Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
This week I am re-reading, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. A book which Cornell West described as “the secular bible for a new social movement… [and] a grand wake-up call in the midst of a long slumber of indifference to the poor and vulnerable.” Released twelve years ago, I know many of you have read it too. So, you know Alexander traces the brutal control of black people from the beginning of slavery to the creation of Jim Crow and the so-called ‘Black Laws’ (which operated in States like Illinois) to mass incarceration today.
At its root, Alexander observes, ‘It is the failure to care, really care across color lines, that lies at the core of this system of control and every racial caste system that has existed in the United States or anywhere else in the world” (Alexander) It is this indifference which promotes a superficial ethic of success—money, fame, and pleasure—that leaves too many of us well-adjusted to injustice’ (Cornel West)
It’s amazing! At every turn, the effort to uproot and remove the stain of America’s original sin is countered and thwarted by conscious, and often, subconscious demonic hatred. How shrewd. Could we be just as cunning to advance the gospel? Maybe that’s the point of Jesus’ strange parable today.
The parable of the dishonest manager is often regarded as the most puzzling. I mean, what is praiseworthy about this guy? The dishonest manager does all the right stuff for all the wrong reasons. Should we cheat, or lie, or squander someone else’s money, or forgive debts that are not ours to forgive? No. But could we be more cunning to produce better results for Jesus? Yes. In God’s economy, people matter more than profits. Rather than personal gain, or the perpetuation of racist structures and systems, could we be more creative, persistent, and adaptive, to enlarge the Beloved Community?
Both Amos (8:4–7) and our Psalm (113) speak of concern for the poor, the needy and the barren. How we handle money and the way we treat the poor are two sides of the same coin. The psalmist sings of a high and mighty God who “stoops down” from the heavens to tenderly care for the poor. God longs to “raise the poor from the dust, and lift the needy from the ash heap.” God would reverse their fortunes, and “seat them with princes” (Psalm 113:5–8). (Daniel Clendenin, My Journey with Jesus)
“You cannot serve God and money”, Jesus says, in our gospel today (Luke 16:13). The message about the dangers of wealth pops up throughout Luke’s gospel.Whether it is in Mary’s song (1:46-55); the sermons of John the Baptist (3:10-14); quotes from the prophecy of Isaiah (61:1-2 [4:16-30); Jesus’ sermon on the plain; (6:20-25); the parable of the rich fool (12:13-21), warnings about anxiety (12:22-31); advice to guests and hosts (14:7-14); or now these two parables in chapter 16—the dishonest manager and the one for next week—the rich man and Lazarus—Luke’s gospel is serious about the crippling dangers of wealth to our spiritual health.
Can we be both shrewd and saintly? Is a shrewd saint an oxymoron? Must being faithful mean, we must also be naïve? Hmmm…. Jumping to Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us be “as wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Martin Luther King Jr. put it this way, ‘be lovestruck with each other, not colorblind toward each other.’ To be lovestruck is to care, to have deep compassion, and to be concerned for everyone, including the poor and vulnerable.
Or, put it another way. “The unanimous witness of the ancient fathers and mothers was that hospitality was the primary Christian virtue. From New Testament texts that unambiguously urge believers to “practice hospitality” (Romans 12:13) through St. Augustine in the fifth century, early Christian writings extol hospitality toward the sick, the poor, travelers, widows and orphans, slaves and prisoners, and the dying” (Diana Butler Bass, Radical Hospitality, Sunday Musings, 9/17/22).
This past week we saw what Christian moxie looks like when 50 migrants from Venezuela landed unannounced in Martha’s Vineyard. The Martha’s Vineyard Island Clergy Association did what faithful people do when a crisis happens: They jumped in to lend a hand. For two nights, they hosted the Venezuelans at St. Andrew Episcopal church, providing meals and a place to stay at the parish house, which hosts a shelter four nights a week during the winter. The church hall is already equipped with cots, a large kitchen, showers, and laundry for the shelter. Other churches and community members sent food, clothes, and other supplies. The Martha’s Vineyard Community Fund collected money to support the Venezuelans. Immigration lawyers and other volunteers showed up to help them figure out where to go next. Many were in the U.S. to seek asylum and have contacts here but needed help connecting with them.
The Rev. Janet Newton, a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Martha’s Vineyard, said that clergy, like other community leaders and residents of the island, had no idea the migrants were coming. “Ironically,” she said, “we were prepared, even though we had no warning.” In the off-season, she said, many people struggle on Martha’s Vineyard. Affordable housing is hard to come by, and at times, folks who work seasonal jobs can’t make ends meet. As a geographically isolated community, Newton said, year-round residents have learned to take care of each other. “That’s probably a bit of a surprise to the people who sent the planes here,” she said. “They didn’t understand how our community operated or that we could be prepared for this. Hospitality matters here.” “We are taught to welcome the stranger.” (Bob Smeitana, “Little Churches Still Matter”, Religion News Service, 9/16/22)
Likewise, here at Immanuel, it is a joy to see our building begin to return to life not only on Sundays but also on weekdays as we host neighbors and friends at tutoring, compass, the preschool—and today–godly play.
The word for hospitality in the Greek New Testament is philoxenia, which means ‘love of the stranger.’ Its opposite is xenophobia, hatred of the stranger. Philoxenia turns strangers into friends” (Letty Russell). Can you imagine? What a difference savvy, creative, persistent, adaptive philoxenia would make in our world — and in our politics — right now.
Early Christians found both spiritual and social power in acts of creative hospitality to create inclusive community. They also discovered a community of radical welcome and love, could put them at odds with ungodly authorities. “It is our care of the helpless, our practice of loving kindness that brands us in the eyes of our many opponents,” claimed the African, second century theologian Tertullian, “’Only look,’ they say, ‘look how they love one another!’” (Diana Butler-Bass)
‘Would that every faith community was like a swarm of bees, running out to meet the displaced, the lost, and the unexpected strangers with the same delight, zeal, and alacrity as the earliest Christians’ (Bass).
In the words of today’s sending hymn, “Your city’s built to music; we are the stones you seek; your harmony is language; we are the words you speak. Our faith we find in service, our hope in other’s dreams, our love in hand of neighbor; our homeland brightly gleams. Inscribe our hearts with justice; your way—the path untried; your truth—the heart of stranger; your life—the Crucified.” (Let Streams of Living Justice, ELW #710)