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With Clean Hearts and Dirty Hands

Proper 20C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

Clean hearts and dirty hands.   Jesus offers two lessons about discipleship today (Luke 16: 1-13). The first isn’t a surprise. “You cannot serve God and wealth”.  The second is a bit of a shocker.  Jesus chides, ‘Why can’t each of you be as shrewd as the dishonest manager?’

The parable of the dishonest steward should come with a warning. If we were to take Jesus literally it could lead to arrest—or a fine at least. But could we be more crafty for Jesus?

Here’s what I hear Jesus saying in today’s rather confusing gospel: my disciples must have clean hearts and dirty hands. Can we use worldly strategies to promote the Gospel? Could we be more cunning in dismantling the powers and principalities arrayed against God in the pursuit of justice? Can we care for the poor not merely with our charity, but also by fostering good public policy? How might our wisdom in the ways of the world be use to promote the good news of Jesus Christ?

To do this, the first but only partial answer is, we must have a clean heart. By legend King David wrote psalm 51 after Nathan exposed the truth about what he had done to murder Uriah the Hittite in order to take Bathsheba for himself. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10)

The renewal of our mind begins with reorientation of our heart. We are too good at lying to ourselves, making up reasons for what we want, and rationalizing our sinful desires as if they were something good.

A clean heart comes as an underserved gift from God as the old me is put to death, drowned in the baptismal font and a new heart is fed with heavenly food at the Lord’s Table. A new heart requires an “identity transplant.” As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “I live no longer, not I, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) You know you are close when each human being you encounter in need you say, there but for the grace of God grace go I. A clean heart beats with the same profound empathy and solidarity as we have found in the heart of God.

If we could put all the Christians of the last hundred years in a room with Christians of the first three hundred years, I wonder how surprised they’d be about how distant God has become for us? I think they might try to tell us, God is not an object out there located in one place or time. Rather, God is always the Divine Subject who must be encountered, experienced, known only in part, and trusted from within.

Perhaps an obstacle to creating a clean heart in us is that for so long we have operated with a static and imperial image of God. God as Supreme Monarch who is mostly living in splendid isolation from what he (and God is always and exclusively envisioned as male in this model) has created. This God is seen largely as a Critical Spectator, and his followers must do their level best to imitate their Creator. Early Christians might warn us, “We always become what we behold; the presence that we practice matters.” (adapted from Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation 9/14/16)

Although they did not have the word until the fourth century, the presence early Christians practiced was the God who became known to us as Holy Trinity, a divine presence inviting us to join hands and move together as one in the great circle dance of life.

With clean hearts from God we are called and sent into the world, extending our hands in invitation for still more people to join in this dance. With warmth, welcome, joy, hospitality, generosity, and joy we find the courage in our new hearts to not hold back but to draw close and get involved. Together with Christians of every age, with hands dirty, we open ourselves to the chaotic and unpredictable, go beyond our comfort zone, and let ourselves become vulnerable for the sake of loving one another as we ourselves desire to be loved.

Where have you seen people of faith being shrewd for Jesus? Parents must often be shrewd. Co-workers might be shrewd in helping their friends. Activists are shrewd in the pursuit social justice. I think chef Mary Ellen Diaz, a former member of Ebenezer Lutheran, who now resides in Switzerland with her wife and two kids, showed her clean heart and dirty hands in creating the First Slice Pie Shop, a self-funded charity now providing over 4,000 meals a month to feed the hungry.

Diaz, who grew up in Virginia with mom, dad, four sisters and a brother, trained in France and worked at multi-starred restaurants such as the North Pond cafe, and with Richard Melman at Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises.

She was on a leave of absence after she and her partner adopted their second child, when she began volunteering at soup kitchens, stirring her culinary experience into the meals. “It only took one night of making meals amazing for people in need and seeing the smiles that made me realize I could do something here,” Diaz said.

In the restaurants where she’d worked, “the first slice of pie was always served to the staff. … So this symbol of pie as community was important as was the first slice being the most important.” Today First Slice funds its efforts with a “shareholders program.” Hundreds of subscriber families receive home-cooked, restaurant-quality meals each week. Funds from those subscriptions are used to make the same quality meals for people in need distributed through several social service organizations, such as Streetwise.

“We all feel much more driven if our mission is based on us sort of rolling up our sleeves and cooking for every dollar,” she says, whether it’s for the subscription program or the cafes. “We find a lot of joy in that and that’s why we’re sort of a different organization. You can come in and have good food, and other people can have good food too.”

Sometimes you need to feed the soul. And sometimes feeding others salads of local greens and fresh tomatoes, maybe spinach-squash lasagna and chocolate-peanut butter pie does just that, even for the cook.(Judy Hevrdejs, Tribune Newspapers, Featured Article Chicago Tribune, 7/15/12)

With clean hearts and dirty hands, faith makes us ready to love in real time. In a complicated world our choices will never be simple.  I think in today’s gospel Jesus encourages us not to be ‘So heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.’  But “See,” Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). And know that I am always with you –even to the end of the age.

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