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When All We Can Do Is Sing Our Pain

A sermon on Luke 16:1-13 and Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

[For an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Ante Gudelj on Unsplash.]

My parables professor in Seminary, Fred Borsch, had a great summary of the problem with today’s parable. He wrote:

“The first person that can be seen having difficulty with the interpretation of this story is the Evangelist Luke. In succeeding verses he has, while evidently struggling with the meaning of the story, offered ‘notes for three separate sermons on the parable text.’”[1] (end quote)

So what are these three possible sermons?

First, there’s the exhortation to be as shrewd as worldly people, but instead of making powerful friends to make friends with God by helping those in need.

Ok – that seems… morally questionable, because it basically suggests that we are supposed to be bribing God with our charity.

Then there’s the strange parallelism of proving ourselves “faithful” with the stuff that’s valued by our society, so that we can be trusted with what really matters.

I mean, that pretty much completely undermines the whole idea of unmerited grace, so I definitely can’t preach that one.

And then there’s the clear and quotable affirmation that we cannot really serve God if our life shows that money is our master.

Which, OK, sure, that’s obviously true… but how do we put that into practice? Where’s the line between just existing within a world in which using money is an unavoidable reality and being “mastered” by money. I don’t feel like I should be the one defining that line.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t think Luke was really doing the preachers any favors by mashing together these three different lines of thinking to explain how this bizarre story of a cheater getting praised for his cheating by the person he cheated is actually communicating a deeper theological truth.

I wonder if there’s actually a much less convoluted meaning… I wonder if Jesus is just making plain how completely messed up this world we have to try to live in really is.

Like… honestly! I don’t see God or righteous behavior anywhere in this story!

And why do we have to try to force them in where they clearly don’t belong? Especially when the very next verses that follow today’s reading go like this:

“The Pharisees, who were money-lovers, heard all this and sneered at Jesus. He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves before other people, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued by people is deeply offensive to God.’” (Luke 16:14-15, CEB).

The parable sounds like instruction on how to “win the game,” but what if it’s really an exposé on how the game is fixed?

Stay with me here. There’s a wonderfully irreverent show about the afterlife called “The Good Place” that has been out for long enough that I feel justified in giving massive spoilers in my sermon.

One of the central conceits of the show is that EVERYONE in the afterlife system for determining who goes to “the good place” and who goes to “the bad place” after death think it’s a merit-based system…

But the reality is that the modern world is so morally ambiguous that there is NO WAY to actually earn enough “goodness points” to avoid eternal torture… because even actions with pure motives are happening in a context where there are layers of unintended consequences that contribute to destroying the planet, or marginalizing one group or another, or in some way doing harm.

Which all raises the question, “how do you live well when the world is broken?”

I don’t know that today’s texts necessarily answer that question, but I think they DO encourage us to grapple with it….

To reject the seductive advice of the dishonest manager to protect ourselves from pain and loss at all costs… I think the call us to instead take an honest look at the brokenness of our world.

A world with flooding in Pakistan, and war in Ukraine, and fires in California, and vulnerable people used as political pawns…

and a world where, yesterday, we commended a beloved son of this congregation to God!

I know why we DON’T want to meditate on the pain in the world and in our lives... but I also know that sometimes we need to.

Sometimes we need to face the pain around us and to let our hearts break.

Because the alternative is to harden our hearts to the point that they cannot break, to the point that, like the dishonest manager, our response to EVERY crisis is to focus on how to make sure we stay safe, no matter the cost to others.

I think that might be why the weeping of the prophet Jeremiah is included in the Biblical canon.

Because it gives us permission to truly, deeply, mourn all the brokenness.

It models for us that sometimes the most faithful thing we can do is to cry our heart break out to God and ask, “why aren’t you fixing this?”

It rejects the lie that there’s always something we can do to turn the situation around for our benefit, and it makes us face our own helplessness.

Sometimes, reality just hurts.

I know that’s not the most encouraging thing I’ve ever said from the pulpit…

but there is a hope that lives much deeper that committed optimism, and I still have that hope.

I have that hope because in the midst of his heart-rending grief and unanswerable questions, Jeremiah sent his cry out to God.

Which means he still believed God was listening. He still believed God cared, even when Jeremiah couldn’t offer a tight, theological explanation about what the suffering meant or how the people could take action to fix things.

They couldn’t. He couldn’t. He could only cry out and trust that God was there.

And he understood that there can be healing in such a cry.

A number of years ago I attended an amazing conference called “Why Christian?” (with a question mark at the end of the name).

The question mark was there because the conference was about creating sacred space for a question: “WHY are you still a Christian, given the brokenness of the church and all the arguments for doubt?”

This sacred space was created by giving the microphone to a diverse group of speakers (who each had powerful reasons they could have walked away from Christianity) and inviting them to share those stories… as well as the hope, faith, and love they still found in the message and life of Jesus… their answers to the question “Why Christian?”

The conference was powerful, but it was also painful.

There were stories of deep pain, even betrayal shared from that stage.

The speakers did not offer easy, pithy answers to the question at the heart of our time together.

And at one point in the day, the song leader, Rachel Kurtz, went off-script because she felt God’s nurturing Spirit telling her that what we all needed to hear was a song of consolation and hope.

Then, she proceeded to sing a soulful, faith-filled, heart-healing rendition of the old African American spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead.”

The song is a response to Jeremiah’s question from today’s first reading, his heart’s cry to God asking for reassurance that suffering does not last forever.

It doesn’t offer any theological arguments or parable interpretations that explain the problem of suffering. It just holds onto hope.

It affirms that – even when we confront the brokenness of the world, and have no idea how we are supposed to make the right decisions, or make anything better – God has not abandoned us. There is a hope for healing.

Rachel Kurtz offered that hope to a community that was doing the hard work of naming pain and faith in the same sacred place… and while I am no Rachel Kurtz, I want to try to do the same.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.

There is a balm in Gilead to save the sin-sick soul.

Sometimes I feel discouraged

And I think my work’s in vain

But then the Holy Spirit

Revives my soul again.

There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.

There is a balm in Gilead to save the sin-sick soul.

Oh God will save the sin-sick soul.

Yes God will save my sin-sick soul.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Frederick Houk Borsch, Many Things in Parables: Extravagant Stories of New Community, Wipf and Stock Publishers, Eugene, OR, 1988, p. 17. Included quote from Dodd, Parables, p. 17.


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