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.

Outside the Lines (sermon 9/22/13)

Image

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

*****

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.