Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The sermon from last week in which I try to explain the hardest parable in the Bible

Sermon for Proper 20C
Luke 16:1-13

I hardly do anything that my preaching professor taught me.
He said, “Don’t self-disclose! Nobody wants to hear about your wife, your vacation, or the cute things your kids say.” Of course, I talk about my family all the time in sermons. He says, don’t preach yourself, preach the gospel! I agree with that in sentiment and principle but the truth is, the gospel lands somewhere and that somewhere is me and it’s you.
There is one thing that my professor taught me that I actually grudgingly accept. He taught us that we must always preach the hardest text. The lectionary gives us four readings every week: the Old Testament, the Psalm, the New Testament epistle and then a reading from the Gospels. So typically I will heed my professor’s injunction to preach the hard texts because it is the hard texts that you, the congregation, are wondering about.
Which brings us to the gospel. One writer that I consulted this week about this text said that today’s reading is the weirdest story in the gospels. And I’d agree whole-heartedly. Let’s dive in and see what sticks and catches, what’s tough and hard to understand.
The whole passage seems to be divided between the parable that Jesus tells and then his comment on it. He tells the story of a rich man who has heard some rumors about some mismanagement of his property by the man he hired to manage it. So he summons the manager and says, “What’s this I hear about you? Show me your books, because you’re about to be fired!”
The manager then goes on to hatch a scheme, he goes to those who owe the master and he essentially cooks the books. He makes their debts smaller, for one he cuts it in half, for another he also gives a huge reduction. The manager says that his motivations are basically to win friends and influence people so that when he gets canned he’ll have made some friends, who I suppose can help him out later.
Now, let’s pause here for a minute because everybody wants to argue about what the exact financial arrangements were. Was the manager not so much cooking the books as uncooking them? You see, back then it was common practice among the tax collectors to collect the required tax and then add a little more to the top for their own benefit. Was the manager doing something like this? Maybe.
Or maybe the manager was cheating his boss. Maybe since he knew he was caught in a bind and in no way would be keeping his job, he decided to buy some favors and friends with money that wasn’t his. Maybe he was counting on losing his job so he thought he’d seal the deal with this underhanded deal; you know, in for a penny in for a pound!
Whatever the reason for his actions, one of the more vexing parts of this passage is that the master commends this behavior and Jesus seems to in some way as well.
What’s going on here? The manager is a hero of sorts in the story and the master embraces him for his shrewdness. It is indeed strange. Are we to applaud and emulate the manager for undoing the usury that he had been engaged in? Are we meant to look to the manager as a paragon of virtue as he buys friends with money that isn’t his?
Let’s have Jesus clear this whole thing up. Take it away Jesus: “I tell you, make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
It’s more than a little confusing because it doesn’t sound very Christian. Is Jesus saying that we should be manipulative and cheat? Is he saying that we should be like those in the world?
Well, he kind of is. It turns out that this manager, this “Saint Shyster,”as I call him, may have a thing or two to teach us. I think the point of this whole story is that Jesus is taking us to the side and saying, “Look, I’ve been doing a lot of talking about lost sheep, and coins and sons, it’s all about the economy of the Kingdom of God. This economy of God stuff is upside down. God will come after you and all kinds of other people, no matter the cost. It’s not fair. It is actually unfair and gratuitous how gracious God is, you will be offended, offended! at how loving and forgiving God can be.” “But,” Jesus seems to be saying, “the Kingdom of God is not here fully yet. I don’t want you children of light to be caught unawares.”
You see, Jesus is showing us that the gospel does indeed land somewhere. The gospel lands in the world, in our world. This invasion by God of history and our lives lands right here, and it’s alien. And then each of us has to figure out how this life will now look. And Jesus doesn’t want us to be naïve about it. He wants us to have open eyes, without the rose-colored glasses.
Jesus says, go ahead and be smart with the ways of the world. Get some friends by those means. It’s ok.
But he doesn’t leave it there; Jesus gives us a stark reminder that the money will be gone. He says today, “when it is gone,” not if it is gone, but when. Jesus knows that it’s not about the money, that stuff is fleeting. But go ahead and know how to use it, get some friends.
It’s funny; it’s not necessarily the ends justifying the means but the ends justifying a new end: the friends who will welcome us into the eternal homes.
This might be the key to our beginning to understand this parable: all this talk of cheating and cooking the books, friends and eternity, homes and hating. Maybe, just maybe, this is Jesus’ way of telling us that this gospel-life, this Jesus-living is a messy business. It is never a once and for all affair. Instead, our discipleship to Jesus is a daily encounter with honest and dishonest wealth, with a million little ethical dilemmas. If the devil is in the details, you can be assured that Jesus is also in the details of how we live, how we buy, how we sell, how we relate to those we love and those we don’t.
The money is going to be here, and then it will be gone. It’s a symbol of our common life, and that’s why Jesus says to make friends by it. And we do.
Look; I’ve been to your houses. I’ve been to the swim meets and the scout meetings. You all are friends. I’d bet the majority of you are here because you have made friends first and then were invited to Saint John’s. And that is good. This is how Saint John’s has grown over the years. And this is precisely what Jesus is talking about. The money and the sociability is a means to friends but those friends are now the means to the larger end of being the Church. Of being that beloved community that is engaged in the work of justice and peace, and reconciliation and love. We were made friends first by our social standing and common neighborhoods and swim teams and the PTA, but now; wow, now we find ourselves at this table.
How did we get here? You were just some guy I played tennis with.
How did we get here? You were just a lady I met at book club who offered me chardonnay.
How did we get here, you were just on my soccer team and asked me if I wanted to go to something called EYC.
How did we get here? Now; now we are gathered at this table where the most unusual prayer is said, where it describes this other world where God is breaking through to show us what reality has been all along: a creation that is not broken or in strife but is loved and loving, where there is enough for everyone and we are all made whole in God’s widening embrace.
Here we are, a people brought together by dishonest wealth, but that wealth has brought us friends. And we friends are surprised to find that God had a lot more in store for us here, because we are a lot more than friends, we are fellow travelers on this road, even more than that, we are siblings in the family of God.
Huh! I thought this reading was tough. Turns out that it’s not so bad after all; this life following Jesus can be hard, but it’s not all hard, after all, I’ve got you to help me: my friends.

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