday. 

Here is what I found especially nourishing from this week's articles: 

Exegesis”

Brian K. Peterson is one of several authors this week to remind us that this parable is not meant to be an accurate picture of the nature of heaven and hell. As Peterson writes, "[ . . . ] [T]his story is not intended to give details about the furniture of Heaven or the temperature of Hell” (p.73).

Peterson also explains that the parable has two endings and two “separate but related” points. The first ending is the fate of the rich man, and the first point is that worldly wealth is “no indication of God's approval” (p.73). The second ending looks ahead to Jesus' resurrection, and the second point is Luke's explanation as to why many people did not accept Jesus: hard-heartedness.

Peterson also notes that the Pharisees should see themselves most clearly in, not the rich man or Lazarus, but “[ . . . ] the brothers who must listen to the Law and the Prophets” (p.73).

Theological Themes”

Alan Meyers concludes his article with a valuable, indicting question, “Why is the association of wealth, not poverty, with being specially favored by God so persistent and strong in America, in spite of Moses and the prophets and Jesus?” (p.74)

Pastoral Implications”

Pamela Cooper-White rightly proclaims that this parable is aimed at the have's, and we North Americans are among them. We may not think of ourselves as wealthy, but compared to most of the world, we are the rich man, with much of the planet lying as Lazarus right outside our door. Cooper-White goes on to stress the corporate nature of the sin that continues to oppress the poor.

She advises that preaching striving to make hearers feel guilt or shame generally is not productive. More productive is helping people to confess and grieve our involvement in the corporate neglect and abuse of the poor, to ask for God's grace, and then to strive to live out our gratitude through efforts to bring about justice (p.75).

She adds that Luke 18 provides hope in the declaration that, through God, all things are possible.

Sermon Reviews”

Alex Gondola summarizes a sermon by Don M. Aycock in which Aycock preaches that the rich man makes four “serious mistakes”: he “mistook today for eternity”; “mistook opportunity for privilege”; “mistook his neighbor for a nobody”; and “traded his possessions for his soul” (p.77).

Gondola writes that a sermon by W. Robert McClelland urges hearers to get moving with helping those in need, because we only live once and the days fly rapidly. McClelland recalls Bonhoeffer saying that the only ethical question for the Christian is, “How shall the next generation live?” (p.77), and McClelland quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. as having said, “Unless we are willing to die for something, we're not fit to live for anything” (Ibid.).

Preaching the Lesson”

In an exceptionally well-written and cogent article, David J. Schlafer contends that the rich man has “forgotten or ignored” passages from Scripture that call upon him to extend hospitality, especially to those in need. Schlafer makes an analogy by drawing a picture of someone clinging to the handful of verses against homosexuality and then dying and finding a homosexual in Abraham's embrace.

We are called to inclusivity, although Schlafer adds that such an understanding does not mean an “anything goes” mentality, because, although barriers are coming down, “lines are being drawn” (p.79). Schlafer concludes that homosexuality is not the only issue analogous to the parable, but such an issue can help people to hear the parable anew.

As I reflect on all this, I recall a common belief that people are poor because they have made themselves that way, such as by being lazy. I could see some of us wealthy hearers justifying our neglect of the poor with this kind of thinking. We are to remember that Jesus calls for us to care for the poor and not only for the poor whom we have decided deserve our help. 

Striving to march like the monks, I am

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, poedifier  





Sermon on Luke 16 (and 1 Timothy 2) for Sept. 23
2007-09-22 by David von Schlichten

If you scroll down, you will find a rich blog entry by Tom Long, as well as an intelligent entry by Dee Dee Haines.

 

Shrewd Like the Cross

(Word count: 831)

Texts: Luke 16:1-13 (and 1 Timothy 2:1-7)

Main point: Just as God loved us with the supremely shrewd act of giving us life through the cross, so are we to respond by using shrewdly our resources, including prayer, to love God and others.

Sometimes even a person we disapprove of can teach us a positive lesson. For example, last winter I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, a famous and zealous atheist. He argues that the idea of God is bogus and even destructive. I disagree with Dawkins on many points, because, of course, I believe deeply in God while he does not. However, he makes some good points, like in his critique of Christian hypocrisy and irrationality. He describes insightfully how hypocritical and irrational we Christians can be. Good points. Sometimes even a person we basically disagree with or disapprove of can teach us a positive, useful lesson.

In our Gospel reading, Luke 16:1-13, the dishonest manager is just such a person: his behavior is negative but he still provides a positive, useful example for us. Let me explain. In this parable from Luke 16, a manager is about to be fired. To help himself have friends who will care for him when he is out of a job, the manager reduces some of the debts that people owe his boss. The manager does not have permission to do this. He is cheating, being dishonest.

Now here's something weird. When his boss finds out that the manager has been dishonest with the financial records to benefit himself, the boss does not yell at him, as we would expect. Instead, the boss slaps him on the back and says, "That was very shrewd of you. Good job."

Why would Jesus tell such a story? Is he saying we should be dishonest? Given his teachings as a whole, it is unlikely that he is promoting dishonesty. So what is Jesus promoting? Why does he tell a story about a dishonest manager who gets praised for being dishonest?

Actually, the boss does not exactly praise the manager for being dishonest. He praises the manager for being shrewd. Likewise, Jesus does not want us to be dishonest, but he does want us to be shrewd, shrewd with the wealth that God has entrusted to us so that we serve God and people in need. Jesus does not want us to imitate the dishonest manager's dishonesty. Jesus wants us to imitate the dishonest manager's shrewdness.

What does the word shrewd even mean? The word “shrewd” means to be clever, cunning, and calculating. It is not necessarily bad. Jesus always wants us to be loving, including by being honest, but we are not to be foolish, naïve, or lazy. We are to be shrewd. As we said last week, Jesus wants us to be innocent as doves, yes, but also wise as serpents.

Are we? Are we shrewd with our wealth, or are we wasteful? Today is Harvest Home Sunday, when we collect non-perishable food to donate to the local food pantry. This is a wonderful use of our wealth, thanks be to the Holy Spirit.

What else could we do? How can we be even more clever, cunning and calculating with our wealth so as to help as many people as possible and honor God?

Remember, the end might crash upon us before this hour ends. God could return at any moment. Death can invade on any day. Are we being shrewd with what God has entrusted to us, or are we being wasteful?

Are we being shrewd with our money and skills? Are we putting them to smart, creative use in the name of loving God and others? Think about your money, talents, and other resources. Are you using them shrewdly for God and others? Am I?

God has given us prayer. Are we being shrewd in our use of that gift, in our use of prayer?

1 Timothy 2:1-7 calls for us to pray for our leaders, our politicians. Do you do that? We love to gripe about politicians, but are we praying for them?

1 Timothy 2 also tells us that God wants everyone to be saved. Everyone. If God wants everyone to be saved, then we should as well. We are even to want passionate atheists like Richard Dawkins to be saved.

Striving to help all come back to God calls for shrewdness, cleverness, as well as urgency, in prayer and action. Time is short. Evil is strong. God urges us to be shrewd with money, prayer, talent, and God urges us to get moving. Evil flexes, time shrinks.

Atheists, including Richard Dawkins, are smart but mistaken. Even so, God wants them to be saved, just as God wants salvation for you and indeed has given it to you through baptism into Christ's shrewd death.

Yes, God, in his shrewdness, sent Christ to trick Satan and outsmart death. Christ's death looked like defeat, but surprise! As Christ hung dying on the cross, Satan cackled, his bad breath fogging up his mirrors. “Ha! Now I have him!” Satan thought he had won, but he was wrong. God, in his cleverness, his shrewdness, had double-crossed Satan. Death was actually life. The supreme act of shrewdness turned death into life.

Yours in Christ,

David von Schlichten, poedifier





Luke 16 and Amos 8: A Questionable Shift in Managerial Style
2007-09-22 by Dee Dee Haines

A few thoughts for those who are, like myself, Saturday writers. 

Who’s the boss?  Who is in charge?  Whose idea was this?  In other words, who do we want to hold accountable?  These are just a few of the questions we often ponder when we find ourselves in a mess.  Someone has to pay.  The manager in Luke’s Gospel is, at first sight, an attractive scapegoat.  Let’s agree to blame him, shall we?

 

It’s too easy to cover this story with our present age systems of accountability.  If we’ve paid any attention to the financial industry in the last few weeks, we see how quickly we want to shift blame from one industry segment to another.  In the end, as Tom Long says, it is not the manager who is unrighteous, it’s what he manages.  It’s the system of wealth itself that will rot from the inside out and contaminate all it touches.  Amos tells us that the basket of summer fruit is fermenting, seeping through the weakened skins that can no longer hold what bubbles beneath.

 

Thanks to Tom Long, we’re wrestling with those images of collision that appear when we remember that God’s just and  imaginative vision for creation doesn’t look anything like the one we’ve created for ourselves.  Instinctively, we want to know who is at fault.  We’d like to blame the manager, but Jesus is conducting his performance review and awarding top marks to the administrator we’ve been led to believe is the one who let us down.  We thought he was about to pick up his pink slip.  We’re hoping to feel better by making a good choice with his replacement.  We’ve already got a candidate in mind who is hungry to make her way to the top.  But that’s our problem.  We’re not looking for someone whose values are kingdom-of-God enthused and informed.  Our job description is firmly planted in the wealth we hope to gain from the system that is already in place.  We don’t really see, or believe, that our economy is flawed.

 

Amos brings the indictment to life when he personalises the call to accountability by naming the deeds that we’d like to keep out of the boardroom: trampling the needy, ruining the poor, conducting shady business transactions that put into motion a system of greed that renders the life of many as expendable, having no more worth that a pair of sandals.

 

Stephen J. Patterson reminds us, “The Wisdom of Jesus is first and foremost about the reversal of common values.  The Empire of God calls for a reordering of human-life relationships that places those who are valued least in the world at the very center.” (The God of Jesus, Stephen J. Patterson, 1998)  That’s hard for us, because we make decisions based on our broken human perception of self at the center of all things.

 

Could Jesus be using this questionable shift in managerial style to illustrate how futile it will be if we don’t all (from owners to managers and debtors) begin to see that our system of wealth and debt is not only broken, but does not lead to life?   Does he turn this story on its ear because we too often want to blame those at the top who make attractive products for small amounts of money so that we can all secretly rejoice in a bargain?  Are we able to see how we would rather blame someone with more power than ourselves than recognise are own participation?

 

My ears are burning with those words, “No slave can serve two masters.”  You cannot serve the God of justice and mercy and serve the god of Wealth, as well.

 

I suspect that this story is seldom listed as anyone’s favourite.  Unlike other more commonly known parables, it does not easily lend itself to becoming domesticated.  We can’t take the punch out of it like we have with so many others. As long as we place our hope in our present system, it will always leave us feeling unsettled, disturbed, challenged and ill at rest.  The good news is that we can be changed in the most unexpected ways.





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