19 October 2010

A sermon for Saint Luke's Day

“A Stewardship of Healing”
St. Luke, Evangelist
17 October 2010

Trinity Episcopal Church
San Francisco, California

Ecclesiasticus 38:1-4, 6-10, 12-14
Psalm 147
II Timothy 4:5-13
St. Luke 4:14-21


I.               Stewardship – what is it?

In the biblical story of Joseph, the character of Joseph is slowly revealed to the hearer or the reader.  Gifted, arrogant at times, honored and loved by his father, regarded suspiciously by his siblings, this young man would become a salvation for his family, if not the nascent people of Israel.  In his story he moves from the plains and hills of Palestine, and the relative wealth of his father’s household to the narrow river culture of Egypt and to the household of the Chief Steward of Egypt where he serves as a slave, and incidentally as a seer.  The dream-telling qualities of Joseph’s life is only one aspect of his story and service, and it serves him well as he moves into his new community, and eventually through his visions becoming a steward for the people of Egypt. 

Joseph, like most stewards, knew that the goods, the visions, and the wealth that he managed for the benefit of others was not his own.  He was thrust into that knowledge by his forced sale into slavery.  The slave had no rights, no property, really – but often earned the respect of their wealthy owners through a just and virtuous exercise of their stewardship.  The Bible is full of stories about these men and women, and Jesus uses them as an example of ingenuity and intellect.  All of them operated with the knowledge that they had to make an accounting, and that sometimes they needed to give up what might have been theirs in order to meet the expectations of the owner.

Stewardship is often regarded by many, especially at this time of the year as an uncomfortable and embarrassing request for our wealth.  This perspective comes to us absent the basic idea of stewardship, namely, that we operate with gifts, talents, skills, and wealth that has been entrusted to us.  In our culture of money and achievement, these things are seen as property, rather than as the gifts that they are.  Thus, it is a good thing to look at lives that were informed differently, and at the stewardship of those who understood stewardship and its responsibilities.

Today we honor St. Luke, and indirectly, we honor all those who serve as physicians, nurses, and health care givers.  Like Joseph, these people are keenly aware of their stewardship of others.  It is not their life, their heart, or their mental wellbeing which they care for.  They steward the physical resources of others, and we expect that of them.  This notion of a stewardship of healing can help us to move away from stewardship as only a demand on our fiscal resources, to seeing stewardship as a discipline that involves other aspects of our lives.

II.             Stewardship – a history of ministry

The other day, in a meeting with the pastor and president of St. Paulus Church, we listened as these good people described their ministry to the community absent the church building that had been their home until it burned in a tragic fire some fifteen years ago.  As they described their journey they also wanted to hear about our ministry.  One of the members present at the meeting took the time to talk about the stewardship of ministry at Trinity Church.  Like the stewardship campaign in many parishes, the buildings and facilities of our congregations can seem like a rude interruption of our spiritual life, as we deal with seismic studies, dwindling resources, and responsibility to the community. 

His story, however, was not one of anguish and frustration with all of that.  He talked about the stewardship of this place, as a stewardship of all that had gone on here in the past, and of an equal stewardship of what might be.  He reminded us that the building and the ministry here are gifts, the property and accomplishment of others, which is ours to promote and continue.  As he talked, my mind was filled with the likes of Flavel Mines, Ruth Brinker, Fr. Cromey, and others who had taken the wealth and resources of others and turned them into healing for a community.  It became clear to me that a stewardship of place has to be a stewardship of ever so much more – a stewardship of the neighborhood, a stewardship of the families and individuals living here, a stewardship of those who walk these streets and sidewalks, a stewardship of the environment of this part of the earth. 

III.           Stewardship – fulfillment of the Gospel

It’s at this point that Saint Luke’s Gospel can be of some help.  It is also good to remind ourselves of the tradition of Luke as a healer and a physician, and of his program of lifting up the poor and needy in his Gospel.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus reads from Isaiah and then adds a note of commentary.  Listen to hear Jesus’ agenda for the Kingdom of God, and Luke’s concern for the poor:

'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Jesus’ commentary is brief and succinct, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”  Luke adds that the congregation was “amazed”, his code word that they had indeed heard and had believed. 

This is the stewardship of the kingdom of God, the stewardship of healing.  It is a stewardship of all that we have been given - this church, this ministry, our reputation and good will, our very lives - for the benefit of those whom Isaiah/Luke/Jesus mentions: the poor, captives, the blind, the oppressed.  Our stewardship of healing is only as good as the health and benefit it gives to those who are needful.  On one level we could say that our stewardship of this place is all about these people.  On another level we could say that, absent the building and all the concerns that accrue to it, our stewardship of our own lives is all about these people.

When I mentioned the saints that have done work here before, the former stewards of this place, I thought again on Joseph, the Seer, the visionary.  Perhaps the stewardship of healing is really all about what kinds of dreams and visions that we have.  What have we dreamed for the benefit of our community?  What visions do we have that involve the betterment of those around us?  Joseph took his dreams and saved two nations: his adopted nation of Egypt, and the nation that lay in the hopes and dreams of his father Jacob.  Now it is our turn to dream and to make real, to have visions and to build them.  The gifts we have can heal our world, but let’s start here, in this place.


01 October 2010

A Journey and a Pause (Two New Books)

Serendipity is such a delightful, and this blog may reveal me to be something of a creature of habit, or of a certain addiction.  Twice within the past two weeks, I have parked my car on 14th with the intention of having lunch at Blue (wonderful Mac and Cheese, Tuna Noodle Casserole, and Sloppy Joes - really!).  The first instance, I realized I needed something to read.  So I walked down to Books, Inc. and there ran into José Saramago's The Elephant's Journey.  I'd just seen the review in The Times, and was intrigued and bought it.  

This afternoon, after finishing some work at Trinity, I decided to go and have lunch at Blue again, only this time I had Saramago under my arm, ready to read (along with a wonderful Chicken Pot Pie).  When lunch was finished, I turned the wrong direction as was soon standing in front of Books, Inc.  What to do?  My genes were clearly sending me a message.  I was looking for a new biography of Diaghilev (also just reviewed in The Times) but they didn't have it.  As my eye traced the non-fiction section they were suddenly drawn by a Blake drawing, Job with his wife and accusers, then the title "The Wisdom Books", and finally, the magic author, Robert Alter.  Had to have it.  
But let's walk with the Elephant a bit.  Saramago is a magnificent story-teller, and his punctuation, capitalization, and dialogue happily mix things up to make it all seem like real life.  The narrator is decidedly twenty-first century, and the characters and story are just as happily sixteenth century.  Ostensibly this is about a gift of an elephant given by the King of Portugal to a Habsburg relative.  We travel with the elephant, his handler, Subhro, an oxcart and a contingent of cavalry along with officers.  It does not take the author long to launch into his jabs at religion.  Particularly entertaining is a section in which the mahout (elephant handler) relates the myths surrounding the god Ganesh, and mixing into it some competing theology about the virgin birth - all done with a sixteenth century frame of mind.  This is an aspect of Saramago's writing that I find quite compelling.  It was all quite straight-forward in The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, but it is more oblique in his other writings.  The delight for me is that of the story itself, and then the unpacking of the Christian myth that he proposes from time to time.  Be certain, Christianity is not the only recipient of his barbs, others are targeted as well.  For the person of faith, this is good grist to be milled very fine, and used in the bread of discernment and prayer.  I will happily continue on with this motley crew as they proceed to Vienna and spar with whatever cultural and spiritual anomalies will appear along the way.

Which brings us to Alter.  I regularly use his The Book of Psalms (a translation and a commentary), and have done some readings in The Five Books of Moses (another translation and commentary on the Pentateuch).  I am desperately seeking his The David Story (again a translation and commentary).  If you are a wannabe Biblical Scholar and turn to the "also by Robert Alter" you will drool with such titles as, Canon and Creativity - Modern Writing and the Authority of Scripture, or Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James BibleThe Invention of Hebrew Prose.  See what I mean?

I haven't read enough of him to really say this, but I'm going to say it any way because it is the reason that I find his work so refreshing - this man really doesn't have an axe to grind.  Or, at least, he doesn't the same or usual axes to grind.  He quite handily revels in the language and in the literature and makes it all alive and fresh.  The twist in this particular volume will be the deviation from a literature born, bred, and largely raised in the Hebrew psyche.  With this volume of wisdom literature, we will be able to perceive not only this particular people's literary heritage and expression, but that of their cultural and virtual neighbors as well.  Wisdom literature was a common parlance in the fertile crescent, and as such it reflects more than one cultural, or mythological point of view.  I think I'll start with Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) to see how the usual sense of cynicism is translated or not.  Then some dabbling in the Proverbs, and finally a full dive into Job - which will take some time.  But all of this will be worth it, for this is the literature (the wisdom books) and work (Alter's translation and notes) that makes for spiritual growth, questions, and ultimately faith.

I'll report back...