Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 20C] - September 22, 2013 (Luke 16:1-13)

There is always something peculiar—something a little “off”—about each one of the parables Jesus tells. The parables we heard in our lessons last week about the lost sheep and the lost coin are peculiar because of the way the seeker reacts when the object is found. What kind of shepherd that you know throws a party for lost sheep? And who invites neighbors over after finding a lost coin? We could go through each every parable that Jesus tells in the gospels and figure out what makes it odd, but this parable really takes the cake. Depending on which version of the Bible you’re reading, it may bear the title of the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, or the Parable of the Unjust Steward or the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. Regardless of which name you prefer for it, you have to admit it is one of the more complex and altogether strange stories that Jesus tells.

It’s hard to see at first why Jesus lifts up the actions of this rogue businessman as actions that are somehow worth imitating. First, he is accused of squandering someone else’s money, a charge we have to take seriously because he doesn’t defend himself. In other places—namely, the parable Jesus tells immediately before this one, the Parable of the Prodigal Son—people who squander property are not used as good examples. Secondly, when his job is put on the line, he does nothing to rectify the situation with his master. He doesn’t say, “Look. You’re correct. I repent. Let me work extra hard to make this right.” Lastly, he takes advantage of his master one final time by slashing the amounts people owe his master by significant margins! Caring nothing for the amount with which he was entrusted, he comes up with a plan that makes him sound selfish and self-centered. Carelessness, dishonesty, “me-first” thinking: it’s difficult to imagine how his actions could be seen as examples of living in God’s kingdom of righteousness. At yet, at the end, Jesus seems to use his behavior as a positive example for his disciples and other children of his light!

If you’re having a tough time understanding what is happening in this parable, you’re not alone. This parable has long stood as one of the most puzzling stories in the entire New Testament. Perhaps it might help if we were to re-tell the scenario of the Shrewd Manager with a contemporary feel:

The CEO of a national retail chain got wind that the franchise manager of one of his local stores had been grossly underperforming. The ledger sheets showed losses that might never be recouped made by consistently poor business judgment and lackluster marketing and advertising. The CEO calls the franchise manager on the phone and says that at year’s end he’s out of a job. He’ll be finding someone else to take over the store. The manager hangs up the phone and immediately starts to think about what he’s going to do to polish up his resume so that when the year is out and he is terminated he’ll be have something to show potential future employers. He remembers that people spend a lot more money at the holidays than at any other time of the year. So, even though it’s mid-September, he gets his store clerks to pull out all of the Christmas decorations and put them on the floor. Christmas trees, life-size snowmen, strings of twinkling lights…even though school has barely started, it may just work. People might grumble a bit (especially a few pastors who worry about the over-commercialization of Christmas) but deep inside they’ll be spurred to start their shopping.

And then the manager starts to think about the day after Thanksgiving: everyone’s sitting around, off-work, and with nothing to do. Why not open the stores even a little earlier this year and offer shoppers crazy discount offers? Sure, store security will be a mess. There’ll be people running all over each other for killer deals, but in the end it’ll win customers over.  And the fiscal year’s bottom line? In the black! The ledger books will look amazing, the brand’s name will be associated with clever marketing—it may even help him get back in his boss’s good graces. But if he has to apply for another job elsewhere, he’s now got a record that will more than get his foot in the door.

No matter where you stand on Christmas decorations in September or Black Friday extravaganzas, you have to admit they are clever methods to the real-world problem of being in the red. Those marketers and managers are brilliant. And no matter whether you find this manager’s business practices dishonest or unjust, you have to admit he is shrewd in dealing with his situation. That is, he senses the urgency of what he’s going through—that he is about to face a new reality of unemployment—and it causes his creativity to kick into gear. It causes him to begin thinking about creating a new future by putting himself in the debt of people who owe his master great amounts. By slashing their bills by up to a half, he creates a group of people who, in the way ancient middle eastern culture works, will now feel obliged to take care of him in some way.

Yes, an odd story, but Jesus tells it because he wants his disciples to understand that they are facing a new reality, too. That new reality is the life of discipleship in Jesus’ name. That new reality that God is turning the world upside down in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That which was lost has now been found. The last will be first. The poor will be satisfied and the rich sent away empty.

Whatever you may think these things mean for Jesus’ disciples, at least one thing should rise to mind: this is not a reality to be squandered mindlessly nor it is a vision of the future into which we just mindlessly coast. Just as the manager senses a change coming and reacts to it in a way that helps further his cause, so should Jesus’ followers sense an urgency about the moment…so should Jesus’ followers feel OK about using some worldly wisdom and human cleverness about advancing the cause of the gospel. We can ask ourselves in each moment: what does it mean for me or for us right now that Christ, who was crucified, is now risen and Lord of all? What does it mean for me in this moment that I am dead in sin—no future of which to speak—but yet Christ has claimed me and made me alive?

Like the manager in the parable, we are so often good at responding to our own personal crises with creativity and cleverness. The store manager who pushes Christmas shopping season a little forward each year is using what resources he’s been given to respond to his own call as salesman. Why not apply these skills to the life of faith? Why not become shrewd and resourceful with all that God has entrusted to us as if our livelihood depended on it?

There is a Youtube video thatmakes the rounds every now and then called, “What if Starbucks marketed like the church?” It is a parable that pokes fun at the way congregations often end up turning off more newcomers than they attract without realizing it. Today’s parable might be re-written as “What if the Church marketed like a Starbucks?” Look at what they’d done with the Pumpkin Spice Latte. Very shrewd. It’s everywhere! What if the church had the whole world believing they couldn’t get through their day without Jesus? Are there any other successful practices followed by the world—business or otherwise— that could help Jesus’ followers in their mission?

Speaking of urgency, I get the sense that there is a real urgency among many of you about the call of a new senior pastor for this congregation. There is an energy, a pulse of mission and purpose within many of your conversations, along with an anxious desire that things move along faster or in a different way. We can assure you that people are working diligently and thoughtfully as they tend to that process. But the question from the odd-parable teller today reaches a little farther: how are you as a congregation and as individuals of faith sensing a similar urgency about your mission in general? Can you bottle that urgency about your staffing situation and administer it somehow to the overall work of sharing the love of God in your daily life? Are you shrewdly using the resources you’ve already been given to adapt to a kingdom that is graciously turning this world on its head?

Whoever is faithful in little is faithful in much, and much is precisely what you’ve received in Jesus Christ. Forgiveness of sins…unconditional love…compassion, wisdom, courage, and other gifts of the Spirit…the communion and fellowship of other believers…life eternal…these are just a few of the true riches with which we may say we’ve been entrusted. It is this Lord who senses the value in our lives and whose death upon the cross slashes all of our debts so that we may be made truly rich.

For, to our surprise, it is not only the parables that are a little odd, but it is those who listen to them and are transformed by them.  In the end, it is not just the characters and lessons that are a little peculiar (this shepherd, that manager) but those who are brought in line with the God who brings dead things to life, those who are claimed by a God who always seeks out the lost and is overjoyed when they are found. These folk seem a little out of place at times…for their witness and their faith in God’s new reality. They are like, dare I say, Christmas decorations in the middle of a September world—or they are like the clever manager who shrewdly puts them there—signs that there is not just one master in this universe, but rather only one master worth serving.

It is the only master who gives himself as ransom for us all.



Thanks be to God!


The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 17C] - September 1, 2013 (Luke 14:1, 7-14)

At our staff meeting this past week, our visitation pastor, Tom Bosserman, kindly requested that we remind the congregation that there is still time to sign-up to participate in one of the Epiphany Supper Clubs. This ministry of fellowship, which has been going on for several years now, for whatever reason has been attracting fewer and fewer participants in the last several go-rounds. The way the supper clubs work is relatively simple: Pastor Bosserman groups three or four couples or singles together and they arrange among themselves, via email, the dates that each couple or single will take turns hosting a meal for the others in the group. When Melinda and I first arrived at Epiphany about 4 ½ years ago, we signed up to be assigned to a Supper Club group and found it a wonderful way to get to know people in the congregation. I can still remember our first supper club group: we were with the Wakes, the Bridges, and the Cards. At first I worried whether we would fit in. We were the only family whose name wasn’t a common noun. But, of course, it turned out to be excellent.

The act of sitting around a table in someone else’s home, eating food that they have prepared from their own recipe books provides the opportunity to connect with people on a much deeper level than Sunday morning conversation does. You learn all kinds of interesting things—meaningful and funny family stories, shared interests and experiences—when you break bread with one another. They become, quite literally, your companions; in fact, that’s where the word companion comes from. “Companion” means, “break bread with,” and for ages that has been marker of one’s status and identity. To our knowledge, in Jesus’ day there were not individual place settings. To eat, people literally passed bread around the table and broke off a portion for themselves.

Who would you call a companion? Who will you let into your house and eat around your table? Who will you make time for in your busy schedule to clean the house and put a special pot roast in the oven? Only blood relatives? Close friends and neighbors? Maybe you could expand that to people with whom you worship who sit a few pews back from you?

Table companionship has always been a big deal. We can see that in the gospel stories about Jesus, including this story today which features him yet again as a guest in a prominent Pharisee’s house. Jesus raises a lot of eyebrows for his choice of table companions. Usually we think of Jesus as eating with the tax collectors and other riff-raff that no one wanted to be associated with, but in reality Jesus shared bread with everyone, and that also included the well-to-do.

You see, eating together in people’s homes was part of what bound the culture together in Jesus’ day. If Pastor Bosserman had been floating his idea of a supper club to them, he wouldn’t have had to send out any reminders for people to sign up because they were constantly hosting parties or dinners and coming up with guest lists. But they, however, were not necessarily looking for friendly conversation. Hosts were trying to accomplish something for themselves. In short, people displayed their social rank and perceived influence by having people over to their table for fellowship with the expectation that they would be invited back or repaid in some way. It was how people worked their way up in society, how they established social networks and kept undesirables at the bottom of things. Honor and dignity were traded back and forth through this system of table companionship and woe to the person whose invitation to dinner was not eventually reciprocated in some way!

In characteristic fashion, Jesus turns all this on its head. He sees the guests at the Pharisee’s table fully participating in another supper club of the self-important. And notice what he does: he tells the people who actually have power to use it by sitting down at the bottom seat. It will dismantle the whole system. His instructions echo the song that his mother sang at his conception, Jesus reminds his Pharisee host that God “has scattered the proud…and lifted up the lowly” (Luke 1:51-52). God’s kingdom does not operate by these rules of who is in and who is out, who gets to sit in positions of honor and who is down there by the kids’ table. Some scholars believe that the root word for Pharisee is “to separate,” and that is precisely what Pharisees were known for: separating the clean from the defiled, the places of honor from the places of disrepute, the true table companion from the outcast…the water fountains for this race, perchance, from the water fountains for that race.

We know, at heart, we still like to separate things and people—we still are apt to assign seats in our lives to people who eventually can do something for us, who can reflect onto our character something we might not be capable of generating for ourselves. I think that’s why Dr. Martin Luther King’s words from a half a century ago this week still captivate so many of us. While his dream does, like those of so many prophets, call us to a better vision of God’s creation, they also remind us of our own tendency to “Pharisee;” that is, to position ourselves among God’s other children according to honor and shame and to let our opinions of ourselves define us a little too much. A little self-esteem is OK, I suppose, but we are prone to take it a little too far in many cases.

In God’s kingdom, which begins in earnest at the foot of the cross, we receive our true esteem and the only sense of honor that will ever really matter. As he hangs there, we see the full extent of our pride and sinfulness—that our grab for the seats of honor, the seats at the front of the bus, the seats near those who can repay us in some way, only end up tearing all of us apart. But at the cross we also see that he is willing to use his power and stoop to the lowest position possible in order to share God’s bread with us. He is willing to suffer in order that we may be a companion at his table in his kingdom forever along with everyone else that somehow gets “Phariseed” out in this world because they really have no way of repaying us.

During the servant trip to West Virginia last month, the youth group was given the task one evening to host a free meal for anyone in the city who wanted to come. They made the food—grilled hot dogs and hamburgers, chicken and rice casserole, barbecue and various salads and side dishes—and, because the weather was so nice, spread it all out nicely on large tables under the early evening sunshine. The place where we were staying was on the side of a steep hill, an abandoned old school building whose property literally perched over the downtown of Logan. From the main courtyard where during the week we had played countless games of foursquare with the neighborhood children, and where we had set up this banquet, we could look down and see right into the streets of the town that the declining coal industries had left desolate years before. A patch of grass sloped off rather steeply from this courtyard area and stopped at a sharp drop-off that was bordered by a chained-link fence that had stopped a loose foursquare ball from bouncing all the way down to Main Street many times before.

When the youth had finally assembled all the items for the buffet line, I heard Rachel Bracken, one of our own youth, tell Matthew von Schmidt-Pauli to go down to that chain-link fence and shout out into the city “Free dinner for anyone who wants to come!” Matthew looked at her like she was crazy. I think we all just expected that people had already received the invitation. “Just go do it,” she ordered. I’ve learned that people listen to Rachel. Matthew obeyed.

I watched as he leaned over the fence and shouted out over the rooftops of the city. And then we watched as people began to “come up higher,” climbing the hill to form a line for the supper. They were the homeless of Logan. They were the neighborhood children of the Kids Club we had hosted all week. Some had brought their parents, but most were still alone. Many of the adults seemed alone and shy around us. They were in need of showers and cleaning up, an opportunity that was often offered to them on Thursday evenings, but was unavailable that particular time. Eventually there was some mixing and mingling and some integrated action on the foursquare court.

We were just there for one night on one week during one summer, but there is a congregation there who does that every Thursday evening throughout the year. They host a meal for the people who can’t pay for what they’re going to eat and who can’t really repay in any worldly way. But although those guests won’t repay us for what did that Thursday evening, don’t think we weren’t blessed. Don’t think it for a minute. We were blessed with companions who were kind and grateful and full of interesting stories and conversation. We were blessed with not having to feel we owed them anything or we were owed anything back. We were blessed the vision of a meal that Jesus promises, the meal at the end of all these meals we host and share in this life…the meal for which this bread and wine is a foretaste. We were blessed with the breaking down of Pharisee boundaries that constrict us so. And we were blessed with the persistence of Rachel and Matthew, who wanted to make sure that invitation got out, that the city knew there was a feast to be had.

I don’t know, maybe Pastor Bosserman could get Rachel and Matthew to advertise this next round of supper Club! Come to think of it, maybe the church and the Lord’s Table could use more Rachels who understand the value of what God has laid before us and will announce to a separated world that there is a feast to be had. No need to repay. It’s all taken care of: “This is my body. Given for you.” Outcasts—if you feel that term applies to you—may stand first in line. You’re companions now. There is a feast to be had.


Thanks be to God!



The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.