A Sermon for Proper 20: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, Psalm 79:1-9, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Luke 16:1-13
The earliest election campaign I can remember is the 1960 Kennedy – Nixon campaign. I recall the phrase “Nixon for President, Kennedy for King.” Fifty-six year later I / we are in the midst of another presidential campaign. Only I am paying less attention than I did all though years ago. I do my due diligence, but other than that I try not to participate. The effort is most apparent in how I deal with related Facebook postings, which is just to flip right on by anything that has the vaguest look of Trump-ish or Hillary-ish. Quite frankly I’m tired of all the vitriol. And in truth, I am very concerned about what is being revealed about the state and nature of our society. Last week David Brooks’ column titled The Avalanche of Distrust explores this morass.
He begins with the high degree of distrust both Clinton and Trump express in their campaign behaviors. He mentions their zero sum view of life. However, they are not alone; they were nominated by similarly distrustful people in convention. He writes: A generation ago about half of all Americans felt they could trust the people around them, but now less than a third think, other people are trustworthy. That distrust, in politics and in life generally, is … self-destructive. Distrustful people end up isolating themselves, alienating others and corroding their inner natures. Brooks continues, that in 1985 10% of people reported having no close friends, and in 2004 25% of people reported having no close friends. The lack of friends corrupts community bonds, and that corrodes intimacy. He believes the intimacy of social media is an illusion and does not build the friendships that lead to deep trust. The lack of friends and intimacy leads to a general loss of trust that leads to fear. In fearful societies, families are less likely to teach their children tolerance and respect. Moreover, the loss of trust that leads to fear leads to isolation and isolation leads to fear; and it becomes a vicious, destructive spiral (Brooks). It all sounds way to close to Jeremiah’s warnings when Babylon is already crossing Israel’s borders.
The people are fleeing from the advancing Babylonian forces, and they are trusting Jerusalem will provide safety It is a false sense of security (Gaventa and Petersen). In spite of her persistent sinfulness Israel expects God will have her back, and they are surprised when it is not so. There is a similar sense of surprise in the US today. We expect either a divine or some moral or legislative force to have our back and are surprised and outraged when we experience that it is not so. An example is the rampant greed in Mylan’s five hundred percent increase for EpiPen that has people demonstrating in the streets (Lipton and Abrams). About a year an ago, after Turing’s acquisition of Daraprim, CEO Martin Shkreli raised the price from $13.50 to $750; a 5,000% price increase (BBC). Everyone was outraged then. Like Israel, we want to know what to do about the threats to our security, be it physical as it is for Israel, or economic and social as it is for us. Jeremiah has a suggestion.
Woven into his prophecies Jeremiahs says Israel must stop pretending that nothing is wrong and acknowledge the wounds that she has caused. They must stop claiming they have the magic words or the special liturgies that will take care of everything. To begin restoring their security they have to listen to everyone’s stories; stories from all the various geographies, and ideologies, and politics, and cultures, and histories. They really have to listen to learn what separates them and us. They have to begin to see what makes “them, the others, so angry.” And maybe then they can begin to understand what makes us so angry (PortierYoung). Only then can they, can we, admit that there is no quick fix; that no king, prophet or physician or politician is going to fix this (Bratt). We are going to need help.
1st Timothy has a suggestion for a first step; that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity (1Tim 2:1-2). It was not unusual for Jews and Christians to pray for public authorities. The difference here is, the inclusiveness is grounded in the belief that God is sovereign and the savior of all people (Harrelson). Praying for the Emperor does not imply or promote loyalty or accommodation to the Empire. The suggested prayers declare God’s authority over all the world (Gaventa and Petersen).
I think this is a good start; however, I’m cautious that it is not enough. I recall the story of Israel asking Samuel to appoint a King for them, who will govern us, and fight our battles for us, just like other nations’ Kings do (1 Samuel 8:5, 19-20). We know how that turned out; a wayward Saul, an adulterous David, and a wise Solomon; who split God’s Kingdom in two setting up the bickering that sets up the pending catastrophe Jeremiah is in the middle of. By the way, this story ends with 10 tribes being obliterated forever, and two tribes exiled in Babylon. Yes, they later return to Jerusalem; but, this chapter of the story ends with the Romans destruction of Jerusalem to the ground. More is necessary and the only place left is Luke with this week’s story of a hero thief (Hoezee, Luke).
You know the story, a rich man’s steward has been a bit greedy and is about to be fired. To secure his future he has all his boss’s debtors write down their debts. We are surprised when the rich man congratulates the steward for his shrewd action. The story unsettles us because it just doesn’t sound like Jesus. Some details may help us understand.
Frist, Jesus parable is not an allegory, so don’t go trying to figure out who is who, it won’t help (Harrelson). The rich man is much closer to today’s Pay Day Lenders than anything else; which as you know are now illegal in AR. Although we don’t know, the steward may have gotten debtors to write the debt down to the original amount; or have them write off his over the top commission (Rossing). The rich man’s hands are tied by the steward’s actions. He does not dare reinstate the forgiven debts, because to do so he would forfeit his honor in the community, and that he would never do (Gaventa and Petersen). Still, what is it that Jesus sees in the dishonest steward’s behavior that is worthy of following?
I invite us to think back to last week and the parable of the tower builder and the King; both stories are about planning ahead. One commentator suggests that what Jesus sees as useful is the steward’s thoughtfulness that leads to his actions that shape his current future (Hoezee, Luke). This is a move in the right direction; however, it also raises the question; “Plan for what from what?”
Let’s begin with a more specific prayer for our leaders, and pray that they “might have wisdom and compassion and follow their ‘better angels.’” If you don’t recall the phrase “better angels” comes from the title of Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature in which he argues that violence has been diminishing for millennia and that we may be living in the most peaceful time in our existence (Goodreads). So, yes, things are difficult, but they not as dire as politicians want us to think, so perhaps we should pray that they quit trying to scare us to death or make us believing that only they can fix this or that problem.
While we are praying for our politicians, perhaps we should pray for ourselves. Perhaps we should pray that we use our faith to shape the values we use in our daily lives as we run our households and peruse our work and our play (Epperly). In addition to prayer, we can go back to the beginning, back to Genesis and remember that we are placed on this earth to love and care for each other, not to separate ourselves from each other with wealth, status, or privilege, or whatever else (Lose).
After such prayers and such biblical reflection maybe we can see through the murkiness of Jesus’ parable and can come to understand that Jesus is calling us to use the talents and resources we have to build up the kingdom of God. Bankers should manage funds for the up-building of the Kingdom of God. Lawyers should practice law for the up-building of the Kingdom of God. That doctors and nurses should heal for the up-building of the Kingdom of God. That cashiers should engage customers for the up-building of the Kingdom of God. That teachers should teach for the up-building of the Kingdom of God. That students should study for the up-building of the Kingdom of God. That no matter what gifts and talents we have, they should be put to use with shrewdness, prudence and wisdom (Hoezee, Luke) for the up-building of the Kingdom of God (Pankey).
I rather suspect the first effect of our prayers that we will see is how our behaviors begin to change. I know it will be difficult, but God is strong. I know we will wander away from time to time, but God is merciful. I know it will take time, a long time, but God is eternal. Amen
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BBC. “US Pharmaceutical company defends 5000% price increase.” 22 9 2015. bbc.com. 16 9 2016. <http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34320413>.
Bratt, Doug. Proper 20CCenter for Excellence in Preaching Jeremiah. 18 9 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Brooks, David. “The Avalanche of Distrust.” 13 9 2016. nytimes.com. <nytimes.com/2016/09/13/opinion/the-avalanche-of-distrust.html>.
Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 18 9 2016. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 18 9 2016. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Goodreads. “The Better Angels of our Nature.” n.d. Goodreads.com. 18 9 2016. <http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11107244-the-better-angels-of-our-nature>.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Hoezee, Scott. Proper 20C Center for Excellence in Preaching Luke. 18 9 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-20c/>.
—. Proper 20CCenter for Excellence in Preaching 1 Timothy 2:1-7. 18 9 2016. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.
Johnson, Deon. “God is Good, All the Time, Proper 20(C).” 18 9 2016. Sermons that Work.
Lewis, Karoline. Being Faithful In Much. 18 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4706 1/3>.
Lipton, Eric and Rachel Abrams. “EpiPen Maker Lobbies to Shift High Cost to Others.” 16 9 2016. nytimes.com. <http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/16/business/epipen-maker-mylan-preventative-drug-campaign.html>.
Lose, David. Pentecost 18 C: Wealth and Relationships. 18 9 2019. <davidlose.net/2016/09/pentecost-18-c-wealth-and-relationships/>.
Pankey, Steve. “A Parable About Talents?” 18 9 2016. Draughting Theology.
PortierYoung, Anathea. Commentary on Jeremiah 8:189:. 18 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/>.
Rossing, Barbara. Commentary on Luke 16:113. 18 9 2016. <http://www.workingpreacher.org>.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.