The Good Old Days (Proper 20, Year A)

The good old days.

When I was in high school I worked in a deli with an old school butcher. The sort that stored a couple huge carcasses in the freezer, where behind the counter the owner made his own sausages and ground his own beef. He cooked and spiced his own roast beef, which was always a perfectly cooked medium rare. The radio tuned to a golden oldie’s station that played a lot of Frank Sinatra.

“Those were the days,” he’d say. “When singers could sing and songwriters wrote.” Billy Strayhorn and Cole Porter, they wrote, and Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald sang. The Beatles? They lacked depth. Even Bob Dylan was a disaster.

“He can’t sing. What is this? Who wants to listen to that voice?” He’d say this in his thick German accent. The good old days, when songwriters wrote and singers could sing. Way before Autotune made Katy Perry a star.

There’s the story of Pete Seeger getting so upset at Bob Dylan’s use of the electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival that he just went up with an axe and cut through it. It actually never happened; and the reason was probably more because of poor sound overall than a hostility to the electric sound. But when people tell the story, it’s to reflect the feeling of some time being more pure and unadulterated. A previous time, and a fear about the future.

And so the Israelites are busy thinking about the good old days. Yes, they’d been enslaved; yes, they were busy nursing other people’s children; and perhaps life was hard and difficult, but they were fed. While they are now free, they are also starving, and deeply insecure because they’re entering foreign territory. Security usually trumps freedom when you don’t know where you’re next meal’s coming from.

Sometimes hope requires a full belly.

We construct narratives, stories of our past in part to survive. Who wants to remember the bad times, the times we were hurt and abused and bullied? And those who always remember, who wants to hang with those guys? Get some therapy, keep your chin up, and endure! Ideally we learn to talk ourselves out of the resentment, fear or the simple feeling that we’re damaged because of what we’ve inherited. But our faith says we cannot avoid the truth, no matter how hard it was, is and will be.

Those narratives can be misleading. Was life great in the 1950’s? Well, for some, yes; for some, no. It’s great that families may have eaten together; but then, who was doing all the cooking? Some people wish we could return to some of those glory days, but do you remember how high taxes were during Nixon? We trusted government, but then, what of the Gulf of Tonkin? Not a lot of African-Americans want to go back to the 1950’s, but on the other hand, some would argue there was a stronger black middle class. So let’s talk about the good old days without idealizing them. We can admit they made us who we are, but who we can and will be, that’s another story.

So the Israelites create this story – life was better in the old days. But they don’t see how, even in the wilderness, there are resources that God provides. One woman in recovery once said to me, when I gave up the drink, I then had to find an inner strength I didn’t know I had; but I also had to look around me and learn about what I really wanted in my life. I wanted good friendships, so I started calling people; I wanted to read more and I learned to value a cup of tea instead. They were all there beforehand, but I just overlooked them.

Around us we have what we need. We just don’t see it.

And so in our own wilderness, part of what we do is to find what has been placed there all around us that can feed us. If we seek transformation, the work will be difficult; because we are like novices, or children, at being free. Nobody just grows up learning to be free in any society; that’s work that requires formation, in an environment where it’s also alright to get things wrong and make mistakes. It’s easier to live a liberated life when you have some security around you.

But the gospel today does not say, “it’s tough to be free, so, if you make a mistake, then go back to Egypt.” It says, you can keep going. It doesn’t matter when you begin the journey. Some have been around a long time. They had their spiritual vision and insight when they were 20 and still organize their lives around it, and God Bless Them. Others won’t get there until they’re 85, when they suddenly realize, “wow, I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life, and I’m only now realizing how wonderful the daily office is!” When the landowner rewards the worker who came late, it may seem like the eldest child who suddenly finds the youngest getting more attention; or even like a newcomer who the rector spends most of their time cultivating. Te youngest will not know what the good old days were like, except through fantasy and legend; the newcomer only intuits what has gone before, and has no desire for the fleshpots of Egypt.

So some people have come late to the party. It may have been a tough road for them to get through the door. That just as some of us have been here a long time, in this church, on this planet, our work in the wilderness also requires the ones just arriving. Perhaps also, we’re the newcomer, we’re the ones who got to the vineyard at 5pm, and we’re benefitting from all that has been given to us from before.

Whoever has come late, the truth is that we need as many hands as possible, because there remains plenty of manna around, for us to discover, for us to gather and for us to eat.

Sermon Notes on Proper 20 year C

Almost every week I write about the questions I’m asking as I read the lectionary texts for the week.  This is not an academic enterprise, but my reaction to the text as I read them.   I ask the questions in advance because it helps me preach without a text.

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

What does it mean to be healed?  Can having money be healing?  Is it possible to have a sense of being complete, of joy through spending?  Certainly when we have none it’s possible to question our own worthless.  Is healing a feeling of peace?  When do we feel whole?  Why is it fleeting?  What is it like to move from satisfaction to dissatisfaction? 

In Psalm 79:1-9 the author says:

79:5 How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
79:6 Pour out your anger on the nations that do not know you, and on the kingdoms that do not call on your name.
79:7 For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.
79:8 Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors; let your compassion come speedily to meet us, for we are brought very low.

Here it’s almost as if, after asking for God to punish other nations, he is saying “Oops, I guess I wasn’t that great a guy also.”  This is how we feel about other nations – and religions.  But then he reframes his prayer:

79:9 Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.

Often our prayer is like a movement.  It goes from one stage to the next.  Our spiritual and emotional lives are always dynamic.  We initially seek revenge; but that is not where God is.  Instead of destroying others, we need to be saved from ourselves.

In the first letter to Timothy (2:1-2) the author seems to say, don’t look in my direction, King.  I don’t need your approval, I just want the best for you.   So just assume I’ve got your best interest at heart.  Don’t kill me.  I don’t think this is obsequiousness, but conveys the sense that the work of the church is not the same as the secular work of kings. 

The gospel of Luke this week (Luke 16:1-13) is the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. 

I think of the manager as being average:  not frugal; just a cog in the machine.  The rich man gets wealthy through exploiting the work of others; and his manager is no different.

The manager thinks differently.  The prosperous are those who count every penny; they measure relationships through a careful inventorying of what allows them to accumulate.  The middle manager knows he will not have that kind of luxury to make those calculations. 

Debt and the accumulation of wealth are deeply linked.  Some argue that the origin of money itself is upon the backs of owing lives:  of the debt implicit in slavery.  Money is the accounting of a life.  The middle manager is divesting himself of that sort of debt.   

When Jesus says “dishonest wealth,” I wonder if he is implying that all wealth arrives through some sort of dishonesty.  It is not that people make money just through lying, but that we accumulate through denying the truth that a life cannot be counted. 

I might explore what is wealth for?  I’ve suggested before that it is to be spent and circulated, not hoarded.  But I also think that there are components of wealth the gospel critiques.  In our own culture, I believe the gospel would critique our culture of convenience, our implicit frugality in trying to get the cheapest deal, and the hastening of time and space which our economy has created.   It is not merely money that Jesus critiques, but money as a certain sort of technology that alters the way we manage our social life.

It is also possible that this is a problem of administration.  The reason why capitalism became successful was because of the interplay between prudence and discipline with accumulation.  Virtues associated with the church became a part of making money.  All economic institutions from the corporation to the state require administrative virtue if they are to be effective. 

What does it mean to serve wealth?  Money is an effective incentive, and counting matters.  But why does it matter?  For what do we strive?  It is not the buying things that is the problem; it is how that convenience, that quick gratification distracts us from God.