Photo credit: Noelle Otto
Readings: Amos 6:1, 4-7, Luke 16:19-31, Secrets of Heaven #997:1 (see below)
I listen to a podcast on the lectionary texts each week, to get me going on sermon writing. One of the commentators pointed out that if last week’s parable about the dishonest steward was too confusing and/or impenetrable, this one runs the risk of being too simple(1). It is pretty darned clear what Jesus is getting at with this story.
We first hear about a rich man who reveled in his financial means while he lived on earth. We are told he was clothed in purple and fine linen. The color purple was a rare and expensive color in ancient times, and so traditionally indicated royalty and wealth. Lazarus, a poor beggar laid at his gate, clearly suffering due to lack of nutrition and care, covered in sores. I’m sure he was a sight to behold. Sadly, we can imagine the rich man holding his nose as he steps over Lazarus each day to go about his business.
After both have died the situation is flipped. Lazarus finds himself by Abraham’s side, safe in the heavenly company of the patriarch of their faith, and the rich man is tormented in hell, with a wide chasm in between. Even then though, in the midst of his suffering, the rich man treats Lazarus as someone who should serve him, asking that he first be sent to bring him some water, and then be sent to warn the rich man’s still living relatives.
The purpose of this parable is not to paint a literal picture of the afterlife. The purpose is to bring our attention to what kind of life we are creating and enacting right now on earth. The consequence is not so much that we will find ourselves cast into hell, but rather, that we will become the kind of people who in the afterlife still think that we ought to be served, rather than being willing to serve others. The discomfort for this week is not so much in trying to interpret what the parable is trying to say, but in trying to figure out how to deal with its implications in our real lives.
On one level, it’s pretty simple. When we see people in need, we should help them. Obviously, we each cannot solve suffering of the world but as Martin Luther apparently once said: You cannot feed every beggar in the world, but you can feed the one at your gate(2). We should do what we can. We believe in a God who loves us and wants us to extend and grow that love forward into the world, into the lives of people right in front of us, not only because God loves all people but because God knows that doing so, stretching us to do so, will help us become infinitely more loving. For this reason, Jesus speaks voluminously about the need to care for the vulnerable among us, especially in the gospel of Luke, and he doesn’t mince words about it. The kingdom of God necessarily includes the least, the last, the lost and the left behind.
We have all failed on this count, one way or another. We have all walked by someone on the street asking for money and not given it, we have all missed opportunities to give help when we could have. And, this is not the sermon where we analyze the complicated nature of homelessness, or the breakdown of our mental health infrastructure, or the efficiencies of charitable giving. Yes, the economy of need is very complicated, but that is not what this parable is about. This parable is about making sure we are the kind of people who see need when it is in front of us. It is so easy, feels almost necessary, when we (for example) pass person after person asking for money on the street, to steel ourselves, to close ourselves off, to learn how to habitually ignore them. This parable is warning against this tendency. Whether and how we choose to give in order to alleviate the world’s problems is not the point here, the point is rather, to ask: does it still pain us to see them, day after day. Or have we shut our hearts down because that is easier than having empathy for their suffering and grappling with the existence of need.
We heard in our reading today that Swedenborg’s vision of heaven is one that is based not in the notion of heavenly peace, joy, and satisfaction but on useful service out of which those blessings come. And I quote:
For with good spirits and angels useful service is the source of their delight; and the services they perform determine the amount and the essential nature of the delight they receive(3)…Such life pervades the whole of heaven, for the Lord's kingdom, being a kingdom of mutual love, is a kingdom of uses.(4)
This is a beautiful vision, of a heaven that is built upon the freedom and joy that comes from giving: giving love, giving hope, giving presence, giving knowledge, giving nurture. But what goes almost unsaid within this vision is the necessity that undergirds being able to give in the first place, and that is being able to see need. We cannot perform useful service unless we can identify where that useful service is required. And this means we have to be able to see and identify need. Help that is given indiscriminately, without any attention to need, certainly may well be called service, but can it be called useful? I’m not sure it can.
There are plenty of things that get in the way of us seeing and responding to need. Sometimes for myself, I’m not able to see what my children might need because of my desire to control their path and their outcomes. Sometimes I am not able to see my spouse’s needs because I am preoccupied with being right. Perhaps we might choose not see the need of some people, like with homelessness, or with climate change, because we feel overwhelmed and don’t know how to help in a substantive way. Or we might not see the need of some people because it makes us feel superior to blame them for their own circumstances. Or we might not see a real deeper need because it is covered up by other socially unacceptable behaviors. Or, like the rich man, we might just be so wrapped up and invested in our own worth, that the needs of others don’t matter to us.
And as unfortunate as it may be, our current administration has recently provided a clear example of such behavior. After expressing concern about the number of homeless people in Los Angeles and San Francisco, our president explained that the problem was ruining the “prestige” of those cities. He said in an interview that he had “personally heard complaints from tenants in the state, some of them foreigners. He expressed sympathy for real estate investors…whose property values or quality of life are threatened.”(5). In his own words: “In many cases, they came from other countries and they moved to Los Angeles….because of the prestige of the city and all of a sudden they have tents. Hundreds and hundreds of tents and people living at the entrance to their office building. And they want to leave…people in those buildings pay tremendous taxes, where they went to those locations because of the prestige.”(6)
As much as it pains me to have to bring up this example, to see our most important elected official characterize the problem in such a way, it so singularly relevant to this parable that I cannot ignore it. Yes, of course something must be done if hundreds of people are homeless and living in tents in our urban areas, but it is the why we choose to do something that is instructive. The important question becomes: In seeing the desperate circumstances of so many people, do we see their underlying need, do we have empathy for their suffering, or do we simply wish that they were gone because of how they desecrate our things of value?
You see, the enormous chasm between heaven and hell that we hear about in the parable is not so much a revelation about the spiritual architecture of the afterlife, but a symbol of the kind of life that the rich man had constructed in the world. He had literally put a gate between himself and Lazarus, and figuratively put a gate between his heart and the need of those around him. If heaven is a realm of useful service, how else would the rich man experience his relationship to such a realm after he died? He would experience it as something far away and incomprehensible; unsurmountable even, because he had never tried to reach past it, had never wished to reach past it, during his life.
He had forgotten a very fundamental truth, that we all are made in God’s image and likeness, and so all are worthy and deserving of love, even if figuring out how to show that love and care is difficult or inconvenient. That is what we are here for. Not to enrich ourselves but to expand in love, to learn that giving connects us more closely to God and each other than having. And we will never be able to appreciate that fundamental truth if we continually erect a wall or a gate around our hearts, if we continue to convince ourselves that we are separate and different and more deserving that other people.
Thomas Merton, an American Trappist monk, wrote of stopping at a busy intersection in the center of the busy shopping district in the city of Louisville. He said:
…I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. …It is because I am one with them that I owe it to them to be alone, and when I am alone, they are not “they” but my own self. There are no strangers. . . . If only we could see each other that way all the time. . . .(7)
Which leads us to the final level, the final necessity, the final acknowledgement that lies fundamental to even the seeing of need. When we are able to identify a need and fulfill it, when we are able to give what is needed when it is needed; what an amazing feeling! It is the joy and fulfillment we were created for. But, even this purposefulness can have its dark side. We can become overly invested in being the savior. We can become expectant and reliant on the ego-fulfillment that “solving problems” gives us. We can begin to think that we know better about what is needed than those experiencing the need. We can over-identify with a selfhood that is shored-up by being useful. And so finally, beneath the seeing of need we find that there must also be humility. We must be willing to listen. Need sometimes shows up in ways that we are blind to, in ways that we weren’t prepared for, in ways that we don’t feel ready for. And so we recognize how much a heaven of useful service requires not only activity but also sacrifice, the constant sacrifice of our sense of separateness, of believing that we are the one to know what is needed, so that we can truly be present to what is actually needed. So that we can be present to what each moment is calling us to, without our need to overlay our expectations upon it.
As Merton puts it: My dear brothers, we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity.(8)
When we recover our original unity, then the distance between is reduced, and we have nothing to gain from our selfhood. We can serve purely, simply, humbly, and freely. And this is heaven, wherever we are.
(7) Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Doubleday: 1968), 156-158.
(8) Thomas Merton, Address to International Summit of Monks, Calcutta, India (October 19-27, 1968), published in The Asian Journals of Thomas Merton (New Directions: 1975), 51.
Amos 6:1, 4-7
1 Woe to you who are complacent in Zion, and to you who feel secure on Mount Samaria, you notable men of the foremost nation, to whom the people of Israel come!
4 You lie on beds adorned with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. 5 You strum away on your harps like David and improvise on musical instruments. 6 You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph. 7 Therefore you will be among the first to go into exile; your feasting and lounging will end.
19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ 25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’ 27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’ 29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’ 30 “ ‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ 31 “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.’ ”
Secrets of Heaven 997:1
…People who are governed by charity, that is, who dwell in love towards the neighbor - from which love the living delight contained in pleasures derives - have no regard for the enjoyment of pleasures except on account of the use that is served; for charity does not exist if there are no works of charity. It is in the exercise of it, that is, in use, that charity consists. Someone who loves the neighbor as themselves never experiences the delight of charity except in the exercise of it, or in use. Consequently the life of charity is a life of uses. Such life pervades the whole of heaven, for the Lord's kingdom, being a kingdom of mutual love, is a kingdom of uses. Every pleasure therefore that springs from charity finds its delight in use, and the more pre-eminent the use the greater the delight. For this reason it is the very being and nature of a use which determines the happiness that angels have from the Lord.
Photo credit: Lisa Fotios
Readings: Luke 16:1-13, Divine Providence 250:5, Secrets of Heaven #4063:3 (see below)
So, remember the show Breaking Bad? It was quite the phenomenon a few years ago, garnering critical acclaim and devotion, many awards and more than one spin-off. It tells the story of a high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, who is diagnosed with incurable cancer and decides to become a drug dealer as a way to secure his family’s financial future. It chronicles his descent into a life of crime and the subsequent darkening of his soul. Now, as much as I appreciate the brilliance of the lead actor, I’ve chosen not to watch it. It’s not that I don’t value complex, nuanced stories, or that I cannot handle realistic depictions of violence. It is rather that I don’t like having to root for an antagonist. It makes me feel uncomfortable, compromised somehow. And so I avoid having to do it.
Which is a bit of a problem for me as a preacher though, because the bible is full of complicated characters that make me feel the same way. There is Jacob for example, a patriarch of Israel, who deceived his father and cheated his brother out of his inheritance. I squirm and wonder: Does God implicitly condone what Jacob did by making him the patriarch of a nation? Or there is Sarah, Jacob’s grandmother, cruelly casting out her maidservant Hagar, Jesus’ disciples acting stupidly and arrogantly, and Paul upholding patriarchy and slavery within his ancient context. The dishonest steward joins a long list. What are we to make of him and the fact that he is praised here? The fact that the clever trickster is prominent in Jewish folklore(1) doesn’t make me feel much better, nor the fact that is was his ingeniousness that was clearly valued, not his dishonesty. I still don’t like it.
I personally much prefer the Josephs, Daniels and Marys of the bible. Perfect, uncomplicated figures who are faithful and dutiful. It makes me feel more confident and safe to exist in a black and white narrative world, where everything makes sense and is put in a reasonable order. But of course, that is not what the real world is like. The world is full of complicated people, ourselves included. A black-and-white perspective is comforting but it is not reflective of reality. The bible is telling us stories about real people who defy our easy categorization, including this dishonest steward who clearly acted selfishly but who was then praised for his shrewdness. And if we are feeling uncomfortable, then it means the parable is doing its job; we are questioning. So then, how do we make sense of this text?
Well, in his own particular context, the steward’s actions are somewhat understandable. As a steward, a manager of an estate, his world was transactional, relationships were mediated by money. That’s how everyone got what they wanted. Even the master’s loyalty itself was dependent on how well the steward did his job, and it seems he wasn’t doing it well at all. And so when thrust into crisis, he continued to act according to his context, his story about the world, which was: Money not only buys goods but buys influence. Relationship, cordiality, good standing, these things are created through transaction. With no resources of his own, he nonetheless manages to purchase good will through a financial transaction, the abatement of debt, borrowing the power to do so from his master. It is a desperate but clever plan, and the master recognizes it as such, seemingly unconcerned about the money that will no longer be paid to him.
And this is where it becomes so confusing. Because it is not so much that we are surprised at what the steward did. The parable is called the Parable of the Dishonest Steward after all, and he acted very consistently. The surprise, and the discomfort, comes from the fact that the master praises him, and that in the interpretation, Jesus lifts him up as a positive example. Seriously, what is up with that?
Much scholarship around this text, wonders about the steward’s motivations and what exactly he meant to accomplish. I think it is also important to ask, what did he believe were his options? What other story about his life and potential did he have recourse to? In a culture where social and economic standing was remarkably fixed and intractable, what other option was available to him?
We all have our own stories that mediate our identity, our options, our decisions. Many times, these stories, these meta-narratives, operate unconsciously unless we have had reason to try and notice them. And we operate within these realities, everyday. It is completely unavoidable. There are many different stories that people have about themselves, we can change stories if we want to, but not having an operating story is not an option, it is just part of being human. I believe that one of the things we are hearing in this parable is that God understands this about us, that God can work with us, and our stories. We start wherever we are, and God starts there with us.
Sometimes we might be led to imagine that God is separate from us and our contexts. And in a way, God must be, for God cannot be limited by *our* stories about ourselves and the world. But that doesn’t mean that God disdains our stories, that God refrains from entering into our stories. The incarnation itself is the ultimate example of how deeply God is willing to enter into our stories and our contexts. God is not afraid of our incompleteness. God does not condescend to simply tolerate the ways in which we all endeavor to create meaning, God instead uses them, without a moment’s hesitation. For, “God so loved the world…”(John 3:16) and indeed, still loves it, both for what it is now and for what it could be.
And so, we get Jesus’ advice to us at the end of the parable. He tells us to “use worldly wealth”, or as the King James Version says: “Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness.” And perhaps we might want to pretend that we are above all of that. Well, its a bit too late for all of us really. Money, and its value, is a predominant human story, one of many, but one of the most prevalent and powerful. Maybe we personally have a different main story, for we all are shaped by our different experiences. But what Jesus is telling us is to make friends with our story, whatever it is, and to use it as far as it can do some good.
For example: There are many times that I am find myself striving to get my children to their various activities on time, not only because of my love for them but because I want to appear as if I have it all together. It’s not great that I’m motivated by appearance but still, on time is better than late. Or many times that having guests in my home will prompt a grand cleaning up that might otherwise never have happened, because I care about seeming like a moderately competent housekeeper. Better the stress of frantically tidying up first, so to later provide a space where my guests and I feel relaxed and can actually enjoy each other. Our less than heavenly concerns can help us conform to the basic civility that keeps us all in relationship with each other, that keeps the world moving.
Another way to illustrate the idea of making friends with our story comes from the Buddhist faith. The story goes that one day, the Buddha is meditating under a tree, and the demon Mara approaches, hoping to distract Buddha from his enlightenment, to lure Buddha into battle with him. But the Buddha sees Mara coming, and simply says “I see you, Mara.” And rather than taking a defensive stance, the Buddha invites Mara to sit down and have some tea.
I believe this is what we are being invited into with this parable. We cannot separate ourselves from our context, from the effect of our experiences on the formation of our identity, from telling ourselves a story about “the way things are.” But we can learn how to see these influences and these stories for what they are. We can say, “I see you, Mara,” and not be drawn into battle that distracts us from sitting under the tree, that distracts us from enlightenment.
And thus we heard in our Swedenborg reading about the mercy of “intermediate good.” Our spiritual journeys cannot be instantaneous; they must be incremental and sustainable if we are to truly transform our earthly natures. God works with and within this reality, which means that sometimes our intentions are mixed. This is okay. God invites us to make friends with what-is, instead of denying what-is, so that then we might truly see the stories we are telling ourselves with clarity.
But we also receive a warning. We are told to remember that we cannot serve two masters, prompting us to consider who we really want to serve overall. We need to be super clear: The Buddha may have been serving Mara tea, but that does not mean he was serving Mara’s agenda. We should make friends with our stories, and with the dominant stories of the world we live in, because they have real effects upon us, but we don’t want to end up serving those narratives instead of God. There is a necessary tension here. For example, I might want my children to buy into the cultural norms of appearance enough so that they look presentable, but not so much that they learn to hate their bodies. Or have a fulfilling forward motion in their careers, but not at the expense of their mental health.
We all need to exist both inside and outside of our stories. This is what we are taught in the cross: God entered into our story, all of our stories, not only in an act of radical solidarity with our experience, but as an act of revelation, to wake us up to our dominant narratives. And with the crucifixion, we saw humanity choosing to serve our own stories instead of serving God and God’s story for us, leading to the ultimate in human over-reach: the death of the incarnate God. Conversely, serving God means seeing Mara, being unafraid, calm, and clear in Mara’s presence, and then subverting Mara’s expectations and agenda. We are to make friends with unrighteous mammon, with the worldly ideas by which the world is run, but we are not to serve them. And this is really really hard to do, which is one of the reasons I know that I prefer the simple, perfect bible characters. That black-and-white world seems much easier…even as it asks for perfection, that seems less to ask than dealing with balancing the world of grey.
Another way of expressing this whole idea is that we shouldn’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Now, it is only by the most generous of assessments that we can call what the steward did “good” but to the folks who benefitted from his debt abatement, objectively it was. He could have done something much worse. What I believe that we are hearing in this parable, is that God doesn’t make the possible the enemy of the actual. God does not love who we are becoming more than who we are.
God sees us. Seeing us in terms of who we are right now does not inherently compromise God, or condone us and whatever we might be doing. Nor does it mean that God cannot be against evil either. But it does mean that God can uncynically, unreservedly, root for the antagonist, because those categories of protagonist and antagonist, of good guy and bad guy, are not God’s story, they are ours. God is for all of us.
(1) The New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, p256.
The Parable of the Dishonest Steward
1 Jesus told his disciples: “There was a rich man whose manager was accused of wasting his possessions. 2 So he called him in and asked him, ‘What is this I hear about you? Give an account of your management, because you cannot be manager any longer.’ 3 “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— 4 I know what I’ll do so that, when I lose my job here, people will welcome me into their houses.’ 5 “So he called in each one of his master’s debtors. He asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 “ ‘Nine hundred gallons of olive oil,’ he replied. “The manager told him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it four hundred and fifty.’ 7 “Then he asked the second, ‘And how much do you owe?’ “ ‘A thousand bushels of wheat,’ he replied. “He told him, ‘Take your bill and make it eight hundred.’ 8 “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. 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. 10 “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own? 13 “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.”
Divine Providence 250:5
In its spiritual meaning, though, the mammon of unrighteousness [or worldly wealth] means those insights into what is true and good that evil people have and that they use solely for gaining rank and wealth for themselves. It is these insights with which good people or children of light make friends, and which accept them into eternal tents.
Secrets of Heaven 4063:3
So that a person may be led from the state of the old person into that of the new, worldly passions have to be cast aside and heavenly affections assumed. This is effected by countless means known to the Lord alone, many of which the Lord has made known to angels but few if any to humanity…When therefore a person is converted from an old person into a new one, that is, when they are regenerated, it does not take place in an instant as some people believe, but over many years. Indeed the process is taking place throughout the person's whole life right to its end. For their [selfish] passions have to be rooted out and heavenly affections implanted, and they have to have a life conferred on them which they did not possess previously, and of which in fact they scarcely had any knowledge previously. Since therefore their states of life have to be changed so drastically they are inevitably maintained for a long time in an intermediate kind of good which partakes both of worldly affections and of heavenly ones. And unless they are maintained in that intermediate good, they in no way allow heavenly goods and truths into themselves.
Photo credit: Joey Kyber
Readings: Psalm 119:1-10, Luke 15:1-10, Secrets of Heaven #3142:1 (see below)
We are back this week in the gospel of Luke. Chapter 15 is comprised of three stories: the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin, which we heard today, along with the parable of the prodigal son, which we heard back in Lent. All three of the stories are about something seemingly insignificant becoming lost: one wayward sheep, one tiny coin, the youngest son in the family, and how much they matter to the one who has lost them. As we understandably place God in the metaphorical position of the shepherd, the woman, and the welcoming father, we come to understand how far God would go to find those who are lost, and how much joy God feels to welcome home the bereft. This is a balm to all of us, because who hasn’t felt lost at some point? Who hasn’t wandered off the path they thought they were on, who hasn’t made a regrettable decision? What a relief to picture a God of infinite welcoming love, who considers no one irredeemably lost, or not worth seeking for, who would put so much effort into finding us.
I consider this interpretation to be the foundational interpretation of these parables and such a valuable one. And, as this interpretation sinks in, as we really assimilate it and come to believe and rest in the expansive, forgiving, protective love of God, I believe that we also can move on to a more personally challenging reading. Typically, in reading this text, God is placed in the role of the shepherd and the woman and we ourselves in the role of the lost. What happens when we place ourselves in the role of shepherd or woman and other people in the role of the lost? How does that change how we read this story?
This reading is a little more complicated. There is a downside to seeing ourselves as the implied hero of the story. We might be tempted to self-aggrandize and point a finger of accusation toward the lost, or at the very least, adopt an attitude of superior condescension. Poor things! If only they had made better decisions! Perhaps they deserve what they have got. How lucky they are to have such people as us to forgive them!
To avoid this, we must do two things. First, we must ground ourselves in the first interpretation and bring it forward into the second. There is no judgment, no superiority to be found in these parables; there is only sadness at the loss and then celebration in being found. I was reminded by one of my commentaries this week that each of us bears the imprint of God, we are God’s image-bearer, and when any of us are lost, a piece of God is lost as well.(1) This imprint of God remains as part of us, even within our lostness, and so always carries with it an inherent dignity and worthiness. A strong allegiance to this truth, as well as the universal experience of being lost, prevents us from othering people, keeps before us the primacy of empathy.
Second, we must interrogate our motivations for assuming the latter interpretation. What is the usefulness of metaphorically placing ourselves in the role of the shepherd or woman? Why are we looking around for the lost? Hopefully, it is because we believe that our job is to partner with God for the sake of the betterment of the world, as we spoke of last week. That our job as people of faith is to humbly emulate the type of love that we see described in these parables. So then the question becomes: How do we do that? How do we emulate the love of God?
Because this is where it gets complicated. Obviously, we are not God. We can do our best to be loving and kind and open and forgiving to the people we encounter in our lives; this is very important. But we also need to acknowledge that we are on the field in a different way, that what we do affects the rules of the game to begin with, not just the final outcome. God has granted us the freedom to shape our world, to create societies and institutions and cultural understandings that actually affect the likelihood of people experiencing some kind of lostness. For example, let’s think about the lostness of addiction. Who made the substances that addict us? Humanity did. We discovered them, purified them, trafficked them for profit, both legally and illegally. God is only ever on the side of good; we human beings sometimes shift around a bit. Which makes it extremely important for us to ask: How did the sheep or the coin become lost? Perhaps it was not our fault at all. Perhaps. Or perhaps we had something to do with it.
Because a coin doesn’t become lost on its own. In the parable, we are not told it is stolen. For a coin to become lost there would usually be some kind of negligence or distraction on the part of the owner. Maybe it fell off the counter as we breezed by. Maybe it fell in between the couch cushions when we weren’t paying attention. But why weren’t we paying attention? This is an important question. Is there something about our culture or the structure of our institutions that makes it so we don’t notice people becoming lost? Was the coin too small or worthless to be cared about? Did we think at all about how “between the couch cushions” is the barest of inconveniences to our backsides, but is a deep dark chasm to tiny coin?
There is nuance to be explored with the shepherd parable as well. A sheep, unlike a coin, certainly does have two legs and so could wander away on its own. It would be easy to blame the sheep, to say they are simple or distracted. But what about the terrain around Jerusalem? It is hilly and dangerous with some parts quite inaccessable. It is possible that a very small miscalculation could lead a sheep to suddenly be unreachable and far away. Sometimes the nature of our environment is a large factor in whether or not we are lost, can magnify small decisions that might not otherwise be a problem in other environments.
And so we recognize that each of the three parables can teach us different things about why someone might be lost. In parable of the prodigal son, the son makes some really questionable decisions about what to do with his inheritance. His behavior leads to some undesirable consequences, and sometimes part of our journey of lostness is to ask forgiveness of those we have hurt. But in the other two parables, can we really place blame on the sheep and the coin? The environment of the sheep was challenging to say the least and the coin is an inanimate object, with no agency of its own. As we place ourselves it the role of shepherd and woman with the coin, as we attempt to emulate the love of God in the world, sometimes we find that it is we ourselves who need undergo some reflection and repentance. It is our responsibility to ask: How did the sheep and the coin become lost? How can we find them again, and prevent them from getting lost again in the future?
There are two articles that I read this week that helped illuminate this principle for me. The first is an article from a mother of a black child in a majority white school, and the second is an article in the New York Times about the challenges that first generation college students meet in their transition to university. In the first, the author pointed out that black students are often discriminated against as early as kindergarten, that black students are perceived as “less innocent” and “more mature” than white students of the same age.(2) And these perceptions lead to the behavior of black students being watched more closely and being punished more often than for white students.(3) And so the mother in this article talked about having to explain to her seven year old son that he will need always need to behave twice as well as his other classmates because of the systemic racism of our society. What a difficult burden to put upon a child so young!
The second article spoke of the experience of a first-generation university student, attending school away from home, having grown up in poverty.(4) Their scholarship took care of room and board during the school term, but they could not afford to go home on breaks and had to stay in the dorm. They described the hunger they experienced during these times, with the school cafeteria closed, very little money, and no access to grocery stores. They described trying to balance classes with trying to work as many hours as possible during the school year, to provide not only for their own needs, but for their family back home. They described how the insecurity and vulnerability of their family’s situation weighed upon them emotionally, even at a distance. The attention and awareness of the university stopped at the diversity of admissions and didn’t extend to how much more such students would have to juggle overall.
And so we must ask, how is it that people became lost, overlooked, unseen, misunderstood? How is it that a normal black child might become the object of unnecessarily remedial behavior interventions? How is it that a student from a poor background might become hungry during school breaks, and over-scheduled during the year? Not from overt or explicit discrimination but from unexamined bias. From the color of a child’s skin causing teachers to make unconscious assumptions about their motivations and behaviors, or an administration not thinking to take into account how poverty impacts a student’s ability to do well in the university environment. Are these things maliciously done? No, of course not, but they are done none the less, without consciousness.
So, what do we learn about this from the parable? What does the woman who lost the coins do? She lights a candle and she sweeps the house until they are found. In the Swedenborgian worldview the woman represents an affection for truth, which means a desire and love for seeing the truth of a situation; the lighting of the candle is the self-examination that results from that desire to see the truth, and the sweeping of the house is the practice of going over one’s whole mind in reflection.(5) The woman doesn’t just say “oh, well” and wait for the coin to show up again. She is active and motivated to find out where it has gone, thinks about what she must to do find it, makes space to learn new information. And this is not a token effort. The shepherd illuminates the determined and steadfast commitment that is required in the seeking, for the shepherd does not give up when it becomes hard or uncomfortable, but does whatever it takes to bring the sheep back to the fold.
Likewise, we all bear responsibility to do the work of figuring out why and how our human neighbors are being disadvantaged by the society that we have built together but that sometimes doesn’t serve all equally. First, to prevent us from becoming overwhelmed, we remember that the lost coin is still in the house. We know that everyone remains within the realm of God’s love, no matter how lost. And sometimes that is very reassuring. How many times have we reassured ourselves about our missing car keys: the car is in the driveway, so the keys must be somewhere in the house. We breathe; the keys are accessible, they will be found eventually. But that does not absolve us from actually doing the work of finding them. We must stop and really think about where they were last, and what we were doing, and why they might not be where we thought. And if we keep on losing them, we have to be willing think about what we are doing wrong. Do I not have the right system in place? Is the lack of a key hook that is the problem, or maybe there is a hole in my pocket?
So, there are things that we can do. The mother from the first article asks parents of white children to speak up about unconscious bias in schools (for often white voices are heard more readily than minority voices, as unfair as that might be) and also to advocate for diverse resources and a culture that values and celebrate difference. The student in the second article went to the university administration and made his case. They listened, and made changes to their policies to support students in his position; he went on to become a professor. And still of course, there is always more to be done.
“In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Sometimes, even or especially when we don’t realize it, that sinner is us. Thanks be to God, for the chances we receive every day to repent, to sweep out our house, and to be cause of angels rejoicing.
(1) Amanda Brobst-Renaud, https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=4165
(2) Center on Poverty and Inequality, https://www.todaysparent.com/kids/school-age/black-girls-face-discrimination-as-young-as-five-years-old-says-new-study/
(3) Kearie Daniel, https://www.todaysparent.com/family/parenting/heres-my-challenge-to-white-parents-this-schoolyear/fbclid=IwAR1HJmGXdZZPq1NunaLtobwOe7TU-TPPOuAKS1GJUpwncc_hNZfvLMgd6CU
(5) Apocalypse Explained 675:10
Psalm 119: 1-10
1 Blessed are those whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. 2 Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart— 3 they do no wrong but follow his ways. 4 You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. 5 Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! 6 Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. 7 I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. 8 I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me. 9 How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. 10 I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands.
1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus. 2 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” 3 Then Jesus told them this parable: 4 “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5 And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6 and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
8 “Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9 And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10 In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Secrets of Heaven #3142:1
3142. 'And I have swept the house' means all things had been prepared and filled with goods. This is clear from the meaning of 'sweeping' as preparing and being filled…and from the meaning of 'a house' as good…And a person themself, from the good which governs them, is called a house. The reason why 'sweeping' means preparing and being filled is that nothing else is asked of anyone except to 'sweep their house', that is, to reject evil desires and resulting false persuasions. If they do this they are filled with all forms of good, for good from the Lord is constantly flowing in. It flows into 'the house', that is, into the person who has been cleansed of such things as hinder influx, that is, which turn away, or pervert, or stifle inflowing good.
Photo credit: Sydney Troxwell
Readings: Genesis 24:1-28, Secrets of Heaven #1712:2-3 (see below)
Welcome back, dear friends, to our new church year. This is a transitional time: perhaps we are going back to school, or back to work after a summer schedule or attitude. At the very least, we enter into a time of seasonal change, anticipating cooler weather, fall colors and the holidays.
So for our text today, we consider another transitional time, a story from the book of Genesis, when Abraham searches for a wife for his son Isaac. We recall that Abraham had been called out of his homeland by God to journey to a new land, and had been promised by God that he would father a great nation. It took a long time, but Abraham and his wife Sarah were granted a son, Isaac. And as Abraham entered into his final years, he wanted to secure his son’s future happiness by finding him a wife. But two things were important to Abraham: that a wife be found from among his own people and at the same time, that his son Isaac not return to where Abraham was born but continue God’s call in the new land. So Abraham sends his faithful servant on a mission, and the servant finds Rebekah.
This servant prayed: Lord, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. (v12).
As we begin a new church year, a new school year, a new season, there is much on the horizon. Much to be excited about and perhaps much to be nervous about. And so we too might pray as the servant prayed: God make me successful, make my children successful, make our church successful, make my company successful. We have goals, we have wishes, we have strategies, we have plans. And praise be to God for the life that allows us to formulate and execute such plans, for minds and hearts and bodies that can dream and strive and work. And in the midst of this new season, as we stand on the precipice of what-could-be and what-we-would-like-to-bring-into-being…I believe it might be useful to consider what the difference is between success and faithfulness.
Mother Teresa once said: I am not called to be successful, I am called to be faithful. In saying this, she wisely pointed out that success and faithfulness are not necessarily the same things. Our success does not necessarily indicate anything about our faithfulness, and neither does faithfulness guarantee success.
We all receive cultural training in the mindset of worldly success. Whether it is in the workplace or in school or in our families, we come to understand that the goal above all goals is to be successful, in the way that the world defines success. Many times this involves forward and upward mobility, increasing our resources, increasing our power and agency, delivering quantifiable achievements that are recognizable by our peers. Often without even realizing it, we are molded to be linear, driven, goal-oriented, relentless, sometimes even to the detriment of our mental health.
Conversely, what do we think of when we consider faithfulness? What kind of cultural training do we receive in this idea? Many times faithfulness is mistaken for loyalty, or perhaps determination and resilience. But true faithfulness is not so much dogged attachment to a group or an idea, but rather it is a mindset of attentiveness, showing up to our life as it is and not what we are told it should be. Faithfulness in inter-connected, not always looking forward but looking around, knowing that God shows up where least expected. Faithfulness is humble, not always forging ahead but also listening and being led.
Now, for the sake of clarity, I’ve separated these two ideas for a moment. But I think we all recognize that success and faithfulness cannot really be separated in such an artificial way; it is not that simple. It is not an either/or. Success isn’t bad and faithfulness good just because we happen to be talking about them in church. These two things are actually inter-twined.
For it is a fallacy that if we are truly faithful, we will relinquish any desire to be successful, that if we are truly faithful, we will be detached from earthly outcomes, totally at peace with whatever happens. Humanity is an active species. Our minds derive satisfaction from setting goals and working to achieve them. We are designed to value success. We require at least some sense of effectiveness in order to feel the realness of our existence in this world, to feel the realness of our decisions and how those decisions build our selfhood. Faithfulness is not the opposite of effectiveness. Faithfulness does not call us to never strive or set goals or work to move forward on our journey. Rather, as we move forward in our journey toward success in life, whatever that might look like, faithfulness might just call us to do things a little differently.
We recall from our Swedenborg reading:
…the proper method is for us to do good as if on our own. We should not throw up our hands thinking, "If I can't do any good on my own, I ought to wait for direct inspiration; till then I should lie passive." This too is wrong. Instead we should do good as if we were doing it on our own, but when we reflect on the good we are doing (or have done), we ought to think, acknowledge, and believe that the Lord working in us is actually doing the good…If we abandon all effort because of the kind of thinking mentioned, the Lord cannot work in us. (Secrets of Heaven #1712)
The problem with success is that it might fool us into owning and meriting the success we achieve. Acting with faithfulness is about remembering that God infills and inspires any success that we might have, and about entertaining the idea that God’s infinity-view might define success differently than we do.
If you’ll bear with me for a moment, I’ve been thinking that the difference between success and faithfulness is sort of like the difference between chocolate cake and lentils. Now with this example, I’m not trying to characterize faithfulness as distasteful. Lentils are actually one of my favorite healthy foods; I really love them. If lentils aren’t your thing, feel free to substitute some other vegetable or fruit that you adore.
You see, chocolate cake is not inherently bad. There is nothing wrong with eating beautiful and delicious foods. The cacao in cocoa powder has a lot of health benefits, and the communal celebrations that accompany cake-eating are socially cohesive in a wonderful way. But here is what is also true about chocolate cake: it is highly processed. You follow a particular recipe, with specific ways of doing things or it won’t work. It involves a lot of precise technique and delivers very intense flavor and a lot of calories. Would we want this for every meal? Would it be good for us if we did?
Conversely, this is what is true about lentils: They are much less processed than cake, closer to their natural state, closer to the earth. We could eat them for every meal and be healthy, for they provide fiber and a multitude of nutrients. They are the opposite of empty calories. They are humble, easy to prepare and are often a supporting player. Does this perhaps make them easy to dismiss? Are we fooled into thinking they are boring?
This is not a perfect analogy of course. But does it help us illuminate the role that success and/or faithfulness might hold in our lives. It helps illuminate how beautiful but also how seductive success can be, how important it is that we pay attention to what actually supports our energy and our thriving, and not just our desires.
Because when we look at a lentil, or perhaps anything from our summer garden, it is a little bit easier to see God in it. The mystery is a little closer; it embodies the miracle of energy from the sun being captured and turned into matter, into shape. Certainly it was farmed, certainly we cooked it with intention, people partnered with nature to bring it to the table, but it remains only degrees removed from the mystery of life and creation.
With the chocolate cake, it is a little easier to pretend that we made it. The mystery is a little further away. And certainly, chocolate cake *is* a product of human ingenuity: we collectively milled grains of wheat into flour, evaporated sugar from the cane, gathered cocoa pods from a tree, processed them and shipped them halfway across the world; developed a working recipe, conceived its decoration. We, as the cook, have worked hard and it shows. It is an explosion of flavor and satisfaction. And God recedes a little further into the background, a little further from our acknowledgment, and our own prowess takes the stage.
And so it is with success and faithfulness. When we lean into success without faithfulness, we convince ourselves that we are the center, that it is all about us, that our own goals are paramount and are therefore inherently good. When we lean into faithfulness without thinking about success and effectiveness, we rebuff God’s desire that we work in partnership with us, God’s gift of the power to make a consistence difference in the life of the world.
When we return to our Genesis text, we remember that Abraham was active. He went looking for a wife of Isaac, didn’t just wait for an eligible woman to come around. But in his search, two things remained important: Isaac should stay true to God’s call in the new land, and his wife should come from his father’s homeland. Like Abraham’s wish for his son, so it is with us. We should embrace the power that God has called us into, but at the same time not forget where the power came from. Isaac was not to marry a daughter of the Canaanites, a representation of worldly affections that are incompatible with divine truth (SH 3022). For there is plenty that will tempt us within success, plenty that will dazzle us with giddy intensity, plenty that will capture us within practiced anxiety, that will blind us to the service and the love that we owe to each other. We cannot allow ourselves to get caught up, to marry ourselves to ambition or greed or superiority or jealousy, or even simply fear. For all these things can and do drive our desire for success.
Rather, we should try to marry our desires with that which serves. When the servant found Rebekah, he watched her for a little while. What was she doing? She was watering his camels. The text does not reflect what a super-human task this really was. There were ten camels, and each camel can drink many gallons of water. By returning to the well over and over, refilling her jug and then emptying it again so many times, Rebekah was the picture of faithful service, and it was this that became the measure of the servant’s success, not her beauty, or her reputation or her wealth.
And so we too, in faithfulness can return to the well of living water, whatever that looks like for us, infilling our vessel of daily work, our earthen jug of strategy, planning, striving with that which sustains and refreshes. We remain on the path to the new land, we look forward, we practice being hopeful, and we work hard. But we also enact a return, perhaps a daily, weekly, monthly, or even momentary return, that reminds us what success is for: that God’s love might be known and felt by all people.
And here we are, our little church, on the precipice of what I believe will be a fantastic year. We have goals and we are reaching for them. May we be successful. And also: may we be faithful. May we be willing to stretch, grow and evolve. May we be willing to take risks, and try things out. May we be willing to be mindful, grounded and giving. May we return to God, our selves, our faith, and each other, our own wells of living water. May we do the work of church: showing up to what-is without fear and dreaming of what-could-be with hope.
1 Abraham was now very old, and the LORD had blessed him in every way. 2 He said to the senior servant in his household, the one in charge of all that he had, “Put your hand under my thigh. 3 I want you to swear by the LORD, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I am living, 4 but will go to my country and my own relatives and get a wife for my son Isaac.” 5 The servant asked him, “What if the woman is unwilling to come back with me to this land? Shall I then take your son back to the country you came from?” 6 “Make sure that you do not take my son back there,” Abraham said. 7 “The LORD, the God of heaven, who brought me out of my father’s household and my native land and who spoke to me and promised me on oath, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give this land’—he will send his angel before you so that you can get a wife for my son from there. 8 If the woman is unwilling to come back with you, then you will be released from this oath of mine. Only do not take my son back there.” 9 So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore an oath to him concerning this matter. 10 Then the servant left, taking with him ten of his master’s camels loaded with all kinds of good things from his master. He set out for Aram Naharaim and made his way to the town of Nahor. 11 He had the camels kneel down near the well outside the town; it was toward evening, the time the women go out to draw water. 12 Then he prayed, “LORD, God of my master Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my master Abraham. 13 See, I am standing beside this spring, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 May it be that when I say to a young woman, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and she says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’—let her be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my master.” 15 Before he had finished praying, Rebekah came out with her jar on her shoulder. She was the daughter of Bethuel son of Milkah, who was the wife of Abraham’s brother Nahor. 16 She went down to the spring, filled her jar and came up again. 17 The servant hurried to meet her and said, “Please give me a little water from your jar.” 18 “Drink, my lord,” she said, and quickly lowered the jar to her hands and gave him a drink. 19 After she had given him a drink, she said, “I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have had enough to drink.” 20 So she quickly emptied her jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all his camels. 21 Without saying a word, the man watched her closely to learn whether or not the LORD had made his journey successful. 23 Then he asked, “Whose daughter are you? Please tell me, is there room in your father’s house for us to spend the night?” 24 She answered him, “I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son that Milkah bore to Nahor.” 25 And she added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.” 26 Then the man bowed down and worshiped the LORD, 27 saying, “Praise be to the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my master. As for me, the LORD has led me on the journey to the house of my master’s relatives.” 28 The young woman ran and told her mother’s household about these things.
Secrets of Heaven 1712
…the proper method is for us to do good as if on our own. We should not throw up our hands thinking, "If I can't do any good on my own, I ought to wait for direct inspiration; till then I should lie passive." This too is wrong. Instead we should do good as if we were doing it on our own, but when we reflect on the good we are doing (or have done), we ought to think, acknowledge, and believe that the Lord working in us is actually doing the good.
 If we abandon all effort because of the kind of thinking mentioned, the Lord cannot work in us. He cannot act on those who rid themselves of every capacity for receiving the power to do good. It is like saying that you refuse to learn anything unless it comes to you as revelation. Or like saying that you refuse to teach anything unless the words are planted in your mouth. Or like refusing to try anything unless you can be propelled like an automaton. If this did happen, you would be still more resentful for feeling like an inanimate object. The reality is that what the Lord animates in us is that which seems to be ours…it is an eternal truth that life is not ours; but if it did not seem to be, we would have no life at all.