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.

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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.