Spending a lot of time in the car traveling across the diocese to visit congregations on Sunday mornings gives me the opportunity to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes: listening to FM 89.1, NPR. After all, as an Episcopalian, being fluent in “NPRese” and having the ability to make a witty reference at any moment to the featured interviews and stories of the day is akin to a Baptist’s abilities with the Bible. So, one might consider my travel time to be well spent. Listening to NPR is professional development.
Unfortunately, one of my favorite NPR shows was taken off the air several years ago, and recently, out of a sense of nostalgia and, honestly, frustration with not being able to find a good book on Audible, I resurrected this show in podcast form.
Now, despite its being on NPR, it probably does more to kill brain cells in a listener than it does to edify one. At least that’s how the self-deprecating hosts of Car Talk would describe their show. For the uninitiated, it is a call-in talk show about cars, car repair, and just about anything else you can think of that has to do with cars. Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers, are the hosts–two highly educated MIT grads with almost indecipherably thick Boston accents. At first listen, you could mistake these guys for stereotypical grease monkeys, but listen for a while, and you’ll realize Click and Clack are scientific geniuses with senses of humor that will make you laugh ‘till you cry. Not only are these two gifted showmen, but shrewd problem-solvers and surprisingly profound philosophers.
The typical caller is Bob from Boise or Sally from San Francisco complaining, for example, about this high-pitched, squeaky noise that seems to be coming from underneath the driver’s seat whenever the car turns left while going down a hill. Apparently no local mechanic has been able to solve the problem, or the mechanic insists that a repair would be comprehensive and cost outrageous sums of money. But Click and Clack are able to diagnose the problem in a matter of seconds, often offering off-the-wall solutions. And occasionally they venture into messier waters and take calls from people needing a bit more than advice about their relationship with their car. People ask Click and Clack for advice on personal relationships as well. And the advice these listeners get is equally impressive.
Most of us think the system works one way. We have been trained to think that cars are mysterious machines that we can’t possibly understand. Our car makes a funny noise so we take it to the mechanic. The mechanic either offers to fix it, usually for quite a bit of money, or tells us it’s beyond repair, and we’re introduced to the salesman in the showroom. When we’re in the dealership, surrounded by professionals with secret car knowledge, it’s easy to think these really are the only two options. The truth is, this is often a false dichotomy. There is usually a third way, or even a fourth or fifth. And that could involve getting a second opinion, talking to a car-savvy neighbor for advice, watching a few DIY YouTube car repair videos, or making a trip to the local Autozone.
The recurring theme of Car Talk might be summed up in this way: if the system isn’t working for you, bypass the system. That’s the same theme we find in today’s gospel from Luke.
We just heard a strange story about a property manager who, upon hearing that he is to be fired, goes to the people who owe his boss money and tells them to reduce their payments by substantial amounts. Not wanting to be thrown out on the street, the manager’s aim is to make friends with these debtors so that when he is fired he has people who will take him in. The manager’s boss, in an interesting twist, praises what the manager has done because, presumably, the manager has both taken care of himself and he has also made the employer look kind and generous to his debtors. Though he was somewhat dishonest and probably cost his employer quite a bit of money, he is praised for being a shrewd problem-solver.
The system dictated that a disgraced employee would end up humiliated and homeless. This particular disgraced employee didn’t like that outcome and so he got creative and cleverly bypassed the system. He refused to be a slave to “the way the world works.”
There’s no getting around the fact that the moral character of this manager is questionable, and scholars have tried to clean him up. For example, It has been suggested that the manager wasn’t being dishonest at all when asking his employer’s debtors to only pay a fraction of what they owed. He might not have been including his own commission in the price. In that case, he wasn’t dishonest–he was, in fact, selfless. But getting caught up on trying to make our disgraced property manager a saint isn’t the point. Understanding that God values creativity and resourcefulness is. God wants us to look beyond the confines of a black and white worldly system that only sees winners and losers, rich and poor, clean and unclean, virtuous and disgraced, running and broken.
And that point is best made in none other than the story of Jesus’ life and death. Jesus’ message to the world was about walking a path other than the standard, suggested path. He did not play by the rules of society. He dined with sinners, made company with the diseased, and befriended the destitute, and questioned the authority of worldly leaders. The system dictated one ultimate consequence for his riot-provoking actions–death. That’s something everyone knew.
Jesus’ followers hoped he would raise an army to attack the Romans and bring freedom by force, because they thought that is the only way freedom is gained. But like the property manager in today’s gospel, Jesus bypassed the worldly system. When Jesus rose from the dead, a feat no one had imagined or thought possible, he demonstrated an entirely different way of gaining freedom that had everything to do with love rather than conflict, faith rather than fear.
Believe it or not, you and I are deeply involved in a powerful system right now called “the Church.” We all know how it works. To function properly it needs a priest, parishioners, a building, an altar guild, an ECW chapter, a youth program, and the list goes on. But what happens when there’s a glitch in the system? What if the population in the town decreases and there are fewer newcomers walking through the doors? What if we just can’t manage to get a good youth program going? What if money gets tight? What if there is a global pandemic that stretches us to our emotional and physical limits? Do we panic? Do we give up? Do we turn on one another? Do we fear that the Church, like a car, is a mysterious machine that we can’t possibly understand, much less fix, and that our only hope is to remember the glory days? The gospel reminds us time and again that there is another way. We are to look to the unseen, that often hidden third option. Like the property manager, Christians must be creative and resourceful, shrewd problem-solvers, always seekers of this third way, the way that rejects zero-sum solutions and insists on patience, compassion, and faith in the promise of new life.
Wouldn’t it be great if there were a show on NPR called Church Talk? Listeners could call in and ask the hosts about all of the “funny noises” their churches are making. I can imagine a caller telling the story of their beloved congregation–say, Lucy from Little Rock, Fred from Fort Smith, or Carey from Conway. “We seem to have emerged from the pandemic, but things just aren’t the same. Sunday attendance has been sluggish, some of our old programs don’t seem to have the traction they once did, tempers seem to be running a little hot. I just don’t know how to cool things down and get back to normal. If only the church would run like it used to. What do we do?” Click and Clack, the famed church strategists, might reply,
“I hear you, and you’re not alone. Your question reminds us of one we were asked on our other show, Car Talk. A guy called in, completely frustrated about his car’s air-conditioning system. He just couldn’t get it to work anymore. He had done everything he could think of. He’d had the freon charged up, he had even had his compressor replaced, and yet the thing just wouldn’t cool him off. It seemed like the harder he tried to restore the system the more lost and frustrated he became. So he asked us in desperation, ‘Click and Clack, what would you do?’ And we said, ‘roll down the windows.”
There is always a third option that lies beyond the dictates of the system. And it is often more accessible to us than we can imagine. What would it look like for a church to stop trying to restore the system, and instead roll down its windows and breathe in some fresh air? Be creative. Be resourceful. Insist on patience, compassion, and faith. As followers of Christ, the original defier of systems, there is no group in this world more poised to demonstrate a third option, and it has everything to do with love rather than conflict, faith rather than fear. It’s a message the world still needs to hear. It’s good news, indeed.
Proper 20, Year C