FIFTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
Prayer of the Day: God among us, we gather in the name of your Son to learn love for one another. Keep our feet from evil paths. Turn our minds to your wisdom and our hearts to the grace revealed in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
“And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Luke 16:9.
Andre Dubus’ novel, House of Sand and Fog, is all about Massoud Behrani, a refugee from Iran living with his family in the United States. Behrani was formerly a colonel serving under the Shah of Iran. As an officer of the Shah, Behrani enjoyed a life of wealth, prestige and recognition. But the Iranian revolution changed all of that. Behrani was forced to flee the country. He was granted refugee status by the United States government and so settled in California with his wife and teenage son. The only work Behrani can find is a job with the state public works division collecting trash along the roadway. He is determined, though, to maintain for his family the style of living they knew in Iran. With the ever diminishing supply of money Behrani managed to get out of Iran, he rents a luxury apartment for his family, telling his wife that he has obtained a prestigious and high paying position. Every day he leaves home in a pressed suit and dress shoes, only to change into his work clothing in the lavatory of a nearby hotel and proceed to the site of his trash collecting job.
Behrani knows that his money is running out and that he cannot keep up the pretense of wealth and privilege for much longer. So he makes one last desperate attempt to escape his predicament. He cashes out what is left of his savings to buy a home sold at a sheriff’s sale for far less than market value. His plan is to renovate and sell it for a profit. Unknown to Behrani, the home belongs to a woman who, as it turns out, was wrongfully evicted. She and her boy friend return to the house armed and hold Behrani and his family hostage. Their intent is only to intimidate Behrani and frighten him into selling the house back to them, but the plan goes horribly wrong ending in tragedy for all involved.
The manager in Jesus’ parable is in a similar plight. One minute he is a high level manager for a rich and powerful land owner. The next he is just one more unemployment statistic. Because he was fired for incompetence, it is not likely he will get much in the way of a reference from his former employer. Like Colonel Behrani, this manager’s life of wealth and privilege is over. But very much unlike the Colonel, the manager does not waste any time in denial. You do not see him desperately clinging to his old title, dropping the names of all the important people he used to know who no longer care about him. Neither does he wallow in self pity and complain to anyone who will listen about how unfairly he has been treated. This manager understands that his world has been turned upside down and that nothing will ever be the same again. He can see clearly that the last are now first and the first are last. There is no going back and the only way out is forward. So the manager does not waste his last days on the job, pleading with his employer for a second chance or trying to find out who ratted him out so that he can get revenge. This manager understands that he has more important business to attend to.
Whatever you might think about the manager’s ethics, you have to admire the way he lands on his feet. He knows full well that he is now on the same level with his master’s debtors, the people he used to squeeze, the people to whom he once turned a deaf ear when they pleaded with him for more time to pay and wearied him with lame excuses. Lazy deadbeats, he used to call them. Soon, however, they will be his neighbors, his peers. Perhaps one of them will be his new employer in a job that will surely be at a lower pay scale. He will probably need credit to get himself established. So the time is ripe for seeing himself for who he now is, re-evaluating who his friends are and understanding who it is that can really help him. The manager, soon to be former manager, accepts his new place on the margins of the society in which he was once near the center.
This parable might not have much to commend it in the way of business ethics or personal integrity. But there might be a lesson for the church here just the same. After all, we are not so different from this manager. Time was that belonging to a church was as much a part of good citizenship as voting and paying taxes. We were as much a part of the American landscape as the flag and the county fair. The steeple and the cross dominated the Americana landscape. But not anymore. Contemporary society has effectively fired the church. We are no longer essential to what it means to be a good person or a good citizen. The church’s position in the public square has all but evaporated. It is hard for most of us to escape noticing the discrepancy between the huge houses of worship in the heart of towns and cities testifying to the big part we used to play and the decimated, aging communities that worship there today. Despite what our buildings, our venerable history and our past contributions to society might indicate, the church is no longer a towering institution. We are small potatoes in the grand scheme of things and there is no telling how much smaller we will get. Generally speaking, the smaller you get, the less you count and the less clout you have. The day may come when clergy are no longer invited to pray and bless civic events. The day may come when our churches lose their tax exempt status under law. The day may come when we lose our sanctuaries, property, schools and offices. Why, the day may come when we find ourselves with nothing left except the word of God.
But come to think of it, maybe that is not such a bad place to be. Perhaps the margins of society are where the church should have been all along. Rather than fretting over how we are going to maintain our real estate, perpetuate our institutions, rebuild our membership and regain our place of dominance in American society, we should be thinking about how we ought to live among our neighbors at the margins. What can a diminishing institution do with its wealth in the time it has left? I believe that, for overwhelmingly white churches like my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, reparations to black communities and churches for the benefits we have gained historically at their expense is a good place to start. For more on that, see my post, Open Letter to the ELCA Presiding Bishop and Synodical Bishops: A Modest Proposal for Reparational Tithe. What would it mean for our churches to place their vast stores of wealth at the service of the homeless, the undocumented, the imprisoned and the oppressed? What would it look like for those of us who have always viewed ourselves as the “helpers” and the marginalized as the “helped” to begin viewing each other as partners, allies and friends? Perhaps having its prominent position in American society taken away from it is the best thing that ever happened to the church.
Here is a playful little poem that gives us an inkling of what joy there may be in losing everything. Perhaps the church needs to become poor enough to realize how rich it really is!
I own the golden sunlight
breaking o’er the pines.
I own my neighbor’s pansies
growing neatly in spaced lines.
I own the orange harvest moon
that hangs above the hills.
I own the sparrows come to feed
at seed troughs on my sills.
I own the pathway through the woods
that leads down to the river.
I own the song the waters sing,
the pebbles they deliver
as on their journey to the sea
they run their endless course.
They haven’t time for worry,
nor the patience for remorse.
I own the nighttime sky
and every star on its dark vale.
I own the mighty ocean
where the ocean liners sail.
Someday I will be through
with checkbooks, funds and property.
I’m sure that once I’m broke
the world will have no use for me.
Creditors will seize my goods,
the tax man take my home.
And once they have these trifles,
then they’ll leave me on my own.
With all distractions gone
and not one penny in my plate,
at last I’ll have the leisure
to enjoy my vast estate!