|Not the german carnival.|
Small carnivals would appear from time to time in our west German neighborhood. It was an easy walk from our off base duplex, around the corner and up the hill to where the usually barren field would be transformed. I can still find in my memory scent notes of what is not an American carnival sensation, a mystical kind of lightly sweet, mixed with cloves and ginger and maybe a hint of licorice. Some of the people who wandered there may have felt lost, some may have worried about what tomorrow would bring, and so they wandered up the hill and let the lights and the music be a balm for a moment.
Jeremiah is no carnival clown. He can grasp he will be soon be wading in the debris of imperial marches. His name in recent centuries became a noun: jeremiad. To speak a jeremiad is to publicly bemoan and lament the conduct of life among your people, your leaders, your neighbors. “For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?”
Perhaps you recall that Jesus’ contemporaries had a hard time placing him in a useful category. Is he a prophet? Rabbi? Wonder-worker? Carnival act? Jesus embodied Gods life and intention for the world. His proclamation in word and deed is authentic love. An experience of something wholly different than the everyday plastic existence that makes life dull and fruitless. Whomever it was that could have possibly written the ancient version of Forbes, he is long forgotten. Whatever that person might have advised, it is dust, having been a flat, plastic and predictable idea of security. The living word of God is not going to be so flat or conforming.
No one seems to think that Jesus’ words about the good shepherd are an agricultural lecture, so why do we get so bent out of shape about these next words? I think it is because this subject pokes at our deepest insecurities. Yet Jesus isn’t really talking about earthly accounting of deutchmarks or denari. I ask you to take a second and ponder: what is wealth to God? Hope. Justice. Forgiveness. Grace. Resurrection. What is wealth to God? The prophets say that it is NEVER HAVING TO HEAR THE CRIES of any of God’s beloved creation ever again.
Looking at the parable, what are the items of wealth that become free flowing forgiveness? Oil. Oil in the ancient world is heat, it is light, it is cooking, it is cleaning, it is healing. Oil is the deliverer of those balms of Gilead, and in a dry land, oil is as precious as water. And you know about grain. Grain is nourishment for bellies, and it is straw for mats for burdened bodies. Wealth for God is measured in love, calculated by free flowing compassion.
If this lesson has advice about any human venture, it is perhaps about the adventure we call being church. A carnival knows it is temporary, when the duty is done, the tents come down, rides pack up. There is a thread of query in the Old Testament, wondering if maybe we were better when we were with God in the wilderness, wandering together in our permeable tents. Building of temples and churches changes us, changes our relationships with each other and with strangers. Dwelling in tents may have better reminded us of the truth that the past is dust, and the future is always in motion. The only thing we have to be sure of is we are God’s beloved, right here on this shifting sand, with these strangers and neighbors and friends.
We have spent a month praying through our hopes and fears, resentments and anxieties. Before we bring it down I want to point out that there are empty clips where unnamed prayers rest. There are open spaces where the free flowing grace of the Holy Spirit is transforming us as we pray. As I let the cards rise I read of both sadness’s and gratefulness. What struck me most clearly was worry about what is to come, and a desire to be more effective proclaimers of Good News.
I once served with one of the most effective Episcopal congregations in the country, and it was rather like a circus or a carnival. Like many of the most effective congregations I know of, they have a footprint, but their mission is as unbounded as festival music or pleasant carnival smells. The good news comes and goes and flows freely. The second thing I know about effective congregations is that they don’t invest most of their time or energy in 20 years ago or 20 years from now. They are fixated on the present day, of being incarnate gospel centers for teaching and healing and shelter in their neighborhoods today. They PRACTICE being CHURCH AS IF WE DWELLED IN CARNIVAL TENTS.
Jesus’ life and ministry offers an un-jeremiad. He laments the way we conduct the business of life. Our gospel story isn’t about our currency or investments, it is about our generosity and fluidity. He summons us into stories that jolt like bumper cars, and humor that makes us dizzy. Jesus makes friends with what seems like crookedness and chaos and fills our flat lines with resurrection. The number one thing I believe that this Gospel lesson demands is that the Christ figure here today is this outlandish steward! This example who encourages the better part of us, and discourages anything that makes us smaller and less generous.
Jeremiah and Jesus may have had deep divine knowledge of what came next, yet you and I, we have no idea of what the next era will demand. So we must trust that our longevity will only spring from being a captivating carnival of the good news. Healing balm over here, tasty joy over there, wisdom to the left and new life to the right.
What outrageous spin in your life can make the gospel shine brightly today?
And, what does the Christ carnival look and feel and smell like to you?
Let us pray.
Gentle us, Holy One,
into an a deep breath, a letting go
of shriveling anxieties
and dead certainties
so that, surrounded by the light,
and open to the mystery,
We may be entranced by the simple,
and filled with the joy that is you,
In the name of the Holy Dancing Carnival Like Trinity, One God Forever and Ever. Amen.
September 18, 2016 St. Paul's,Walla Walla
Audio Link if Widget doesn't work
Audio Link if Widget doesn't work
Prayer adapted from Ted Loder.