God is Good, All the Time, Proper 20(C)

[RCL] Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

There is a wonderful scene in C.S. Lewis’s famous novel The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Lucy, the youngest the children to cross into the magical world of Narnia, converses with Mr. Beaver. In this magical land of talking animals and evil queens, Lucy feels both wonder and fear after hearing about Aslan, the original Lion King, who rules over the lands of Narnia. Lucy inquires of Mr. Beaver, “Is he quite safe?” to which the industrious rodent replies with an air of indignation “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good.”

Much like Lucy wants to know that the ruler of her mystical realm of Narnia is safe, we want our God and our faith to be safe and comforting, making no great demands of our time or treasure. But if we pay close attention to our Gospel for today, we quickly realize that Jesus is far from safe, but is always good and full of surprises.

Jesus had been traveling around Jerusalem, preaching God’s realm, healing the sick, curing the infirm, raising the dead, and generally stepping on the toes of the good religious leaders around Jerusalem. The Scribes and Pharisees grumbled about his dinner companions being less that savory characters, but instead of answering their criticism Jesus told a series of Parables:

A man had one hundred sheep. One wondered off, got itself lost and the man, leaving the ninety-nine hunts high and low for the lost sheep. When he finds the sheep, he gathers his friends and rejoices. God is not safe, but is always good and seeks us even when we wander.

A woman had ten silver coins. One mysteriously disappears, so she lights a lamp and turns her house upside down until she finds it. When she finds the coin she throws a party with all her friends, costing more than the coin’s worth. God is not safe, but is always good and finds a reason to celebrate.

A father had two sons. One demands his inheritance while his father is still very much alive, runs off to the city and squanders his money. Realizing the error in his ways, he heads home. His father seeing him far off welcomes him home and throws a party to celebrate the miraculous return of his presumed dead son. But his older brother, faithful, generous, and devout wanted none of it. “This son of mine that was dead is now alive, the one who was lost is now found,” says the father. God is not safe, but is always good and forgives even when we cannot.

A dishonest manager is about to be fired for misappropriation of company funds. Because he doesn’t want to do manual labor and is too proud to ask for charity, he goes around to all the vendors who owe his employer money and reduces his portion of their commission and cuts their interest rates. He does this so that they would be hospitable to him when he loses his job. He transforms a terrible situation into one that benefits him and others. In doing this, he actually builds relationships with the vendors instead of simply collecting bills and commissions. Surprisingly the employer commends the manager for his shrewdness, his initiative and his wisdom in business. God is not safe, but is always good, full of surprises and turns our world upside-down.

This is not what many of the religious people of Jesus’ day signed up for and neither did we. We want a God who is just and fair. We want a God who is predictable and follows the rule of law. But instead, what Jesus points to is the realm of a God who seeks the wanderer, celebrates the lost, forgives the proud and repairs broken relationships. This is a God who is certainly not safe but is always good.

Throughout the Bible, and particularly in today’s Gospel about the shrewd steward, we are confronted with a God who takes our norms, our expectations, our perceptions and our preconceived notions and turn them on their heads. Jesus praises the manager’s insanely irresponsible behavior and exhorts us to act more like the manager!

Can you imagine if we, as a church, followed that advice? Can you imagine if we imitated God’s goodness instead of being safe?

  • What if, as a community of faith, we chose to offer forgiveness, love, and welcome to anyone without conditions or requirements?
  • What if we welcomed everyone to feed from the richness of Christ’s table?
  • What if we shared the joy of our worship, fellowship, and companionship outside the walls of our church?
  • What if we became agents of love and mercy in our community?
  • What if we lived as people of resurrection in a Good Friday world?  
  • What if we stopped worrying about what is safe and started doing what is good?

How would our church be different? How would our worship be different? How would our relationships be different?

Jesus invited his hearers to step out in faith and to see an outrageously generous God squander that generosity on each and every one of us. Are we not called to do the same? It will certainly not be safe, but is good and God is good!

As followers of Jesus this is the God we proclaim.

We proclaim a God who is always ready to overturn our understandings and widen our circles. Our society often prizes safety over welcome, fear over compassion, division over unity. We are sometimes too often willing to sacrifice love, compassion, and caring on the altar of safety. But God insistently and consistently points towards the good, and good is not always safe.

Jesus in his life and ministry chose always to do the good at the risk of being safe.

  • Safe says, “Stick to what you know.” Good replies, “Put out into deep waters. Imagine the possibilities.”
  • Safe says, “Follow the rule of law.” Good replies, “Seek compassion and mercy.”
  • Safe says, “Keep score. Hold grudges.” Good replies, “Love your neighbor. Forgive.”
  • Safe says, “Worry about yourself” Good replies, “Consider the lilies of the field, the birds of the air.”
  • Safe says, “Take care of our own.” Good replies, “Just as you do to the least of these you do to me.”
  • Safe says, “Come down and we will believe.” Good replies, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.”
  • Safe says, “King of the Jews.” Good whispers, “Resurrection!”
  • Safe is tempting, but good is eternal.

The Good News for us is that we follow in the footsteps of Jesus the good-doer. Those footsteps may lead us to places we may never dream or imagine we would go, but we go risking and knowing that God always walks with us, always forgives us, always love us.

God is good, all the time.

All the time, God is good!

Amen.

Written by The Rev. Deon Johnson. Johnson has served as Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Brighton MI for the last nine years. A liturgical consultant, Johnson specializes in helping communities revision their worship spaces to better reflect both their needs and the theology of welcome found in the Eucharist. In his spare time, he enjoys working on websites and is an avid photographer.  

Download the sermon for Proper 20(C)..

The Dishonest Manager in all of us, 18 Pentecost, Proper 20 (C) – 2013

September 22, 2013 

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 and Psalm 79:1-9 (or Amos 8:4-7 and Psalm 113); 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

Jesus is not making a whole lot of sense in our gospel today, at least at first blush. He tells the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, and people have beat their heads against this text for generations trying to figure out what in the world he was talking about. Clergy, lay people, seminary professors and commentators – everyone agrees that, at least as far as Luke 16 goes, the Lord works in mysterious ways.

Let’s review the facts as we know them. We start with two characters: the rich man and his manager. Word on the street is that the manager has been embezzling funds and taking kickbacks, and the rich man summons him to his office for a pre-firing dressing down. In serious hot water, the manager realizes he’s not trained for any other type of job and he’d better lay some groundwork for his future. So, going to his master’s clients, he reduces their bills, thereby earning himself their gratitude and restoring his master’s reputation from someone who employs corrupt officials to someone who is generous with his clients.

We can follow up to this point. The manager is trying to make the best of a bad situation, and since he’s already defrauded his boss, he might as well go whole hog and make himself look good by unethically reducing the amount of money the clients owe.

You might think that when the rich man found out that his manager had again cheated him out of money, he would call for the tar and feathers. But no. Jesus said that the “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.”

What?

Jesus’ words are completely baffling. They just don’t seem to match the type of behavior he usually asks us to display. There’s nothing in the Sermon on the Mount like, “Blessed are the shrewd, for they shall make eternal homes by means of dishonest wealth.”

Well, if any of you are in the same boat with this parable, don’t panic: There is hope. First of all, remember that parables are meant to be confusing. They are meant to turn conventional wisdom on its head, leave listeners scratching their heads and praying for guidance.

But Jesus does not leave us totally without resources. He hands us stories like this and says, “Trust what you know of me and figure this out.”

So let’s give it another go.

What exactly is it that the manager does that is unethical or wrong? He forgives the clients’ debts. Uh-oh. That sort of rings a bell, doesn’t it? Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. This parable is about forgiveness! Ding, ding, ding! Come on down, solver of the Million Dollar Parable, and receive your all-expense paid trip to further spiritual confusion.

Because, why? This still doesn’t make sense. If Jesus wanted to talk about forgiveness, why didn’t he just say, “There was this guy who had a lot of people owing him money. He could have been a jerk about it, but he said, OK, you guys don’t have to pay, and everyone lived happily ever after.”

Well, once again, we stumble over the nature of our God who doesn’t let us get away with easy answers. And why not? Because our lives don’t have any easy answers.

Jesus doesn’t tell simple stories because none of us live simple stories. Think of the way the connections you have to the people you love sometimes get hopelessly tangled and snarled, until you can’t remember what the problem was in the first place, but you sure can’t figure out how to fix it now. Think of the times you’ve been between a rock and a hard place, knowing that any decision you make will hurt someone. Think of the times you’ve been driven by circumstances to a place where compromising your integrity seems like a small price to pay if it will just get you out of this mess.

Are you still sorry Jesus told us the story of the Dishonest Manager?

Jesus knows that our lives are not black and white, and he also knows that we need guidance to live out of our better selves. And so he gives us the gift of forgiveness. He offers his forgiveness openly, freely and without restraint. There is nothing we can ever do that will take God’s love away from us. There is no way we will ever be anything less than God’s most cherished children, no matter how many mistakes we make or people we hurt. We are forgiven before we know we are going to do wrong, because Jesus loved us even unto death.

And knowing that forgiveness is ours for the asking at every step of the way, how can we not want to try it out ourselves?

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” That’s what happens in this parable. The dishonest manager is forgiven even as he forgives others. And this is the best part: It’s not neat and tidy and clean cut. There are still loose ends and ethical questions and uncertainty.

Because once again, Jesus knows that this is what our lives are like. We are not God, and we cannot offer one another perfect love. We are human, and we are always going to have mixed motives, and screw things up, even when we’re trying to do the right thing; in part, we really want to have integrity and in part we just want everyone to see us as having integrity.

Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves, and in this parable, he tells us that it’s OK.

It’s OK to have mixed motives and make mistakes – what’s important is that we keep trying. If we waited to forgive each other until we had perfect charity in our hearts, we’d be here until the apocalypse. Jesus is saying, just haul off and do it. Forgive everyone. Forgive people even if you know they’re wrong. Forgive people when you know you’re wrong. Forgive people when you don’t feel like it, when they aren’t talking to you, when you aren’t talking to them, when you don’t have time. Forgive people you’ve never met, forgive atrocities so big you are afraid to forgive them, forgive faults so small you are ashamed that they bother you. Forgive even if you’ve done it a thousand times; forgive even if you’ve never forgiven before.

Seriously, right now, where you’re sitting, think of someone who is just making you furious. It could be the guy who cut you off in traffic; it could be your daughter who is “throwing her life away.” It could be your spouse who never remembers to take the garbage out; it could be the sibling who hurt and betrayed you so badly you haven’t spoken in years. Just do it. Say to that person in your mind, “I forgive you.”

It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel anything. You might feel an overwhelming rush of love and grace, or you might still feel cranky and self-righteous and just plain mad. It doesn’t matter. You’ve taken the first step. Whatever else is in your heart right now – anger, fear, disappointment – there is also a little seed of forgiveness that has sprouted. And one day, if you keep practicing, you’re going to find that forgiveness in your heart has grown so great that you can start to forgive yourself. And that will be a great day in the Kingdom of God.

There’s a bit of the Dishonest Manager in all of us, wheeling and dealing in front of God and trying to “manage” our lives to look good before the Divine. Jesus tells us today that he sees right through us – and loves us dearly anyway.

Loving not the ideal but the real – that is the challenge. Loving each other even when our frailties and failures are so apparent – that is the struggle.

And when we can’t do it with the generosity and grace we strive for, the Good News is: We are forgiven.

 

— The Rev. Whitney Rice is priest-in-charge of the shared ministry of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Shelbyville, Ind., and St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, Franklin, Ind.,  in the Diocese of Indianapolis.

Forgiveness is central, Pentecost 17, Proper 20 (C) – 2010

[RCL] Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 and Psalm 79:1-9 (Track 2: Amos 8:4-7 and Psalm 113); 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

“Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.” Jesus didn’t really say that, did he?

Imagine the disciples hearing this story. They probably ask Jesus to repeat himself, clean the wax out of their ears, and look at each other for verification: did he really just say that?

It seems he did. Someone remembered this story, and Jesus has demonstrated a knack throughout Luke’s gospel for telling memorable stories. Most of them are parables, which invite us to remember the story and mull on it. It is always a mistake to treat parables in the same way we treat allegories, and this story in particular could represent real trouble for the interpreter who treats it as allegory. Who is God in the story? Who is the dishonest manager supposed to represent?

That’s not what Jesus is doing. It’s difficult to know precisely what he is doing, but he hasn’t stopped believing in and demonstrating the kingdom of God, a reality that includes perfect justice and mercy; so we assume that the dishonest manager, who operates entirely out of self-interest, isn’t a direct stand-in for God, or for us.

This story highlights our need to take great care in interpreting pieces of scripture in light of their context. If we were to read this passage under the rubric that we are to take everything in the Bible literally, we’d find ourselves in real trouble, and probably in jail.

Clearly, the startling image of the dishonest manager as the “hero” of Jesus’ story will help us to remember it. But if it’s not literal, what are we supposed to make of it?

The story in Luke that comes immediately before today’s story is the much-beloved story of the prodigal son, the cranky older brother, and the ridiculously forgiving father. Today’s story may well highlight the same situation: someone in trouble stumbles into grace practically by accident. In the story of the prodigal, the younger son does not acquit himself well. He makes some very selfish choices that offend nearly everyone, and only comes to his senses to the degree that he realizes something must change so that he can survive. Continuing to act in his own self-interest, he returns home to discover that grace and forgiveness have been waiting for him the whole time, and we have a sense that he may finally get what it means to be loved.

In today’s story, the dishonest manager is in an equally bad situation, and for the same reason: he has acted entirely selfishly without concern for how his actions will affect others, just so he can slip some money into his pocket that doesn’t belong to him. When his employer figures out what he’s done, he figures his goose is cooked, and so he continues to act in his own self-interest by cutting deals with his employer’s debtors. What he wants is for these people to owe him something, because he is sure that manual labor is beneath him, and begging is so embarrassing. What’s disturbing to those of us listening to his story is that it works! It works even better than he had planned; not only do the people who owe money to his boss get a better deal, the manager himself has regained some status in the eyes of his employer because of his shrewdness.

This is just crazy, upside-down grace. We who hear his story want him to pay for his dishonesty, not to get out of a sticky situation smelling like a rose. What kind of moral example is this?

Well, it isn’t one. What Jesus seems to be highlighting in this story, which we can perhaps see more clearly by comparing it to the story of the prodigal son, is the ridiculous nature of God’s grace, and our call to live in it.

This foxy manager and self-serving younger son sound a lot like Jacob, whose name became Israel; he connived and manipulated, wrestled and argued, when God’s blessing was available to him from the beginning.

Jesus commends the shrewd – and shady – manager as an example, not for his dishonest dealings, but for his clever solution. But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He says this manager – who is “of this world,” meaning someone whose values are entirely plebian and self-oriented – has managed to scratch and claw his way into a better situation; what can Jesus’ followers do, he asks, with the grace of God behind them?

What Jesus thinks his followers are capable of is what he himself has been busy doing: healing, reconciling, truth-telling, and proclaiming the kingdom. We must be as clever as the manager in today’s gospel, with a different goal: serving our self-interest, alongside the best interests of the world that God loves, by building the kingdom of God.

Today’s collect contrasts being “anxious about earthly things” with “loving things heavenly.” It would be simple to imagine that “loving things heavenly” means some kind of ethereal, spiritual experience, bathed in light, with some harp music playing in the background. However, the stories Jesus has been telling in this long narrative of his journey to Jerusalem don’t sound ethereal at all. They are earthy, everyday stories that connect right into regular human lives. It’s once of the central ironies of the Christian life that in order to “love things heavenly,” we must turn toward the dust and dirt of which we are made, and try to envision and build the reign of God.

Today’ gospel is a reminder of a couple of things: when we get anxious about money, status, power, what letters come before or after our name, what kind of car we drive, what brand of clothes we wear; when we get anxious about those things, we end up using our best skills for ourselves alone. It’s also a reminder that in spite of ourselves, we are bathed in grace and forgiveness.

We are called to be shrewd about recognizing grace and sharing it. We are called to love things heavenly, by loving God’s creation, seeking justice for everyone,

Perhaps most importantly, today’s gospel is centered on one action: forgiveness. The manager intends to make his own situation better when he forgives his master’s debtors, but the more he thinks about it, the better it gets: the people who have owed his master more than they’ll ever be able to repay are suddenly going to have their burden lightened, and that’s going to make the master look good, and that’s going to make the master happy, and that means the manager won’t lose his job. Everybody wins. Forgiveness – which is an act, not a feeling – has positive consequences for everyone.

We can get hung up on the undeniable fact that the person in the story who forgives is acting dishonestly and manipulatively, and we’d like to distance ourselves from that kind of behavior. But Jesus chooses his story illustrations carefully, and this one sticks in the memory precisely because it’s outside the boundaries of any conventional morality tale.

Forgiveness and its consequences are central in this gospel and in the story of the prodigal that precedes it. No matter who does the forgiving, it’s going to create ever-widening circles of positive consequences. Forgiveness, Jesus seems to be saying, is the starting point for building the kingdom of God, and of course, this cycle begins with God’s grace toward us. If God kept score, we would be in some serious debt, like the people who owed more than they could pay in today’s gospel. But God’s grace precedes our entire existence, and if we choose to be kingdom-builders, we begin by accepting God’s grace, and extending our own forgiveness to others. There is really no other way to transform our limited sense of tit-for-tat justice into an expansive sense of God’s justice and mercy.

The Good News is today’s gospel isn’t immediately obvious, but it’s there; forgiveness is the engine that drives our journey toward the kingdom, and we who receive it gladly are called to share it freely.

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Written by the Rev. Kay Sylvester
The Rev. Kay Sylvester is the assistant rector at St. Paul’s in Tustin, California. She is a teacher, trainer, retreat leader, and preschool chaplain. Her prior experience includes teaching piano and guitar, and selling volleyball and wrestling equipment.

Child of the light, Pentecost 17, Proper 20 (C) – 2007

[RCL] Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 or Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 79:1-9 or 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

There’s a T-shirt that perhaps you’ve seen. It reads simply: “Love is for losers.” Now probably to the wearer, the phrase is only a humorous expression of teenage angst or rebellion. But set next to today’s gospel reading, it suggests a different view of love, friendship, success, competition, and worth.
If what we value most is wealth and prestige, then love is at best an idle pleasure, and at worst a distraction or an impediment to our struggle to succeed. On the other hand, if what we value most highly is love itself, particularly the godly love that we are to show to all our neighbors, we will be willing to risk, and indeed even to lose, everything for the sake of love.

The steward in Jesus’ parable is after wealth, in any way he can get it. Not content to be a trusted steward managing the household of a wealthy man, he sets out to skim off an extra share of the wealth for himself. Not surprisingly, his employer puts an end to this as soon as the wrongdoing comes to light. The steward, now deprived of his source of income and prestige, runs one last scam in order to buy some goodwill with a few households that are in debt to his former master.

This operation, too, is completely at the master’s expense, and you’d expect him to be doubly furious. Instead, the master commends his dishonest steward for his craftiness. We can only suppose that the master, being a wealthy man, understands only too well the rules of cutthroat business dealings. He doesn’t like being stolen from, but he can still admire the artistry of the crime.

Now there’s no reason to assume that the wealthy man has himself been dishonest. It seems clear, though, that he lives in a world where wealth and prestige are the primary goals. He’s used to a system based around competition for a finite set of goods, so he understands the motivations of his crafty steward, and applauds his cleverness, if not his dishonesty.

That system is the one known to the generation of the “children of this age,” as much now as in Jesus’ time. But what is the alternative that Jesus offers? What new view of the world is illuminated for the “children of light”?

He encourages his disciples to make friends who “may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

In place of the worldly system with its assumption of scarcity, competition, theft, and loss, Jesus proclaims and lives out a new paradigm. The new society of the kingdom of God is a seemingly paradoxical system in which the more that is shared out, the more abundant the source becomes.

A recent issue of Time magazine featured a cover story about Mother Teresa and her long struggle with a sort of spiritual dry spell, one that lasted for many years up until her death. Her confidential letters to her spiritual directors have now been published (against her stated wishes, by the way), and they reveal that she felt, in her own words, “darkness and coldness and emptiness … so great that nothing touches my soul.”

At the same time, Mother Teresa continued to speak and to lead and to teach about serving Jesus by serving the poor and the sick and the downtrodden. In her book Loving Jesus, she wrote:

“If we nourish our lives with the Eucharist,
it will be easy for us to see Christ in that hungry one next door,
the one lying in the gutter,
that alcoholic man we shun,
our husband or our wife, or our restless child.
For in them, we will recognize the distressing disguises of the poor: Jesus in our midst.”
Even as holy a woman as Mother Teresa has not been without her critics, and some have been quick to accuse her of hypocrisy, of preaching a message of love and God’s service in public, while feeling no presence of God in her heart and mind. To “the children of this age,” this seems like crafty duplicity, speech about love while the feeling of love is absent.

Mother Teresa’s continued faith and continued work with the poor and downtrodden, however, speak volumes about her truest convictions and her patience in doing God’s work without hope of personal reward. She treated each person she met as a reflection of Jesus himself, Christ in a “distressing disguise.” In turn, she and her sisters became the image of Christ to those whom they served.

Other critics have suggested that the money donated to the Missionaries of Charity might better have been spent building hospitals, or working for social change to tackle poverty as a whole. The children of this age don’t easily perceive the value in tending to those who are already at death’s door, and who can offer nothing in return. They perceive only a loser’s love, given to losers.

Mother Teresa lived as a child of the light, however, and she was able to offer something that could never be bought, earned, saved, or protected, only given – the sense of dignity and value with which God sees each person. Surely these are the “true riches” of which Jesus speaks. If you “have not been faithful with what belongs to another,” if you have not loved them as an infinitely precious child of God, “who will give you what is your own?” Who will return to you the reflection of your own dignity and worth?

Mother Teresa shows us a new and better way in which love can be for losers. By giving up everything to serve Christ in the poor, she was rewarded by a superabundance of Christ’s love. Perhaps she no longer received the consolation of Jesus in prayer because she had Jesus constantly before her to touch and to tend. And so she lived in a superabundance of love, seeing Christ in all people, and showing forth the image of Christ to all people.

Written by the Rev. Cole Gruberth
The Rev. Cole Gruberth is a recent graduate of General Theological Seminary and a newly ordained deacon. He is an associate rector at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Poway, California.