Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon: September 18

Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

“The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed -- for lack of a better word -- is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms -- greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge -- has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed -- you mark my words -- will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.”

Those words were uttered by Gordon Gekko, the character Michael Douglas portrayed in the move in Wall Street (1987).

But is greed good? The prayer I began this sermon with from our BCP for Labor Day I think balances work in the right way: the work we do is not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work…”

Too often we have seen companies so intent on the bottom line, on their profit, that such greed became their creed. They forget the common good, a proper return for their labor and for other workers. Such blind greed is their undoing. We saw it with Enron and Lehman Brothers.

We have seen it lately with drug makers & their life saving drugs. Martin Shkreli, a former hedge fund manager and CEO of Turing Pharmaceuticals, bought a drug called Daraprim used by cancer and AIDS patients and raised its price by 5,000% overnight. Mylan, the company that sells EpiPens, has driven up its price by more than $500 since 2009. All to make more profit.

For many, greed is seen as a good thing & at first glance, the parable that Jesus tells seems to say that blessed are the embezzlers. Is Jesus implying greed is good?

Jesus' hearers would have heard his parable through their culture and economics of their time. One New Testament scholar (Kenneth Bailey, Poet and Peasant, Through Peasant Eyes) offers this interpretation:

The steward in the story has been fired for embezzling the funds he has been hired to manage. He does not protest his firing - he could see it coming. Although he is fired, he is not punished. He is not required to pay back what he has taken. He is not jailed. He realizes he works for a master who expects obedience but also shows unusual mercy and generosity. Jesus' listeners would not miss either of these facts.

So the steward risks everything on mercy. If he fails, he will certainly go to jail. If he succeeds, he will be a hero in the community. Working fast, before word of his firing gets out, he sets about reducing the debts of the master's clients. They assume the reductions are legitimate, that the master has ordered them, that the steward has talked the master into acting with such magnanimity. And that's exactly what the steward wants them to think.

When the master realizes what has happened, he has two choices. He can go back to the debtors and tell them that it was all a mistake, a scheme cooked up by the fired manager. That would anger the debtors and all but destroy whatever trust and good will existed between the two parties. Or the master could say nothing, accept the gratitude of his debtors and let the rascal manager enjoy his popularity. The master opts to be the "hero" the steward has set him up to be.

The steward knew his master was generous and merciful - remember that he didn't punish him or throw him in jail, as he could have. The steward risks everything on the master's generous nature. And it saves him. [From "Gospel rascals" by Eugene Peterson, The Christian Century, October 7, 2008.]

In this interpretation the steward is praised by Jesus for his managing the wealth of his master as a means for creating good will and extending mercy. His scheme challenged his master to be merciful, to do right by those in his debt. Another way of looking at the parable: By not jailing him or forcing him to repay what he stole, the steward might have seen this as a moment of grace, an opportunity to change his own life and act justly and responsibly. Jesus appeals to the children of light to use our wealth as a means for establishing God's Kingdom of justice and mercy, to use what we have to provide for the common good.

And the last line from today’s reading should remind us, who we serve & what Jesus expects of us. “You cannot serve God and wealth.” There is no wriggle room here. Greed is not good. Mercy is. How from your wealth do you extend mercy and love? How do you serve God? Here’s a story from the Boston Globe…

Rachel is a heroine in the hospital's oncology department. Rachel is a wig-maker. But she is more than that. As one of her clients writes, "she is a one-person support group, combining her styling skills with the background of a therapist, the intimacy of a close friend, and the understanding of a sister."

When she graduated from cosmetology school, Rachel had no interest in a marquee salon downtown. Her aunt's battle with Hodgkin's disease led her to this work. Twenty-four years later, she is a seasoned hairstylist and the guru of hair loss. A woman diagnosed with breast cancer remembers her first meeting with Rachel:

"It was clear that she was the lifesaver I'd cling to during this ordeal, because she knew exactly what to say and when to hug - and because she was deft with a box of tissues, which appeared as if by magic when the first tears fell."

Rachel worked with her to find a wig and a style that would look and feel natural. Then came the question about the woman's baldness-to-come: Should she shave it off or watch it go gradually? With the gentle wisdom and understanding that came from 24 years of these conversations, Rachel offered a number of suggestions and options. Then Rachel got to the point: "So much of your experience with cancer is out of your control. A lot of women like to take control where they can. You can decide when you'll lose your hair, instead of letting the cancer treatment decide for you."

A few weeks later, the woman returned and asked Rachel to shave her beautiful dark locks. Rachel sat her down in her chair and turned her away from the mirror. Rachel worked gently and quickly. When she had finished, the woman writes, "Rachel twirled me around to face the mirror and somehow, in the same motion, she wrapped her arms around me from behind and placed her chin on the back of my chair. We were practically cheek-to-cheek. I stared. The tissues again appeared. Rae was silent for as long as I needed. It was over. Rae had virtually lifted and carried me up the first gruesome step of my recovery." [From "My wig specialist" by Susan Sloane, The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, June 19, 2016.]

A hairdresser devotes her skills to helping women clear the first emotionally wrenching hurdles in their recoveries from breast cancer. In his parable of the dishonest steward, Jesus challenges us: Should not the same skill and cleverness we use to create dishonest wealth be used to make possible the things of God?

Rachel's skills as a beautician become a vehicle for extending mercy & compassion, understanding and hope to women undergoing a traumatic time in their lives; she invests the wealth she possesses to create possibilities for a better life for others. Our faith should challenge us to be as eager and as ingenious for the sake of God's reign, to be as ready and willing to use our time, talent & treasure to create God's Kingdom of justice and peace as we are to secure our own security and happiness.

May we remember that our lives are connected with each other & with God and by God’s grace & mercy live accordingly. Amen.

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