15 Pentecost C—9/22/19
Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
Pr. Scott Kramer
As many of you know, September for many churches around the globe, including ours, is a Season of Creation. On the face of things, today’s readings on wealth and poverty don’t seem to have much of a connection. With a little effort, however, we may find a powerful connection.
Jesus tells a story about choices and consequences: A rich man fires his business manager, accusing him of corruption and possibly incompetence. Fearing for his own future, the manager quickly summons his master’s debtors and slashes the amount of debt owed to his master, trusting that these grateful “little people” will help him when he is no longer employed.
It’s Jesus’ punchline to this story that catches my attention: For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. On the face of it, Jesus seems to be encouraging corruption, dishonesty and selfishness. But, his message to his audience then and now is just this: What hope is there for you religious people if you can’t even recognize self-interest when you see it?
Long-term self-interest, according to our scriptures, means resisting our human instincts to trust in wealth and power. As the prophet Amos puts it in today’s first reading, pay close attention to what is small, weak, and vulnerable. As the business manager in Jesus’ story discovered, serving the interest of the “little people” in the long run served his own self-interest! Jesus is blunt: 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave 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.”
As was the case for that sketchy business manager, sometimes it takes a major crisis to force us in the right direction.
It may be that just such a crisis is upon us. We live in a time of vast and accelerating climate change. To that point, humanity may be represented by the corrupt business manager in Jesus’ story, failing in our stewardship responsibilities for God’s creation.
Even for many Christians, the subject of climate change is barely—if at all–on the radar. When it is, Christians in our polarized world typically fall in line with one of two responses: denial (a conservative approach), or, “fix it” (a liberal approach).
A recent New Yorker magazine article names both of these perspectives as distractions to what is most urgently needed. Author Jonathan Franzen argues that climate change is already so advanced that it’s too late to stop huge changes and their consequences for human life on earth. If you are younger than sixty, he writes, you are likely to see these changes. If you are under thirty, it’s practically guaranteed.
Well, that may not sound too cheerful, but hang in there, folks, because Franzen concludes with what sounds to me like powerful gospel hope!
What if, he asks, instead of denying the truth, or, believing that we can fix the damage we’re doing to God’s creation–what if instead we accept the truth that huge and difficult changes are now unavoidable? What if we were to make this question paramount: No matter what the future holds, how then shall we live? With or without climate change, this question is a guiding light for how to live a full and human life!
Martin Luther, the founder of our Lutheran tradition, reputedly once was asked, “If you knew the world was coming to an end tomorrow, what would you do?” His response: “I’d plant an apple tree.”
Jonathan Franzen, in his essay, draws a similar conclusion.
To survive rising temperatures, every system, whether of the natural world or of the human world, will need to be as strong and healthy as we can make it.
Therefore, he writes,
any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combating extreme wealth inequality is a climate action. Shutting down the hate machines on social media is a climate action. Instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons—these are all meaningful climate actions.
Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically—a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble—and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.
All this, from a man who claims to be agnostic. To me, he sounds like a preacher!
One image that fills me with hope is this past Friday’s climate demonstration by the world’s young people, who understand far better than us older folks the times in which we live and what’s at stake. These young people are not the captains of industry, the corporate CEOs–nor are they politicians whose first concern is their own bottom line and hanging on to power. No, these are some of the “little people” to whom our scriptures instruct us to pay attention.
But what about us?
Yesterday—Saturday–was a pretty ordinary day for me, but as I thought about it afterwards, without even trying very hard I was doing my little bit to prepare for big changes in our global future. In the afternoon, I was invited to a fence-building party for a friend whose yard fence was falling down. Our bonds of friendship were reinforced through work and refreshments. Then, in the evening, I attended a family and children event at Bryn Mawr United Methodist church, where we met some new faces, broke bread together, listened to a Bible teaching and did some singing. Simple!
I share these things because none of it is headline news. These are the sorts of ordinary things that any of us are likely to identify on our own calendars. It is attention to the small and the ordinary, building relationships of love and trust, that may hold our center in times of great change. As Jesus puts it, Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.
What seems to us little, for better or worse, may have big consequences for all.
You, dear friends, are making what may seem to you like little choices. But, those choices could have big consequences in a changing world. One of you, for example, this past week texted me a photo of the children’s message last Sunday. Here God’s people gathered for worship. Here the space was filled with little ones and those who love them. Here you gathered, as you gather today. Here, on a Sunday morning when you could be doing a million other things, hope is nurtured, relationships are reinforced, love takes on flesh. Regardless of what huge changes lie ahead, here you are doing the work of God, as you do throughout the week, doing the holy work of love.
Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.
Thanks be to God!