The Awkward Moment

(sermon 9/22/19)

awkward

Luke 16:1-13

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.”

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We’ve probably all been in a situation where we’re in some social gathering and someone is talking, maybe telling a story, and you’re pretty sure you know where the person is going and what they’re going to say before they even say it – but then there’s this awkward moment where they say something completely different. It isn’t at all what you expected; it catches you off guard, and sometimes, depending on what it is that they said, you really aren’t sure how to respond to it. I’m pretty sure that that’s exactly what happened to the people who had gathered around Jesus when he told them this parable, what’s become known as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. Jesus’ audience was almost exclusively people who had grown up within the Jewish faith, and Jewish traditions, and one of the fascinating recurring themes in the Hebrew scriptures, and therefore, of our own, is the concept of the Trickster – usually, the trickster is someone who has been the victim of an injustice, who uses their wits and their creativity to come up with a way to get justice from their oppressor through deceit and trickery. As just one example, Tamar, in the Book of Genesis, would be an example of the trickster in the way she used trickery to get justice from her father-in-law, Judah. Jacob played the part of the trickster in a number of stories; so did David, and a host of others. Whoever it was, and whatever the circumstances, there are many biblical stories of a trickster obtaining what they want over against an opponent who was more powerful and unbeatable using conventional means. In these Even when they were seriously breaking the rules and norms or society, the trickster was always highly regarded, the hero or heroine of the story, because they provided validation. They offered the hope that a powerless person, or a powerless people, as the Jews have been many times in history, could still triumph over their more powerful oppressors.

So Jesus’ listeners were totally familiar and comfortable with a story that would be about a trickster who used deceit and intelligence to correct an injustice. But as Jesus tells this trickster story, his listeners heard something very different. They had their own awkward moment. In this story, we hear about a manager who uses trickery and deceit for a very different purpose.

In the way that most of us have heard this story, and we’ve all heard it many times, it seems really jarring. Unfair. Completely at odds with what we’ve probably been taught to expect Jesus to say.

Let’s take the story apart for a moment. The characters in the story are the rich man, his manager, and a group of people who are in debt to the rich man. When we think about the story from the viewpoint of the rich man – and as people of relative financial comfort and well-being ourselves, we often do – the manager’s actions were obviously, clearly unfair and unethical. The manager was giving away debts that people owed to him; how could that be right? Many biblical commentators have suggested that the rich man was dishonest, and was cheating his debtors, so when the manager cut the bills, he was only adjusting them to what they should realistically have been. Other people have suggested that the manager essentially worked on commission, getting a percentage of each of the transactions, and that he wasn’t really giving away any of the rich man’s money, only the money that would have been his. There have been any number of similar explanations to get the manager, and by extension, Jesus, off the hook for what he says in the story. Personally, I like looking at stories from multiple angles, and using imagination to fill in gaps to come up with creative ways of looking at and understanding them. But I’ve got to say that as valuable a tool as that can often be, I don’t really buy any of those explanations in this case. And I’ll be honest; I’ve preached on this text before offering up explanations similar to the ones I just mentioned. But for some reason, when I read the story this time around, I heard it differently. As I read it again this time, I thought that those explanations were a stretch with little of no evidence to support them, and that I think end up denying or at least obscuring a couple of points that I think Jesus was really trying to make.

The first of those points has to do with Jesus’ comment to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” That might just be the most jarring comment Jesus is ever recorded as saying anywhere in the gospels. Unless… unless Jesus was speaking from the standpoint of understanding that in some way or another, *all* wealth is somehow inherently dishonest. Now bear with me here; I’m not losing my mind, and I’m not suggesting we all stop trying to earn a living or working for financial stability, far from it. But I don’t really think it’s a stretch to admit that, no matter how personally ethical or socially responsible we might be in how we earn and spend our money, somewhere in the grand, overall web of interrelated economic transactions that ultimately result in our income, our wealth, there have been, and continue to be, dishonest practices, unethical dealings, unjust treatment of people in order to maximize profit, at any number of places along the way, and in both past and present. And no matter how aware and careful we are, or what retail stores  we might not shop at, or whose chicken sandwiches we won’t eat, or what brands we avoid for unethical business practices, even though it’s good to do all of those things, none of us can ever really, completely avoid it. All of our income is ethically tainted in some way or another, and we really ought to admit it. It’s inescapable. Unavoidable. It’s just a reality of living life on this side of the gates of Eden. So now maybe Jesus’ words don’t sound so harsh, if those words are based on his presumption of that reality. Of course, then, we’re called as Christ-followers, to use that “dishonest” wealth to pursue the principles of the kingdom of God. So that’s point one.

As important as that point is, though, I think the second point is even more important. Maybe the biggest difficulty that we have with this parable is that we’re looking at the situation through the wrong person’s eyes. Maybe we need to have an awkward moment of another kind, one where we realize that instead of looking at it through the eyes of the rich man, or the manager, maybe Jesus intended the story to be heard from the viewpoint of the people who owed those debts to the rich man. I mean, really, the odds are that the people who were listening to him that day were a lot more likely to have been debt-owing poor people than rich ones. And if you’re one of the debtors in the story, wouldn’t it sound wonderful to have big chunks of your debt erased? Not because you didn’t really owe the debt, you did, but for some reason completely out of your control and not because you actually did anything to earn it, to just be taken off the hook for it? Imagine if you woke up one morning and discovered that somebody had just paid off half your mortgage, or your student debt, or your credit card bill, for no reason at all, and no strings attached – just because. A complete gift. Clearly, someone who’d had a person do that for them would be very grateful, and very loyal to the person who’d given them that gift, just as the debtors in the story were grateful to the manager. Well I hope it doesn’t seem too offensive, but I think that of we look at this story from that angle, the character that we’ve come to call the “Dishonest Manager” is actually a representative of Christ himself.

Simply put, I think that what Jesus is trying to teach in this story is the concept grace. The manager extends grace, unearned mercy, to the debtors, and for doing so, the rich man is pleased with the manager, in spite of the fact that it would seem illogical for him to do so. And Jesus extends a similar kind of unearned mercy to us, and God is pleased with him for having done so – causing reconciliation by way of unilaterally forgiving a debt owed. And Jesus instructs his listeners to extend that same kind of unearned mercy to others, and that it’s the extension of this kind of grace to others, through whatever means we have available to us – “dishonest wealth” or otherwise – and that that pleases God.

Now, I realize that looking at this parable in that way has its limitations. Like any parable, it isn’t a perfect one-to-one analogy, and it can certainly be stretched too far. I realize that God was never upset with Jesus, like the rich man was with the manager, and I know Jesus wasn’t extending grace to debtors in order to feather his own nest, like the manager in the story did. And I know that we don’t teach that Jesus came to take away fifty percent of the sins of the world, or twenty percent, like the manager in the story did, but all of them. Still, I think the most important thing we can all do is listen to this story, to really hear it, from the standpoint of the debtors. Because don’t we pray, every Sunday morning, that that’s exactly what we are in the eyes of God? “Forgive us our debts…”? And if we really think that we are debtors to God, then this parable shouldn’t make us feel awkward – in fact, maybe it should be our favorite parable of all.

Thanks be to God

Where You Got Your Shoes At (sermon 9/18/16)

nice-sneakers

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.”

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A number of years ago my cousin and I were visiting my younger brother, who was living in Atlanta at the time. While we were there, we were doing a little sightseeing downtown, and as we were, we kept getting hit up by panhandlers. It seemed like every fifty feet, someone was hitting us up for money – a dollar here, spare change there, another dollar over there. It was really getting to be a bit much, when at one point a panhandler came up to us and tried to strike up a conversation. We kept trying to get away from him, but he was persistent, following us, and he started telling my cousin, “Hey man, how’s it going? Hey, those are some really nice shoes you got! Yes sir, those are some really nice shoes!” My cousin thanked him, and the guy said, “Yeah, you know, you can’t get a nice pair of shoes like that just anywhere. … Hey, you know what? I bet you I can tell you where you got your shoes at!” We kept trying to get away from him, but he was persistent: “I’ll bet you… I’ll bet you five dollars I can tell you where you got your shoes at!” Now, my cousin knew that he’d bought the shoes at a store in Columbus, and there was no way this guy could know where they came from, so finally, just to shut him up, my cousin said “All right, all right – I’ll take that bet!” And at that, the panhandler said, “You got those shoes… on your feet… on the sidewalk… at the corner of 15th and Peachtree… in Atlanta Georgia! And you know I’m right! Now, you’re a fair man, you gotta pay up, come on, pay up!” And we all laughed, and my cousin gave him the money, because even though he knew he’d been had, it was worth it for the entertainment and the sheer creativity of the guy’s con.

Every time I read this story of the Dishonest Manager, I think about that day in Atlanta, because I think there’s something similar going on here. Sometimes we might scratch our heads wondering why the boss in the story – and by implication, Jesus – might compliment his crooked manager, who was clearly robbing him blind. He was commending him not for the con, but for the ingenuity and creativity behind it.

There’s an interesting theme that runs through the scriptures, Old Testament and New, and that’s the idea of honoring and respecting the “trickster”, and this story is just another example of the theme. The trickster is a person who leverages deception, guile, all the resources available to them, in order to achieve their goals – usually, the goal of obtaining justice from some more powerful oppressor. It shows up in story after story in the scriptures. We don’t have time to list them all here this morning, but I’ll bet that if you thought about it for just a moment or two, you’d remember a number of those stories.

Now, in most of these cases, it’s clear that the trickster actually has the moral high ground, and that they’re being treated unjustly, so it’s easy for us to cheer them on. In this particular story, the trickster – the manager – clearly doesn’t have that same moral high ground, so it’s true, we’re a bit more uneasy about appreciating his ingenuity.

But despite the particular details of the story, I think Jesus’ real point is the same: understand and appreciate the resources that you have available to you, that you’ve been entrusted with, and use them wisely and creatively to achieve your goals. Now I’m sure that Jesus would be the first to point out that those goals should be to further the Kingdom of God, and to live as a member of that Kingdom; and something like the far less honorable goal that the manager in the story had, but the idea is the same.

And yes, this is particularly true when it comes to our financial resources. Jesus drives that point home very clearly in his ultimate punchline in this story, that a person can’t serve both God and money. He’s definitely talking about money here.

But it’s also clear that he isn’t talking only about money. It’s about all that we have at our fingertips, and whether we’re using them to the best of our abilities in order to advance God’s will in this world.

A lot of us often struggle with a deep-seated concern that our lives actually have some meaning beyond ourselves. What’s our place in the grand scheme of things? Do we even matter? From the standpoint of us as followers of Jesus, that’s simply a way of saying that we have a deep-seated need to know whether we’re known and loved by God. I think that a big part of resolving that deep need within us is to recognize the good news embedded in this story. There is some good news in here for us, even if you can only see it sideways, peripherally, in Jesus’ words. That good news is found in the fact that Jesus is saying these things to his disciples, and by extension, to us, from the understanding that we aren’t outsiders trying to earn God’s love – but rather, we’re already insiders. We’re in the club, as it were. That God does indeed love us and accept us. We don’t have to worry about that question; it’s asked and answered. God has told us without question where we got our shoes at – we got our shoes on our feet, in the middle of the street, at the corner of Here-and-Now and Eternity, in the Kingdom of God. And now that we don’t have to stress over that question any more, we’re free to consider how, in a spirit of gratitude, and even joy, we can use the fullness of all that God has provided us with in order to advance this Kingdom that we’re part of.

Holly was a client of my architectural firm, way back in the day. She was a project manager for a large development and construction firm based in New York City; she was based in the company’s Manhattan headquarters. She’d been assigned to be the company’s project manager for a major new development they were involved in in Columbus, a very large project that my firm had a very tiny piece in, but that’s how I met her. Just before this assignment, Holly had managed the complete renovation of Madison Square Garden. She was an extremely knowledgeable, gifted, talented woman in what was, and what remains, a predominantly male environment, and I’ve got to say that I’ve never met anyone who was her professional equal. Holly knew her stuff. She could be as tough as nails; She was hard driving and hard driven. She was fair, but she wasn’t going to put up any unjustified crap from anyone. During the time we worked together, she became one of my favorite and most respected clients. She also became a good friend.

Then, something happened. I don’t know if it was just time for a change for personal reasons, or if it was burnout from working at the fast pace at that rarified level of the industry, or if she just got tired of fighting the challenges of commuting in and out of the city every day. I never wanted to pry, but I always wondered if it was partly because she’d last a close family member in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Whatever the reason, or reasons, she took her life in a different direction. She left the construction world, and she began working with various charities. Coordinating disaster relief efforts in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Working to help veterans through the Wounded Warriors project. And a number of other extremely worthwhile efforts helping others. And in all of them she used the considerable gifts and talents that God blessed her with, using them with creativity and ingenuity to achieve as much as she possibly could, in order to advance God’s work in the here and now. Holly matters. And whether she knows it or not, she’s also one of my heroes.

What has God gifted you with? What are the skills, the talents, the gifts that you’ve been blessed with? In our Reformed tradition, we believe that we’re *all* called to some form of ministry as God’s people. And those gifts are the resources that God has given us, and wants us to put to good use, in our own personal ministry, whatever that might be – clearly to put them to better use than the dishonest manager did, with just as much determination and creativity.

My friend Holly does what she does with her life because she knows where she got her shoes at. Since we know where we got our shoes at too, let’s all think about how we can best move those shoes down the street, together, as the people of God.

Thanks be to God.