I know that those of you new to St. Alban’s in the last three years, plus a number of those who have been here forever will wish I took the opportunity to preach on Luke 16. It is a very challenging passage when taken on its own. As I have mentioned in years past, I believe we need always to remember that it follows immediately after the parable of the Prodigal Son or the Loving Father or the Resentful Older Brother or whatever your favorite name of the preceding parable is. But, we as a body are committed to focusing on our own discipleship, on what it means to try and be a good follower of Christ. And Paul, who is writing one of those whom he mentored in the faith, provides us with interesting instruction this week.
I say interesting because the lesson might cause a bit of a spiritual wedgie this week. I shared with the 8am service that, were I in Paul’s position and writing a letter to St. Alban’s, I would hope it would resemble his letter to the Philippians. As a body we do a marvelous job feeding those in hunger around us; we reach out to battered women and their children in ways that humble our surrounding neighbors; we took on the seemingly Everest of challenges in human slavery; we opened our doors to some serious riff-raft in our community; we have done a fair job for some years balancing the needs of predators and the needs of children, making sure that practices are in place to limit the temptations of the former and the danger to the latter; we have served as a host for serious political debate and discussion; many of us have chosen to meet others suffering from those diseases or events which so terrified us, that we might remind them of God’s promises of deliverance even from death--I could go on and on. But like some of Paul’s letter and the Lord speaking in Revelations, “I have this against you, St. Alban’s--you are not welcoming of the rich and powerful.”
I see by the squirms there are a few who want to jump in and argue with me. Trust me, like 8am, you will have a chance after the service, if you still disagree. Please, though, do not start your conversation with “the rich just don’t have the same problems as us and cannot understand us.” At least pretend like you listened to this sermon and considered whether it was inspired by the Holy Spirit.
I will say that this was a difficult sermon to give for lack of specific illustrations. All the effective illustrations about which I could think were pastoral in nature. I could tell you all about four recent conversations I have had with some rich and powerful in our community and their experiences with you as a body, but I feel like I would be betraying them. Plus, I have invited the two that are unchurched to give us another try and one who is suffering from addiction to give the Marquette Group a try. I would hate for them to run into a buzz saw of apologies or of “you misunderstood me/us” justifications. And, yet, Paul’s instruction is clear. We need to pray for the powerful, pray for them. Why?
The truth of the matter is that the rich and powerful have the same emotional baggage as do the poor and downtrodden. As few of us would consider ourselves rich and powerful, this might seem a strange statement. But underneath the clothes, there is very little difference between the rich and the poor. Take away the bank accounts, and the rich and poor are more alike than different. And under the discerning gaze of a righteous, holy God, we are all, rich and poor, in need of salvation. So why does Paul instruct us to pray for the rich and the powerful?
They need our prayers. I am not talking about bs, going through the motions, lip service prayers. They really need God’s grace in their lives. Have you ever heard a President, regardless of political party, ever stand before a Christian group and say “you guys are wasting your time praying for me.” Ever? Even those Presidents whose political views with which we disagree covet our prayers. Why do you think that is? The truth of the matter is that Presidents are not equipped to make the decisions required of them. I cannot remember if it was Clinton or Bush, but I loved what he said about the need for wisdom in office. The interview went along the lines of being a candidate one day and then being responsible for the death of soldiers the next day. My guess is that every President has felt the weight of that particular responsibility. It is an easy thing to be a candidate and have a great idea for how to deal with chemical attacks in Syria. It is a great thing to live in hypotheticalville and know the “perfect solution.” But the President has to weigh the consequences. Who’s life is more valuable, the soldiers or the innocent victims? If great responsibility comes with great power, can we sit idly by and watch innocents suffer and die? And what if we escalate? Can we do that without causing World War 3? Are we certain Syria won’t attack Israel? Are we certain Israel, if attacked, will not retaliate, thus drawing other Arab nations into conflict? And what of those fleeing? What is in the best interest of the refugees? And no matter your favorite President, the one you desperately wish was President today, he has faced that same problem. Bush had Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan. Clinton had Al-Queda and Rwanda. Bush had Kuwait. Reagan had Libya, Iran, and Grenada (boy, that one seems out of place in this list). Carter had Iran. Kennedy had Cuba. We could go on and on, and these are just the public ones off the top of our head. How many top secret ones were there? And each action or inaction had a cost. That’s why the Presidents need our prayers. Lives are literally in their hands. If they say “go there,” people go and people die. Harder still, if they say, “stay here,” people often still die. Tell me, what man or woman has the wisdom to foresee the consequences of their decisions without God’s guidance? If you find him or her, let me know. I might be able to support that person in a run for office.
Sitting here you might be thinking That’s all fine for politicians and Presidents and people like that, Father, but it does not apply to bosses. Part of this, you will have to take on faith. Trust me. When I say that my conversations with them are not that different from my conversations with you, I am not lying. They worry whether they can be loved for themselves. They worry what people would think of them if they really knew them. They fear death. They fear diseases. They worry about their kids. They worry about their jobs or companies. They wonder if they might not be the target of violence because they have had to make decisions which hurt other people. And, not surprisingly, other people tend not to have a sympathetic ear. How many times have we heard something to the effect of “Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure makes being miserable a lot easier?” They hear those statements, too, and their hearts break just a bit. They feel that much more lonely because the world thinks they ought to be good, ought to be happy.
Think of the decisions your boss or owner must make just about profitability and employment. Yes, there are people who don’t care what happens to those beneath them, but are there really that many in the Quad Cities? Do you really think that your boss or owner, if he or she had to fire you, would feel good about firing you? Do you really think that bosses or owners enjoy layoffs? Donald Trump may glorify firing people, but most bosses and owners are human beings. Most want to be liked. Most want to believe they are good people. Heck, most have hired you in the first place, and invested in your training. You think they want to acknowledge their mistake in hiring you or send you packing so you can put those new skills they gave you to work for a competitor? Do you really think them that evil? Then why in the hell did you agree to work for them in the first place? And, in the case of bigger companies, each boss has to do his or her job. If they do not meet their bosses expectation, guess who feels the axe then? Owners have a bit more discretion, but even they have bills to pay. At what point do they need to make cut backs in their own lives or in their companies? It is difficult to discern. That’s just one reason why Paul says we should pray for them.
No, our bosses, the so-called rich and powerful, are just like us. In fact, the challenge to their salvation, according to Jesus, is more difficult. Those of us who are truly poor and truly powerless are stripped of the notion that we control anything. The rich can be seduced by the Enemy of God into believing that they are special or deserving, or that they really control their lives and are in no way in need of a Savior. Why do you think Jesus says a rich person getting into heaven is like a camel going through the eye of a needle? And where do they go for understanding, for sympathy, for guidance, for wisdom? Admit weakness to a boss or colleague? Yeah, that helps one on the corporate ladder? Go to an employee or someone beneath them? How does one make sure the weakness is not exploited?
Which brings us all back to Paul’s instruction and the purpose of that instruction. Why do we pray? Sometimes, we pray because we want God to act. But, if we have been properly instructed about prayer, we know we sometimes we pray because we recognize that we need to be changed. I spoke last week about the need for us to engage in meaningful relationships. Apparently, this caught some of you by surprise. If we engage in meaningful relationships, it limits the number of relationships we can have, right? That is certainly antithetical to the Facebook gospel where people think their worth is equal to the number of friends or the number of likes or comments. What you and I are called to do on behalf of the Lord, however, is to testify to those around you about His love for them and us, about His mercy, about His salvation offered through Christ’s atoning work, and about His power to redeem all things in our life. These are not superficial “how is the weather” discussions. These are the discussions which cause us to bare our souls and to see the bare souls of others that the light of Christ might shine forth in all our lives. It is hard to have a meaningful relationship with too many people. Such relationships can only grow where we are in frequent contact. And aside from our families and chosen friends, is there another group with whom we are in contact more than our co-workers and bosses? Most of us spend 40-70 hours a week with them! Who better than us to represent God to them? But, just as we have to get to know Him better through discipleship and worship, we need to get to know them better, too! And, they in turn, need to get to know us better as well! What better way for us to begin to show our care or concern for them than by praying for them, earnestly praying for their needs? You know why that works so well? When we pray earnestly for them, we allow the Holy Spirit to begin to work in our hearts. We begin to see the boss as the Lord sees him or her, we begin to hear their voice as our Lord hears them, and we begin to understand their motivations and fears as our Lord understands them. In a significant way, we are reshaped by the intercessions we offer on behalf of others.
Keep in mind this cannot be forced, it cannot be hurried. These are often very slow to develop. Why did you not abandon hope at the death of a loved one? How did you face cancer without losing it? How did you ever survive the teen years as a parent? How do you parent grandchildren? Why is there hope and joy in your life? Over time, such questions begin to be verbalized. Over time, hopefully, the boss begins to see how the Christian reacts to the events in life and asks for an accounting. Alternatively, if we are praying earnestly, and pointing out the Lord’s provision when He does act, they begin to recognize we are not like everyone else offering them a hug with a dagger in the back. Over time, and with God’s grace, they come to realize the only relationship that matters, the only relationship that saves, is the one they can have with God through Christ, and that a relationship with Him means a relationship with others who call Him Lord. And then, like we discussed last week, there’s more partying in heaven!
Brothers and sisters, I said a harsh word at the beginning of this sermon today. Understand, just as our Lord does not condemn us neither do I. For those mistakes and sins in all our lives, He has already paid the price in full. We are, however, working on discipleship as a body. So, in response to that effort, I want you each to begin to consider Paul’s instruction seriously. In your prayers this week, take the time to pray for your boss or your owner. If you work for a Christian boss, give thanks to God for placing a brother or sister above you as your taskmaster or episcopos, to use church language, and ask God to bless him or her or your company, that others might be drawn to Him. If you do not know your boss’ faith, pray for their needs and for holy conversations. Who knows, maybe asking your boss if there is anything for which he or she could use prayer will be the first step in a meaningful relationship! But pray for them. Seriously pray for them. And make note to yourself whether it is them changing or your perception of them.
What if you have no boss? Well, I don’t know if you have noticed, but our politicians could sure use a lot of prayer. Certainly our President needs them. All the members of Congress need them. And, lest ye forget, you have this priest. He may not be rich and he may not be powerful; but trust me, he sins as if he were rich and powerful, as if you all need THAT reminder. Maybe it is your parent. Maybe it is a teacher. Give God a few moments of silence in your prayer life, and He will remind you of those in authority in your life who need your prayers. And then commit yourself to praying for whomever that is. What happens may change you and them. And, who knows, your effort and your faithfulness, working in concert with God’s grace, might provoke another celebration among the angels in heaven . . .