Sermon for SMHP, Year C, Pentecost + 15, Proper 20, Sept. 22, 2019
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. 2So 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.’
3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’
The manager said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’
7Then 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.’
8And 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. 9And 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. 10“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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
13No 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.”
School is important. In the developed world, one of the great advancements of the past couple of centuries is to make school universal to all children, at least in theory. It has gone a long way in changing centuries of economic stratification which saw education only as a privilege for the rich, and thus limited the opportunities of the majority of people.
Most of us now live in a system which offers better opportunities, because all kids can, and should, go to school.
But last Friday, a whole bunch of kids in a whole bunch of countries didn’t go to school. Or they went to school and walked out. There was a worldwide climate strike. It was hard to miss. Students led, joined by indigenous persons, tech workers, and a bunch of other people who realize that the systems in place to protect us have failed. Money has taken precedence over the planet.
Money tends to do that, doesn’t it? The systems in place for the buying and selling of goods and services are not morally neutral—they are morally deficient. And they pretty much always have been. The prophet Amos was complaining about this in the Eight Century BCE!
“4Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, 5saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances.”
Nearly three millennia ago, people valued their money over their faith—rushing to get through the sabbath, so that they could get back to buying and selling in a system that was literally rigged toward the wealthy. They weighted the balances and sold the gleaning portions of the wheat, which Torah declared were for the feeding of the poor.
Our culture has done away with the Sabbath. Now you can buy and sell any time you want. The system itself has not changed, except to widen the gap between those who sell and those who must buy.
Our human systems of buying and selling are and always have been sinful systems. They can only be kept in check by other systems which privilege the welfare of living things. Those systems do exist. Three of them office in this building. One helps people live well despite addiction. One teaches drumming and dance to kids with lots of potential but more than a few stumbling blocks in their lives. And one is working to challenge the idea that there should be a class of people known as the “working poor.”
When communities get together and think about people first and corporations second (or fourth), change happens. Before we were even semi-serious about environmental protection in this country, the Cuyagoga River used to catch fire.
A river. Caught fire. [Slide]
Here’s the 1952 fire. [Slide] Here’s the aftermath of the 1969 fire.
In 1952, people shook their heads and said “What a shame.”
In 1969, people took to the streets and demanded change. And the Environmental Protection Agency was born.
The leaders of systems which privilege people above wealth sometimes have to be persistent. Noisy. And creative.
Like having millions of people walk out of school and work.
Or making a dishonest manager the hero of a story about value systems. [slide]
This is a confounding lesson, isn’t it? Nobody really knows what to do with it. Including the commentary writers, who are all over the place.
When the text itself is puzzling, we look at…? The context.
The parables we had last week were about a lost sheep and a lost coin. What did we say about them? Subversive.
Then the lectionary inexplicably decides to leave out what might be the most well known of the parables…the one which begins, “There was a man who had two sons…”
Also known as…the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
The story of a younger son who asks for his inheritance, squanders it on “loose living,” returns home…and gets a party. And his brother, who stayed home to take care of the family holdings…and got nothing.
Subversive. Take my word for it if it is not apparent to you.
This whole section of Luke is designed to get people’s attention, mainly by the use of irony and subversion of expectations.
To point a finger at a God who subverts our expectations.
What do we make of a shepherd who leaves ninety-nine sheep unattended to find one? Or a father who celebrates the son who turned his back on him and squandered his money? What about a manager who forgives debts willy nilly and is then praised for it? A manager who is described as “dishonest,” as he is being lifted up.
It doesn’t make sense.
It’s like a body of water…on fire.
Or a God who creates human beings and then makes a really generous deal with them. “You worship me, and I will give you everything I have.”
And when they take everything and destroy it, says, “Okay, let’s try this again. I’ll give you my child, a part of me.”
And when they destroy him too, that God, that unbelievably loving parent of us all, says, “It’s okay. I still love you. I will still forgive you.”
Do you believe that? It can’t be true, right? Nobody is that forgiving.
I think this God must be lying to us.
Tell the truth…haven’t you wondered? Is God really going to forgive me all that I’ve done?
Am I really “saved”? Don’t I have to do something? I must have to do something, right? That preacher on tv said I have to make a declaration that Jesus is my Lord and Savior. And send money.
You don’t have to do anything. God has done it all, and will continue to do it all. When you fall again, and you will, God will scoop you up and remind you that you are saved. You were already saved.
You have always been saved.
God does it all. Just like in the parable. We don’t like this parable, because we can’t figure out who God is in the parable. And God is usually a character in the parable. Or Jesus. The answer is Jesus.
God is the sower.
Jesus is the good shepherd.
But God can’t be the “dishonest manager,” right?
God is the one who makes debts manageable, without a care. Who turns a system on its head that is already turned on its head.
All that matters in this parable is what happens. Not the language used to describe the parties. Is the manager “dishonest”? Is the wealth “dishonest”?
What’s the opposite of “dishonest wealth”? Honest wealth? Is that a thing?
See, while we were all caught up in that, Jesus just laid down a beautiful picture of grace. One more story about how God does it all.
It doesn’t make sense. At all.
God has loved you and forgiven everything you have ever done. You came into this world “saved.”
Doesn’t make sense at all.
We can still live as if we believe it. Or…stay with me here…we can actually believe it. And then we can think about how we might reflect all of that love and forgiveness back to God. And out into the world.
We could even try living as if we believe that it is possible to love like God does—without counting the cost or holding the debts.
You know what will happen then? We will see our forgiven debts. We will see what it is to be the sheep returned to the fold, the son received by his father, the debtor whose debt is reduced for no reason at all.
We will see grace. We will be grace.