Coffee Shop Blues

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After spending last night watching probably my favorite cult movie of all time – one of Pittsburgh’s greatest contributions to cinema, George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead – and then feeling a need to watch My Cousin Vinny again, I got a later than usual start to my day this morning. I eventually crawled out of bed, got ready to step out into the world, and went to my favorite coffee shop/hangout here in Gahanna to nurse a cup of house blend forever while trying to finally finish reading a book I’ve been piecemealing for too long – Pub Theology by Bryan Berghoef.

When I got to the shop, a sign on the front door announced that they were now under new management. Honestly, it didn’t come as a terrible surprise. From personal past experience, I recognized the small signs of struggling ownership, I noted mysteriously disappearing employees, and I overheard occasional bits of tense, under-the-breath telephone conversations about money issues during recent visits. I guess I hoped my perceptions were mistaken, but honestly, the signs were all there for those who had lived it themselves, to those who had eyes to see.

This would actually be the third ownership of the shop since I started hanging out there shortly after it opened. To be honest, most of the people that made the place so enjoyable for me had left when the second owners showed up. They seemed nice enough, and a couple of the old regulars provided some continuity, but over time they’d sort of drifted away, too. And now there would be new owners.

I stepped inside and walked up to the counter. Everything looked pretty much the same, except the menu board was slightly different. The price of a medium house blend had gone up a quarter, but no big deal. There were two people working behind the counter, a young woman and a middle-aged man. The woman was preparing a drink for a customer, while the man was doing some staff-type thing with his back turned more or less to me. I stood there at the counter – not for an excessively long time, but long enough that I should have been acknowledged. I wasn’t. The woman, no more than five or six feet away from me, never even looked my way. After a little while longer, the man did look over at me – giving me the same sort of look that a scientist might give a mold sample in a petri dish; a kind of disconnected observance with no real emotional connection of any kind. He just stared at me for a moment, then, without a smile, without a nod, without a “Hi, how are you?” or a “We’ll be with you in a moment,” he just turned back around and kept doing whatever it was he was doing – which actually wasn’t much. Once he got done doing his not much, and while his coworker continued to ignore my presence, he turned and looked back at me standing at the counter – now with a couple also standing behind me. Ah, I thought, now he’ll come take my order. Instead, after staring at me for another while, he turned his back on me again, and, putting his hands on his hips just stood there, back to me and the people behind me, looking around for something else to do that he must have considered more important than waiting on his customers.

I turned and walked out, muttering incredulity as I did. Time to find a new coffee shop.

To be honest, I’ve waited lots longer for service any number of times in this place in the past. But there was always some clear reason for the wait. And even then, there was a smile, a greeting, an acknowledgement that I was there, and that I wasn’t being viewed as an intrusion.

Maybe I just caught the new ownership at a bad time. For their sake, I hope so. I hope they understand that a customer doesn’t have to come into their particular place; there are coffee shops all over, and for the most part, the quality of the product and the atmosphere are not all that different. What matters is attention to the customer/visitor, and making human connections; acknowledging them, making them feel welcome and a part of things. And the window for fostering those connections is surprisingly small – make someone feel unimportant or unwelcome even once, and there’s not likely going to be a second opportunity (under the previous ownerships, I felt comfortable enough to wander behind the counter to get my own free refills if the staff was busy; here today, I was mold). Churchy types, it wasn’t my intention to do so when I started writing this, but feel free to draw the obvious ecclesiastical parallels here. He who has ears to hear, and all that.

So, darn. Where’s my new coffee hangout going to be?

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Outside the Lines (sermon 9/22/13)

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My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: “Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” (“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?”) “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.” 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? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored? O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!  – Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1

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Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  – Luke 16:1-13

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There’s a popular movement in the church today. It follows a number of variations but generally falls under the title of “Pub Theology.” The general idea is for a group of people to gather together, usually over a beer at a favorite local watering hole, and to engage in wide-ranging conversations, discussing deep questions about God, humanity, life, the world. Usually, there will be a series of questions used as conversation starters, but there isn’t any leader who will steer the discussion to an endpoint or supposedly “right” answer to the questions. The idea is to bring together people from as many different backgrounds as possible – different Christian denominations and traditions, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists; and the conversation is to proceed with everyone respecting each other’s viewpoint, and ideally, everyone learning something new in the process. And while the Bible is obviously referred to frequently in conversations, Pub Theology sessions are typically not actual Bible studies, since, by definition, all the participants have very different ideas about how the Bible should be understood. That makes sense, there’s a wide variation in how to understand the nature of the Bible, and how to interpret it, even within the same denomination, even within the same congregation, let alone across multiple faiths, and even those of no faith.

But even in a setting as diverse as some Pub Theology sessions, one thing that pretty much anyone examining the Hebrew and Christian scriptures would have to admit is that throughout those scriptures, God has always acted, and appeared, and spoken, in ways that were unexpected. God seems to always be working outside the normal expectations, always coloring outside the lines. It’s easy for us to lose sight of that reality because we’re so familiar with the stories of the Bible, but when we put ourselves right within the actual context of those stories, we very quickly see, time after time, that God is no respecter of norms and traditions. God doesn’t really seem to care at all about what human beings think is the right or proper way for God to behave. God almost universally tosses aside social, religious, and cultural traditions in the process of interacting with us. It just seems like God is always saying or doing something that we wouldn’t expect, or maybe even approve of.

That’s the case with today’s passage from Luke’s gospel, the parable of the dishonest manager. This is a hard passage for us to get a warm and fuzzy feeling about. This manager is a poster boy for behavior that we try really hard to teach people is really, really wrong. The manager cheated someone else for his own personal gain. What the dishonest manager did was unethical. It was immoral. His way of handling other people’s money, of using other people for his own benefit was disgusting.

Maybe it’s an especially appropriate week for this Lectionary text to come up. Is it possible that we see a real-world illustration of the dishonest manager just by turning on the evening news? This past Friday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would make severe cuts to the federal SNAP program – food stamps. They did this while continuing to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate welfare, subsidies, and tax breaks to the richest, most well-connected corporations and industries in the country. And they justified it by claiming that food stamps are a disincentive to personal responsibility; that they make it too easy for people to just sit around and not get a job – but the reality is that a full 72% of the people who receive food stamps are the working poor – working families with children, who are working one, two, sometimes even three jobs but still not making a living wage, and who don’t know if they’ll have enough food to last through the month. If the current bill is enacted, it will strip four million people from the food stamp program this year alone, and another three million people every year for the next nine years to follow. Why, literally in the name of God, would Congress vote to do this?

Is it a coincidence that those same wealthy fat cat corporations who are getting all the government payouts will dump millions and millions and millions of dollars into those politicians’ reelection campaigns? Is it just a coincidence that these same corporations will provide cushy jobs in the private sector to these same politicians when the public eventually votes them out of office?

The poor can’t dump tons of money into reelection campaigns, and they can’t offer golden parachutes to former congressmen. The poor don’t have anyone to stand up for them against the actions of the dishonest managers of this world, and that’s precisely why God has commissioned the church to speak out on their behalf, as part of our working for the kingdom of God.

Are these politicians just misusing other people’s money – our money – in order to feather their own nests, just like the dishonest manager Jesus talked about? Isn’t it just as despicable? Actually, if anything, they’re worse. At least Jesus’ dishonest manager was taking money away from a rich man who had surplus; he wasn’t taking food out of the mouths of the poor.

It is despicable, whether it’s a story from 2,000 years ago or from last night’s news. And yet, contrary to what we’d expect, Jesus seems to be praising the dishonest manager – no, he doesn’t just *seem* to be praising him; he actually *is* praising him, at least in some manner. This doesn’t seem right. This isn’t the Jesus we know – is it?

Jesus obviously isn’t praising or recommending dishonesty, or misusing other people for personal gain. He’s making a different kind of parallel here, and he undoubtedly made the parallel in a shocking way to make sure everyone remembered it – and it worked; we’re still wrestling with this parable two thousand years after he told it. If you listen closely, maybe you can hear Jesus snickering about it in heaven. In this parable, I think Jesus is saying that God gives certain resources, gifts, and opportunities to each of us in the kingdom – both as individuals and together, as the church. They aren’t always the same, or the same measure. But God does entrust all of us with something. And God wants us to use what’s at our fingertips – – not unethically, and not for personal gain, like the dishonest manager, but still with creativity, and innovation, and ingenuity, for God’s purposes, not ours; and thinking outside the traditional norms and customs in order to maximize that good as we try to live out the kingdom of God. God calls us to continually see if there are new, different, unexpected ways that we can use what God has given us to carry the kingdom even further in our world.

Maybe a good way to think of what Jesus is getting at with this parable is just that God has given us all a box of crayons. We might not all have the same colors, or the same number of crayons. Maybe I only got the standard little box of eight, maybe you got 16, maybe someone else got the big box of 64. But however many crayons we got, and what colors, God wants us to use whatever we have at our fingertips, whatever we have at our disposal – and we’re supposed to use all of our intelligence, all of our wits, all of our hearts, to make the best, most beautiful contribution to the kingdom of God. And because we worship a God who isn’t afraid to color outside the lines, if we have to do the same thing in order to make the most beautiful thing – the thing that pleases God most with our crayons – then it’s okay for us to color outside the lines, too.

The good news for us is that God does indeed love us and care for us enough to entrust us with  those crayons. We are that loved, and trusted as co-creators with God. God trusts us with our box of crayons. The question, and the challenge, for us in this story is to ask whether we really are using them in the best possible way, with the best of our creativity and ingenuity, the way that God would want. Are we? Am I? Are you? If we aren’t, why not? And if we did use all the resources God handed to us with the same degree of creativity and ingenuity as the dishonest manager, what would our lives look like? What would our churches look like? What would our world look like? Maybe those are good questions for a Pub Theology gathering. If we really maximized the blessings that God has given us to advance the kingdom of God, would we still live in a world where the poor are trampled by the unethical and the dishonest? Or would it be something very different? Would it be a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing, an amazing picture with all the colors of the crayon box?

Thanks be to God.