Sept. 18, 2022

Luke 16:1-13


I discovered Wengen, Switzerland, which I’m still not sure I’m pronouncing correctly – because even there we heard it pronounced in different ways – after visiting with Will and Usurla Meier a number of years back.  Will was in the hospital and to make his room more comfortable the family had hung a painting of a beautiful mountain landscape.  I asked Ursula about it and she told me it was a painting of Murren, their home town in Switzerland.  Her son-in-law talked about a visit they had to this remarkable place.  He heard the sounds of a helicopter right outside his hotel window, so he rushed over, opened the doors and looked up, only to see nothing, because instead the helicopter was flying around below them.

This gives you a sense of how dramatic the landscape is.  Wengen, where we stayed, is Murren’s sister village on the cliffs across the Lauterbrunnen Valley.  From our balcony we had a perfect view of Ursula’s hometown, and in that area of course we had access to countless hikes and scenic views of dramatically stunning natural beauty.

One day we hiked the valley from Wengen to Murren, passing waterfall after waterfall dropping hundreds of feet from the cliffs as parasailers hovered high above us.  From Murren we took a series of cable cars up and up to the Shilthorn peak, which you may recognize from a James Bond movie, or for the panorama of mountain peak views all around it.  On another day, it was a warm June morning, we took a train up the mountains to another train that went through the mountains to a station at the top of the Jungfrou glacier, from which we entered a freezing Iceland that lives above the rest of the world.  Another day we hiked along a ridge just below the timberline between long green valleys highlighted with wildflowers below and rugged mountain peaks covered with snow above.

In these gorgeous and immense spaces it is hard not to feel small.  And, of course, I don’t just mean “small” size-wise.  I mean small in the grand scheme of things.  Small in time’s long stretch.  Small in significance and meaning.  I had the feeling of being surrounded by bigness – transcendence is probably the better word –  with the sense that our/my brief tour of it was something like the “blink of an eye” that is human history in this ever expanding universe.  As gorgeous as our surroundings were they were unsettling to me at times because they reminded me of the silliness of the human mind in thinking that we might ever grasp something of that which is eternal and divine.  “Who are we kidding?” I thought; “how could our faith ever not be a making of God in our own limited, puny image?”

And then the next day we went to church.  It was a tiny chapel-like church with a small gathering of people from various lands and a visiting preacher.  At first it simply fed my doubts with what seemed like another feeble attempt of human striving.  Everything was pretty predictable: the kindly regulars who passed out hymnals, the politely smiling tourists, the familiar songs, the formulaic sermon from the welcoming pastor, which of course ended with a call to evangelism – as if there in a carless cliffside village in the Alps the great revival would begin.  That last part may sound more cynical than I felt.  In fact, it was my idea to go to church that morning; it was just that I was having a hard time making sense of things.  But then, unexpectedly, that pastor’s formulaic conclusion found a way to connect with something in me.  After telling us to go out and share the Good News he said, “whoever you talk to may just need to hear the hope and the help that you have to offer.”  The kindness of his intent came through to me, and as I looked out the open chapel windows at the mountain rising above I found that I was suddenly very eager for the little wafer and wine that was coming next, as if there might be a bit more grace being served up.  And then it occurred to me that that is how God tells us God operates.  In Jesus God is enfleshed and embodied.  God is born of common humanity among common humanity, to give us and use what is common as a way for us to access what is divine.  It was through that tiny little church that a God grander than the Alps became in some way reachable.  It’s through the unlikely fellowship of strangers on a Sunday morning that our common striving becomes encounter.  It’s in the kindly welcome of the few regulars whose hospitality had become routine that a God of welcome is able to tell us that wherever we are with God we’re home.

As you sat in silence with today’s scripture passage were you baffled?  How could you not be?  A colleague at lectionary group commented, “Maybe we’re just so far removed from this passage’s original context that we just can’t really say what it’s about.”  It’s certainly a strange one, which means that I think we’ve got license to go in any number of directions.  Here’s what came to me: This manager who has mismanaged the owner’s property then gets rewarded by the owner.  “Well done manipulating the situation to your benefit,” he seems to say, which is an odd suggestion coming from Jesus.  But, put it this way: the manager gets grace for giving grace that is not his own.  He gets forgiveness for giving forgiveness that is not his.

Do you think it’s true that the best things we have to give aren’t really entirely our own either?  Think of the forgiveness you’ve given.  My sense is that there’s always more than just a bit of God at work when we offer it.  And, I think we’re equally aware of that truth when graced to be on the receiving end of forgiveness as well.  Or, think of the exchange of love in general.  It’s never just love.  It’s also the source of love too, which is conveyed.  And when it’s conveyed we see that we are participating in a “more” that is bigger than us.  We get to embody, albeit imperfectly, the very transcendence that makes our lives – and the lives of everyone else – sacred.  In that sense our lives are not really our own.  They are, at their best, fleshy expressions of someone else’s generosity.  They are small and common instances of a holy “more” that thereby makes us holy too.  So, my friends, in ways that we’re left to grapple with, discover, and embrace we’ve been brought to this place with one another so that that which is ever beyond us might be made known to us.  What a thing we are part of as we welcome one another, as we smile politely, as we listen to predictable sermons, as we pour water on Oliver and offer our prayers, as we gather our small common church within the heart of an eternal, uncommon God.