Keawalai Congregational Church
United Church of Christ (USA)
Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Sunday, September 19, 2010
The Rev. Kealahou C. Alika
These days I find myself looking out at a world far beyond the walls of this church. There is much to fret over. I spoke with someone last Sunday and we concluded by the end of our conversation that we had solved all the ills of the world.
As challenging as the world out there may be, it would seem that we are often equally troubled by things closer to home; by matters of the heart that affect us in the places where we live and work. I’ve had that kind of a week – of looking at not only what seems to be the bigger picture beyond ourselves but at what seems to be closer to home within ourselves.
It is the day after the primary elections here in Hawai‘i. If there is one thing Americans in the U.S. are skittish about, it is any talk about politics and religion. We are cautioned never to talk about either one.
However, I would say the gospel of Jesus Christ compels us to talk about both, but not in ways we might suspect or even imagine. It is hard not to see ourselves in the reading that comes to us from The Gospel According to Luke.
Over the last several months we have heard politicians remind us again and again that the number one concern among voters is the economy. They all promise us that if they are elected their priority will be to create jobs.
It is difficult not to be cynical about such promises. When Jesus tells the disciples the bewildering story of the rich man who had a manager who had been squandering his property, we realize very quickly that it is a story with which we are familiar.
The shrewd manager visits those who are indebted to the rich man with a plan to repay the master and provide for his own future. He does this by having each person reduce their debt of olive oil and wheat to the rich man. Whatever portion remains will be of benefit to them as well as to him.
What is bewildering about the story is the way in which the rich man and Jesus appear to commend the manager for his shrewdness. How is it possible that someone who appears to be “a conniving, self-centered manager of someone else’s treasure” is presented as a model for our faith? (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, Bartlett & Taylor, Westminster/John Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2010, page 92.)
To say that he is out for personal gain, to save his own skin is reason enough for any of us to want to see him get what is coming to him. But instead of being led away in handcuffs, his former boss and Jesus praise him for his ingenuity.
What are we to make of this story? There are other occasions in the Bible when Jesus appears to tell a parable that “highlights the positive nature of a person of questionable character.” (Ibid., page 94) As unsavory as each person may seem, Jesus appears willing to include such persons in his parables in order to make a point.
There is the parable of the man who went to his neighbor late at night to ask for bread to feed his guests and was not well received. His persistence in knocking on his neighbor’s door finally paid off and his neighbor responded. It is then that Jesus says, “How much more will the heavenly Father give . . . to those who ask him?” (Luke 11:13)
The shrewd manager understood, whether he was dishonest or not, how to use what was entrusted to him to serve a larger goal. If that is true then the question is “how much more” must we understand what God has entrusted to us as children of God.
Our reading has Jesus speaking to the disciples when he tells the parable of the rich man and the shrew manager. Within the wider context of the story we are aware that Jesus is also addressing his remarks to the Pharisees.
Whether or not Jesus intended to make a political statement, it is clear he places the choice of a life of service before the Pharisees and before us. Do we serve God? Or do we serve wealth? We cannot serve both.
But we try. We equate our economic system and our political ideology as synonymous with the kingdom of God.
With all of the worries about economic growth, about jobs, about money the choice is laid out before us. Who is it that we are to serve? Ke Akua – God - or the promise of those who offer us the wealth of this world. For all of what I call the “hoo-ha” of this political season, the question becomes especially critical for us.
What makes our reading from The First Letter of Timothy significant is its call for us to offer “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” for everyone, “including kings and all who are in high positions.” (1 Timothy 2:2) The writer addresses his letter to those who lived in the Roman Empire.
We should not underestimate the difficulty this must have presented to those who were in the early church. Should a Christian even pray for an emperor who demands to be honored as a god and before whose statue oaths were taken? The writer makes it unequivocally clear to those in the early Christian community that it is “right” and “acceptable” to pray for political leaders – whatever their politics may be – in order that they might live a “quiet and peaceable life.” (1 Timothy 2:2)
Ultimately, whether we are Christians living in China or Cuba, India or Iraq, Russia or Rwanda, the United States or the United Kingdom, our trust is in God not in our currency. Ultimately, our allegiance is to our faith, not our flags. Ultimately, our confidence is not in kings or presidents, dictators or despots but in the one whom we call the Prince of Peace because our salvation is grounded in the belief that there is one God and that for us Jesus is the mediator between God and humankind.
We must not confuse one for the other.
I know that some of us feel as though the church in the U.S. is under siege. We point at many social issues that trouble us today. There is talk of restoring what many believe has been lost – lost jobs, lost income, lost wealth. There is talk of bringing honor back as though that has been lost.
But Jesus reminds us that we must choose whom we will serve – God or wealth! That’s the bigger picture – the things that go beyond our selves. What is closer to home is the value of living a life of prayer – whether or not our prayers include “kings and all who are in high places.” (Op. cit.)
Many of us gathered here yesterday to remember and celebrate the life of Ralph Gilbert. Ralph was born on July 24, 1929 in Portland, Oregon. He died on December 1, 2009 in Vancouver, Washington.
A memorial service was held at Columbia Presbyterian Church on December 8, 2009 in Vancouver. Ralph was a member of the church in Vancouver and he was also an Associate Member of our church family along with his wife, Susan.
Susan brought some of Ralph’s ashes back “home” to Maui. We scattered his ashes in the bay along with plumeria, orchids, tuberose, bougainvillea, and other flowers.
During the service Dave Records shared his recollection of Ralph and remembered a time when they were working together as volunteers at a golf tournament in Kapalua. Something wasn’t quite working out. Without hesitation, Ralph said “Let’s pray!”
Dave said that was the kind of person Ralph was.
When the memorial service was held in Vancouver last December, Kahu Fitz Neal, the pastor of the church recalled a story about Ralph that was about prayer. “I can’t remember what it was” he said, “but I asked him to pray for me about something. I meant pray for me the way we all mean it – pray for me when you are praying, whenever that might be – at some point in the future.”
“Ralph surprised me by saying, ʻWell, I’ll just pray for you right now. I’ve learned that that’s the best way to do that. Let’s pray . . . ’ Then he put his hand on my shoulder and prayed. It was great!”
“I’m usually the one praying for other people like that, but here was this tall, smiling, earnest guy, lifting me up to God. My guess is most of you . . . have a memory of Ralph lifting you up that way – if not in prayer then in the way he treated you, or asked about your family – and meant it when he wondered how they were; or you did business with him and found, not another business contact, but a friend as well. You should know that he probably prayed for you, just not out loud in a restaurant or a lobby somewhere!”
The writer of the letter of Timothy died centuries ago. This December will mark the one year anniversary of Ralph’s death.
We are reminded by the writer of Timothy and Ralph that the prayers we offer are the right and acceptable “in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4) and the truth we are asked to face this morning is this: no one can serve two masters; for he will either hate the one and love the other, or she will be devoted to the one and despise the other. No one can serve God and wealth.
That is not to say that wealth in and of itself is bad or evil. Instead if we are to serve God, how might our wealth best be used in that service?
Susan reminded us yesterday there was a time in Ralph’s life when he nearly lost almost everything during a very bad recession. The economy unraveled and many lost their wealth and fortune.
Ralph survived that experience. His pastor said, “God blessed him and he never forgot what it was like to be in need. Perhaps it was that experience that gave him such a generous heart.” Our service to God requires that we have such a generous heart.
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