A radical choice

Is America crazy? That’s the question raised last week by Leonard Pitts, a columnist for the Miami Herald. He was writing about gun control following last week’s shootings at the Washington Naval Yard, and he mentioned the eighty – yes, eighty – mass shootings that have occurred worldwide since 1996, sixty-two of them in the U.S. Of course, the issue is much larger than gun control. “Something has changed,” Sheryl seems to say more frequently these days. Something deep in us has changed.

Two weeks ago I quoted some statistics indicating how seriously our social investment in community in this country has eroded since the 1960s. Statistics are sometimes hard to come by and easy to discount. The more than 700 people who were killed or wounded in those eighty shootings, however, are not so easy to ignore.

We know the heart-rending pain Jeremiah felt when he wrote, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (Jer. 8:18; 9:1). Do you weep, as I do, for what has happened to us, for what has changed in us? This is more than longing for the good old days; this is about crying out for sanity, for life itself. “Is there no balm in Gilead” (Jer. 8:22) to heal our sickness? “There is a balm in Gilead,” one of our great hymns assures us, and there is assurance in our scriptures, but frankly I’m not there yet. I don’t know when I’ll be able to hear it.

On top of that, here’s this parable of Jesus, the one we’ve come to know as the parable of the dishonest steward (Luke 16:1-9) – perhaps the most shocking and challenging parable he told – and frankly I’m not sure I’m able to hear it, either, especially today. A rich man’s manager, indicted for squandering his employer’s holdings, hatches a back-room deal to drastically reduce the accounts of his boss’s debtors so he can cozy up to them after he’s given the axe, and his boss commends him for acting shrewdly. Isn’t this just another example of our problem, the erosion of business ethics and morality in society? What sense does that story make?

At first it seems to make whatever sense you want it to make. Biblical commentators offer several possibilities for its meaning but don’t agree on which is best. Even Luke dishes up at least four interpretations. I certainly don’t have anything definitive to offer. But as I weep with Jeremiah over the sorry state of our communities, our nation, and our world, I’m drawn to make sense of it this way. At least it seems to work for me. And it starts with something Thomas Merton wrote.

“If you want to identify me,” Merton wrote, “ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair. But ask me what I am living for, in detail, and ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” What are you living for? What are we living for as the church, as a people? To borrow the lead-off question from last week: What in life is worth so much you’d be willing to risk almost everything else to have it?

After Luke relates this parable, he has Jesus say, “You cannot serve God and wealth” (v. 13). Well, the parable seems to say, we may not be able to serve God and wealth, but we can use wealth – even dishonest wealth – to serve God’s purpose. In the same way the manager made friends for himself “by means of dishonest wealth” (v. 9), we can use wealth to create the kind of community that seems to be God’s intent.

What the manager did, however dishonest it may have seemed, provided at least a foretaste of the reign of God that Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated. It had the effect of increasing joy, love, and loyalty among the poor, among those who were in debt to the wealthy. And it accomplished, at least partially, what Luke saw as the ultimate agenda of Christ’s ministry, which included bringing down the powerful from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53). Maybe, just maybe, when Jesus told the parable of the dishonest steward, he was telling his own story, as he turned upside down the existing social, political, and economic systems of his world to usher in the reign of God.

Only God knows if I’m right about that. And if I am right, we still have to figure out what that means for us and for how we live as a community of faith in the world today. I’m glad to report we have some pretty good clues for getting started with that challenge, about fifty of them. They came from responses my congregation made two weeks ago when I asked them to define true community.

Call to mind something essential in your definition of true community, something at its heart, something you might say you’re living for. Maybe it’s a quality worth so much to you, you might be willing to risk almost everything else to have it. Maybe it’s a quality so precious, you’d risk turning the world around you upside down to have it. And this week, today, start praying for it: pray hard for it; pray for it without ceasing; knock on God’s door on its behalf until your knuckles bleed, it that’s what it takes. If you don’t yet know what that quality of true community is, then pray that you will know. I can’t promise or predict what will follow, but I think if we all did that, we’d have a lot fewer Newtowns and Washington Naval Yards to deal with.

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