In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
I’ve been spending a lot of my free time lately watching The Sopranos on DVD.
It’s that kind of strange time that comes a couple of times each year between the seasons: the summer television shows have stopped for the year, but the shows that start in the fall have yet to begin. I usually fill this inter-seasonal time by watching more news or catching up on some pleasure reading. But sometimes I’ll watch a series on DVD that I haven’t seen or that I haven’t seen in a long time.
This time it’s The Sopranos. Some of my friends find this very hard to believe, but despite having lived in New Jersey for more than six years, I had never seen an episode of The Sopranos until just a couple of weeks ago. I had heard that it was an engaging series. I just never joined in.
Truth be told, I’m kind of kicking myself that it’s taken this long. It only took an episode or two, and I was totally hooked. The characters are just so complex.
The main character is Tony Soprano: a mob boss living in the New Jersey suburbs. He begins having panic attacks that have fairly intense physical manifestations, so he sees a psychiatrist in an attempt to find relief. As much as the series follows his life and his crimes and other exploits, it follows his experience of self-examination and eventual, though slow and stumbling growth.
A curious thing begins to happen as the series progresses: though we’re given plenty of reasons to be angry with Tony, we find ourselves rooting for him. He’s very much a villain in almost any other context, but in his story, he becomes something of the hero. Not in the chivalrous, good guy, helping old ladies cross the street or giving to the poor kind of way; but a hero nonetheless. Doing the best he can in his own context, no matter how undesirable or socially unacceptable that context may be. He stumbles often. In many cases he not only doesn’t attempt to change his negative behavior, he actually embraces it. But in his life, such as it is, he does what he can to learn and to grow. Even if that’s not much.
As I was preparing myself for preaching today, every commentary that I read – without fail – made some remark about the difficulty of preaching this parable.
That’s because there’s a degree to which this parable isn’t what we want – and certainly not we tend to expect – from Jesus. We expect stories of people who make bad decisions but eventually redeem themselves and restore themselves to righteousness: like we’d find in the parable of the Prodigal Son. We expect examples of paradox – people that our cultures tell us are bad, but who surprise us with good behavior: like we’d find in the parable of the Good Samaritan. We expect parables that tell us of the virtuous nature of God like we heard last week in the two short parables of the lost possessions that were sought until they were found.
What we don’t expect is the kind of thing that we heard today: a dishonest manager was about to be fired so he engaged in further dishonesty, and was as such, commended.
It just doesn’t add up. Which is probably why this parable isn’t one of the “greatest hits” that we all tend to turn to in times of crisis or insecurity. It requires a little more unwrapping than most of the others that form the bedrocks of our faith and morality.
We expect to hear about either a conversion from his dishonest ways, or a story of his getting his “just desserts”. Instead, we hear the story of a master finding the good in his servant – however grimly shrouded that good may be – and celebrating it.
Eugene Peterson – who translated and wrote a paraphrase of the Bible in contemporary language – interprets Jesus’ words and the lesson of this parable like this:
“The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”
“Not just get by on good behavior.”
Like learning to root for a villain like Tony Soprano, even the villain in this story has something to teach us about being better Christians if only we could get past our own judgment to see the wisdom that is awaiting us.
Too often we, in the church, try to just “get by on good behavior”. Too often, still, we shave even that down and try to get by on just enough good behavior.
But Christ is calling us to more. Living the Christian life is not about getting by. It’s not even really about good behavior. There’s a bigger picture to see if we’ll open our eyes to it: we are called to “creative survival” – to “live, really live”, and not just to “get by”.
This is one of the keys to understanding the last line in today’s Gospel: “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
Serving wealth might be about survival; but serving God is about creative survival. Serving wealth might seem necessary for living – making a living, we call it; but serving God is about really living.
As a parish we’ve said to ourselves that we need to increase Sunday attendance and pledging. I believe both of these things are true, but why? Why do we need to increase Sunday attendance? Why do we need to increase the level of giving to the church?
Is it so we can survive – so we can keep the doors of the church open? Is it so WE can feel good about coming to church?
These are shortsighted answers. They are about getting by, but we are called to the bigger picture.
The real question is not so much about how we can find ways to keep doing what we’re doing here, but about how we can discern who God is calling us to be.
It wasn’t a neat and tidy parable this morning.
It’s one of the ones that requires some real work to cut into its core. And even then, it’s not really sweet and simple.
And the sermon today isn’t really neat and tidy, either. I don’t have the answers to the big questions that will lead us to the big picture: What will it mean for us to do more than just complacently get by on good behavior? Who is God calling us to be? How can we avoid looking for ways to survive and focus, instead, on looking for ways to really live? Who is God calling us to be?
Perhaps we’ll find the answers we expect where and when we expect them. But more likely we’ll learn from people and experiences that we couldn’t have imagined possible. Amen.