Archives For Wealth

Not Empty Away Forever

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2018 — Leave a comment

Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 35.1-10

     I spent one Advent a few years ago in Guatemala with a mission team from my previous congregation, in a poor community near the mountains called Chicutama. 

     I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home for Christmas. 

     Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. 

     And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be snap-chatting and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too. 

     While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear. 

     It was a one-room home, paid for by a relative who worked illegally here in the states. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. 

     In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic. 

     Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor. 

     The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old boy named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their sister- were sitting on the bed. 

     Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and they looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and mites in his hair and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. 

     They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos, and soda in a baby bottle.

     Because that was the only thing they had to eat. 

     Because junk food is cheap. 

     And clean water is not and thatʼs all they could afford. 

I know it’s lame. 

In my pride, I was determined to take a picture of them— determined to take a picture of high and mighty do-gooding me with them. Because what says I’m better at putting Christ back into Christmas than you than a Facebook profile picture of you with some poor Save the Children children? 

I was virtue-signaling before our President made it trendy.

I’d been blind to it. I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t noticed the calendar that hung in their cinder block wall above the bed— not until I turned my back to the children and pulled out my iPhone and stretched out my arm to take a selfie of the four of us. 

I’d been blind, but then I saw. 

Staring back at me from the glass screen of my shiny new phone. 

The calendar on the wall— it was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. The straw in his manger looked gilded, and in his tiny right hand he held a cross no bigger than a baton. 

At the bottom of the picture, in Christmas gold-leaf, was a scripture verse from the prophet Isaiah:

“Be strong; do not fear! Here is your God.  He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

      I looked at their reflection on the screen of my iPhone, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor. 

      I looked at them there with the baby Jesus hanging above them on the wall along with the prophet Isaiah’s words in gilded italics as though to say to someone like me that Jesus Christ had come for them.  And them only. 

      ———————-

     Staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose whilst I wondered what altruistic-Instagram picture I’d post of myself when I retuned home, it finally scattered all the ways I’d always imagined this season and its story. 

Looking at those three little children with Isaiah’s promise above their heads, it struck me: when I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men. 

I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful. If I have a place in this story— let’s be honest— my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.  Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.  I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father. Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news. 

    But what I realized that Advent years ago is thatʼs not my place in the story. 

     My place in the story is as a member of the empire. 

     Iʼm well-off. Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. 

     I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that plenty would call a palace. 

     Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day. In other words, I’m not the poor who hungers for good news. I’m not. I’m not the captive who cries for liberty. I’m not the oppressed who yearns for exodus. I’m not lowly; I don’t need to be lifted up (thank you very much, but no thank you).

     That Advent in Guatemala- 

     That’s when the truth stung me:  Iʼm not sure I like my place in the Christmas story. 

————————

     According to the prophet Isaiah- 

     Not only is the promised Messiah not for someone like me, the Messiah is promised by God exactly in order to be against someone like me. 

     As the Messiah’s mother sings: 

      “He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seats; and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

     I hate to put a crimp in your Christmas cheer, but that’s most of us. Just by virtue of living in the Empire Called America, that’s you and me. 

We’re rich. 

     Just listen again to today’s text: 

The coming of Christ isn’t jolly, glad tidings for everyone. 

        Today’s text actually begins in chapter 34 where the prophet Isaiah says: 

“The Lord is enraged…he has doomed the greedy and faithless nations. The Lord has a sword to be sated with blood…and a coming day of vengeance.”

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

    I mean you have to give King Herod credit. 

     Herod was not stupid. He knew bad news when he heard it. 

         Herod knew enough of his Bible to know the prophet Isaiah had promised that when God takes flesh in the Messiah, God would take sides: 

With those on margins.  

With the people working the night shift.

And with those working out in the fields.

With those stuck in detention centers (and those who die in them.)

    For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire— the coming of Christ was bad news not good news. 

     And they were smart enough to know it. 

John the Baptist riffs on Isaiah’s image of the Highway that the coming God will clear for God’s put-upon People.  He riffs on it right before he condemns the likes of us as a brood of vipers and warns us, in our affluent indifference, to flee from the fire of Christ’s coming wrath. 

Maybe we should think twice before moralizing about putting Christ back into Christmas. Maybe we should be careful what we wish for.

Here is your God. 

He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. 

     Show of hands— how many of you put that on your Christmas cards this year?

Every year, just like King Herod, we try to do away with Jesus— not by the sword but with sentimentality. 

    I wonder if it’s because we don’t know how the Christmas story can be good news for people like us.  

If it’s good news of great joy for people like Isaiah and Mary, John the Baptist and shepherds, then how is it good news for rich people like us? 

————————

Remember—

The word our Lord gives to the angel to announce is that the invasion of Christ into the world is good news of great joy not for some people. 

Not good news of great joy for the poor alone. 

Not good news of great joy for the oppressed exclusively. 

Not good news of great joy just for the humble or the hungry. 

The word God gives Gabriel to deliver is that the arrival of Christ among us is good news of great joy for all the people. 

Pas. 

All the people.

So, if Isaiah is right and Mary is right and John the Baptist is right, then how is the angel Gabriel right too? 

How is Christmas good news for rich, proud, powerful people like most of us?

  ————————

A few years ago the New York Times did a story about a black pastor named William James in East Harlem. The pastor, the article noted, was famous in his community for his work on behalf of the destitute and the downtrodden. The author of the article writes:

“The streets of the neighborhood are lined with storefront churches, as many as five on a block, and some of the ministers said it was difficult to get across the Christmas message of hope, joy, and celebration to those who have so little. But Reverend James disagrees. ‘The Christmas message,’ he said, ‘the good news to the poor, is that ‘you’re not going to be poor anymore.’ ‘That message is a lot easier,’ the pastor said, ‘than trying to get across the Christmas message to the rich that they’re not going to be selfish anymore.’

Notice what the pastor didn’t say to the Times reporter. 

He didn’t say the Christmas message to the rich is “You shouldn’t be selfish anymore.” He didn’t say: “Empty your pockets, or else. Make yourself low lest you who are first be lost forever.” He didn’t even say: “Sinner, repent of your selfishness.” 

He just said: “You’re not going to be selfish anymore.”

You’re not going to be like that anymore. 

As though, it’s not up to us what will be done to us. 

As though, you are at best a bystander to what will be done upon you. 

For you.

What is promised by God through the prophet Isaiah, what prompts the God-bearer Mary to sing— it’s not simply a rearranging of the old order of things, with the poor and the rich changing stations in the old creation. 

The Gospel is bigger and more radical than shuffling up tax brackets. 

What the prophets promise and what Mary extols is God’s work of a New Creation begun in a New Adam born to another Eve. That’s why the angel Gabriel is the one to announce the news. Gabriel is the one who showed the First Adam and Eve the exit from Eden and stood guard by the entrance. Now, at the opening of a new testament, he announces the news of a new creation through a New Adam.

What the prophets promise and Mary praises is not condemnation for some (the rich and the powerful) and consolation for others (the poor and the powerless). 

It’s not condemnation for some but consolation for others; it’s the transformation of all. 

Just as God did at the Tower of Babel, the scattering of the proud and the powerful from their high places— the emptying of the rich— it is for their blessing. It is the work of God’s grace.

That’s what the prophet Isaiah is getting at in our passage from chapter 35 today. 

Just as the desert will one day no longer be dry, just as the wilderness shall blossom and thirsty ground will become springs of water, so too the proud will become humble and the mighty will lie down with lambs and the rich will be made selfish no more. 

The coming of God’s justice in Jesus Christ who is our Judge is not for the sake of revenge. It’s for the sake of the righteousness of God.  

 ————————

The prophet Isaiah’s poetry is unparalleled in scripture, maybe in all of literature. 

Luke and Matthew have written us luminous nativity stories with which we love to costume our kids, yet neither the Christmas stories nor the prophets’ poetry are self-interpreting. 

The meaning of Isaiah’s prophecies, the meaning of Luke’s nativity— it’s not self-evident in the poetry and stories themselves. 

The creche by itself does not communicate the meaning of the Christmas manger. 

And without the meaning of it, we’re just like the ladies in the hoop skirts at Mt. Vernon. 

We’re just dressing up and rehearsing an old, old story once a year. 

That’s why, historically, every Advent the church listens not only to the prophets and to Mary and John but to the Apostle Paul as well. 

In other words, we need the Apostle Paul to tell us what the poetry and story mean. 

And when Paul gathers up these images from the prophets, from Mary and John the Baptist— Paul announces that in the coming of Jesus Christ the righteousness of God has been revealed. 

I am not ashamed of the good news of great joy, for in it the righteousness of God is invading, Paul says. 

The free gift given in Christ Jesus to all is for the sake of God’s righteousness for all, Paul says. Even for the ungodly.

Justification— the righteousness of God— that’s what’s missing when we reduce the Gospel to a cliche like “God is love” or to a cliff note like “Christianity is about forgiveness.” 

God is love and Christianity is about forgiveness, but love and forgiveness are too weak of words for what God does. 

For St. Paul, and for Isaiah for that matter, the righteousness of God is absolutely central to their message, but it’s easy for us to miss the radicality of it. 

I’ve told you all this before but Pat Vaughn swears you weren’t paying attention. 

So, listen up: in Hebrew and in Greek, righteousness and justice and judgment and justification and rectification are all the same word. 

Dikaiosoune.

It’s all the same word, and it functions as a verb.

God’s judgment is God’s justice, and God’s justice is God’s righteousness and God’s righteousness is God’s justification— it’s all God’s rectification; it’s all God’s work of right-making. 

So when we profess in the Apostles’ Creed about Christ coming again “…to judge the quick and the dead…” we’re saying that he will come again to rectify not only the wrong in us but the wrong we have wrought in the world. 

And when Paul declares: I am not ashamed of the good news of great joy for in it the righteousness of God is revealed, he’s saying I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the right-making work of God is revealed. 

And when Paul preaches that we are justified by the free gift of the blood of Christ through faith alone, he’s saying that Almighty God is able to do mighty acts to make right in and through the one who trusts in the cross of Christ alone. 

You see— the Gospel is about more than love and forgiveness. 

God has forgiven all your sins, yes. 

God loves you just as you are, double true. 

But the God who comes among us as we are, who loves you as you are— he loves you too much to leave you as you are.  He loves you too much to leave you forgiven and forgiven alone. Thanks be to God that God loves me as I am, but, God, I don’t want to remain as I am— my wife certainly doesn’t want God to leave me as I am.

I don’t want to be selfish anymore! 

The righteousness of God— that’s the meaning behind the manger. 

The God who already declared you righteous at your baptism is yet at work to make you what he has by grace called you. 

God has been and God is and God will make right all that is wrong in his creation until all things are made new and one day even ungodly people like you and me are remade in the image of the New Adam, Jesus Christ. 

That’s what that pastor in Harlem was getting at— the hope of the rich is not the rich person’s capacity to humble himself and make himself unselfish. 

His only hope— our only hope— is that the God who justifies us will also one day rectify us. Make us right.  And not only us…the wilderness and the dry land, the streams and the desert.  All of creation. 

For people like us, our hope— our only hope— is not that we will make ourselves humble and unselfish because someone exhorted us: Be more like Mary! 

Our hope is that the God who invaded our world by an incarnation is a God who is advancing even now, determined not to let me have my own way forever. 

God is at work— in the church. 

God is at work, opening our blind affluent eyes to the need around us. 

God is at work, unstopping our deaf ears to the cries of the oppressed. 

God is at work, loosening the paralyzing grip greed has upon…me at least.

 ————————

That Advent in Guatemala, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us. 

     These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich. These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states or are being held in detention centers. 

     And there I was. Neither poor nor oppressed, already filled with good things. 

         Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there. Out of her poverty, she gave me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn. Then she embraced me and she said into my ear: “Merry Christmas.” 

I opened the tapestry and looked at it.

She’d stitched the words to Mary’s song on it, including that last line about the rich being sent empty away. The tapestry shook in my hands. My knees suddenly felt feeble. 

Like I’d just been swept off my throne. 

lightstock_138474_small_user_2741517-2We concluded our month-long look at the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25 this weekend. My intern and Wesley Seminary student, Jimmy Owsley, (aka: Mini-Me) preached and preached well.

Here it is:

Did you all notice any differences between these two readings? What differences did you notice? And I’m sure you noticed the similarities. These two readings from the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke are parallel passages of what I will call the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke are referring the same original story which Jesus told. Maybe the writers each remember it differently. Or maybe it was one of Jesus’ old standbys, and he told it differently each time.

What’s important though, in interpreting them, is that each of the 2 passages fills us in on information left out by the other.

They reinforce each other and bring out nuances.

The last couple weeks we have focused on The Parable of the Lazy Servant as it occurs in Matthew. I think looking at the passage in Luke will help us come to a better understanding of what Jesus is getting at. For example, in Luke, we hear that the reason Jesus tells this parable “because [his hearers] supposed the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.” And if we look at the rest of Luke 19, we see that Jesus is speaking to a crowd in the presence of Zacchaeus, a tax collector who, instead of gaining more wealth for himself or for the empire, gives away half his earnings to the poor.

Now, the last couple weeks, Jason has interpreted this parable along a pretty traditional line, as parables go: his interpretations have worked on the assumption that we are to understand the master as a God figure, while we human beings are God’s servants.

I want to offer you a different interpretation.

Let me make my case. If the master represents God, then we should expect him to have some pretty godly qualities. For example, we might expect the master in this parable to be similar to the God we hear about in Luke 1 who ‘has brought down the proud from their thrones, lifted up the lowly, filled the hungry with good things but sent the rich empty away.

Or we might think the master in the parable would remind us of Jesus’ exemplary teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, such as “Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the poor in spirit, and the pure in heart.”

Not exactly. Let me just rehash some of the characteristics of the master that we have just heard in these two readings.

  1. He is harsh man–and dishonest too. He takes what he does not deposit and reaps where he does not sow.
  2. In regard to earning interest, he acts like a Gentile, having no respect for the Torah’s restrictions.
  3. He does not have a good reputation with his people. The people of the country hate him, and do not want him to rule.
  4. He takes what little the poor have and gives it to the rich.
  5. And, as ruler he has his enemies, the delegates of his very own people, slaughtered in his presence.

So my question to you is,

Does this sound like the God we see revealed to us in Christ?

And if the master is not like the Jesus we know, then who could the master represent in this story?

Context

Well, let me offer you an alternative. In order to do that, let’s take a look at the historical context of these parables.

In 4 BC, shortly before the birth of Jesus, a Judean man named Archelaus took a journey to Rome, hoping to be appointed by Caesar as the king of the Jews. You might recognize Archelaus as the man mentioned in the Lukan birth story of Jesus in which he orders the killing of all the baby boys in the land. Archelaus was a son of the previous king, Herod the Great, so he was himself a wealthy and powerful man.

The Jewish people, for obvious reasons, were not huge fans of Archelaus. We are told by the Roman historian Josephus that only weeks before sailing for Rome, Archelaus had placed a golden eagle upon the gates of the Temple in Jerusalem. This was regarded by many as a sacrilegious act, and in response two rabbis and dozens of youth chopped it down with axes. He also reported to have burned these youth and rabbis alive and to have murdered 3,000 Jews who protested his actions.

In reaction to his bid for kingship, a large delegation was sent out to Rome from Judea to argue before Caesar why Archelaus should not be made king.

They were unsuccessful, however, and Archelaus returned, in the words of our text, “with royal power.” Upon his return, it is reported, he “did not forget old feuds, but treated not only the Jews but even the Samaritans with great brutality” (Josephus).

Interpretation

Does this sound anything like our text?

This history was relatively recent in the day that Jesus’ was preaching, even probably within the memories of many of his hearers. Understandably then, when telling his own parable, Jesus alludes to this journey of Archelaus. Jesus utilizes the familiar story of this despised ruler and adds in the characters of the 3 servants to make his social and spiritual points.

Indeed, the role of the servants are crucial. And who would Jesus’ hearers have thought of as the servants of Archelaus? I would say that if Jesus is labeling anyone in the story as “servants of Archelaus,” it is likely the religious and political leaders who cooperated with him, who were his good and faithful servants who helped him maintain control over an unwilling populace. And when I say religious and political leaders, think Pharisees, Sadducees, and tax collectors–some of whom very well may have been present for Jesus’ telling of the parable. Well now we have a dramatic story.

Returning to the parable itself, the people in Jesus’ fictional story had good reason not to want this guy to be their king. So the question that stuck with me was:

Why should the ruler’s servants, who were likely Jews themselves, work to bolster his (future) kingdom while he’s away?

What is their incentive to garner more money and power for this disreputable man who lives like Gentile and oppresses the Jewish people and their faith? The answer is given in the parable itself–if their master gains more wealth, well, so do they.

This completely flips what it means to be good and faithful.

And it shows that being good and faithful isn’t always a compliment. As Jesus has said earlier on in Luke, it really depends on who you are serving.

So what then is a servant to do??

In Luke 16:1-15, Jesus tells another parable that contrasts with the Parable of the Lazy Servant. This Luke 16 passage is often called “The Parable of the Shrewd Servant.” The shrewd servant is not deemed “good and faithful” to his master as were the servants in the Parable of the Lazy Servant. Rather, in this story, a servant who knows his master is planning to get rid of him for “squandering his [master’s] property.” And what does he do? He gives away his master’s money more recklessly than ever before, relieving the debts of all his master’s clients. In so doing he makes for himself friends who will welcome him into their homes and show him grace when he loses his job. This servant is anything but good and faithful, yet in the end he is commended by both his master and by Jesus. “I tell you,” Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves with worldly wealth, so that when it fails, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

“No slave can serve two masters,” he says, “for a servant will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

In giving away his master’s money, the shrewd servant upends the monetary system and embodies kingdom of different priorities, what Jesus calls “the kingdom of God.”

Unlike the ruler in this story or like the historical Archelaus, Jesus, the true King of the Jews, as we learn in the Gospels, is calling his people into a new kingdom. He challenges our addiction to money and power. As I mentioned earlier, Luke points out that this particular parable is told because his Jewish hearers thought the kingdom of God would come very soon. And this wasn’t some ethereal, spiritual kingdom they were expecting: they were hoping for the Messiah to come and free them from their real political situation–Roman rule in a land intended to be ruled by God alone. Jesus indicts their leaders for expecting this coming kingdom of God while also working for the kingdom of Caesar.

Thus they, in their compliance with and active support of the Caesar’s kingdom, were actually resisting the very kingdom of God they were hoping for.

And Jesus’ parables lay this contradiction at their feet.

Back to our servants, though. In our parable, the Parable of the Lazy Servant, we have two good and faithful servants who help their oppressive master gain national power. We also have a “lazy servant” who is the focus of the story. While other interpretations would have us believe he is called lazy because he does not gain his master more money, I suggest that based on Luke 16, he is called lazy because he does not actively resist his master. Maybe he has hesitations because of who his master is or what he has done. Maybe doesn’t personally believe in collecting interest. Whatever the case may be, he doesn’t really participate in the system of oppression, but he also doesn’t actively resist it. In doing so he is what Revelation calls “lukewarm,” which is the worst of all. In the Parable of the Lazy Servant, the third servant is the one who’s not sold on either kingdom, and he is the worst off of all.

As the story goes, when his earthly master does return and finds out that his servant has done absolutely nothing to advance his kingdom, he throws the lazy servant out of his household and into the land where the rest of the people dwell. For the shrewd servant in Luke 16, the world outside his master’s house was a welcoming place. For this servant, however, the world outside his master’s house is a truly dark and dismal place where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it is so precisely because he has made no friends to comfort him there. He has neither his earthly kingdom nor the kingdom of God to turn to.

The argument could be made that he gets exactly what he deserves. For, as Jesus says not long before this tale, “you cannot serve both God and wealth.”

lk12_33p14_33We close our series on Generosity and Simplicity this weekend.

Here is my assistant’s (Dennis Perry) sermon from last weekend on the story of Zaccheus.

      1. More

Jesus-Christ-With-Shopping-Bags-by-BanksyThis week we continue our sermon series based on Adam Hamilton’s book Enough.

The scripture on tap is Jesus’ response to the rich man who asks: What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?

Matthew refers to the man as ‘young,’ making him one of the few young people mentioned in the New Testament. Mark adds that Jesus ‘loved’ him, making him the only person in the Gospels that Jesus specifically loves.

Luke leaves out both those modifiers, telling us the man was an ‘archon,’ a powerful civic leader.

Jesus responds to the rich man with 4 imperatives:

Go

Sell

Give

Follow

The rich man grieves because he has lots of stuff.

And Jesus replies by observing it’s damn near impossible for rich people to get into heaven, as likely as jamming a fully-loaded camel through the eye of a needle.

Fun story, right?

The history of (mis)interpretation of this text is almost as funny as Jesus’ illustration, with scores of theologians and preachers and biblical scholars trying to wiggle any meaning other than the plain, obvious one Jesus intended.

We don’t want Jesus to mean what Jesus so clearly means.

Because we all love our stuff.

Perhaps more than we love Jesus.

Our stuff has a powerful hold over us, as late George Carlin brilliantly demonstrated: