Monday, September 30, 2013

Our Ministry is Hospitality Not Bookkeeping

Sermon preached at the Church of the Ascension, September 22, 2013, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20C):  Luke 16:1-13

          The question is on everyone’s lips in the old mainline churches such as the Episcopal and the Church of the Ascension:  “How can we turn this around?  What can we do to thrive again?”

          When I was here seven weeks ago I talked to you about the folly of making plans, and the vital importance of honing your values and practicing them ever better.  And I extolled the central biblical value of hospitality.

          Jesus commends another value to us this morning, but it may not be what we expected from him.  He commends the value of “shrewdness.”

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light (v. 8).

          The one thing that any commentator on Luke’s Gospel who has ever lived has agreed upon is that this is the most difficult parable to decipher.  Why does Jesus set up as the hero of the story someone he calls dishonest?  And why does he commend that dishonesty to his disciples as “shrewdness?”

          What is this “shrewdness?”  It’s not a word you usually connect with church or the Christian life.  I imagine none of you have ever bragged to a friend that the Vestry of your church is so shrewd.  Or invited a friend to come to church with you saying, “I think you’ll love people at Ascension. They are so shrewd!”

          It actually can be spun positively as “cunning,” but it began life as a synonym for malicious.  There is even an obsolete English word, “shreward,” meaning “scoundrel.”  So is Jesus suggested we should do well to have an annual “shrewardship drive?”

          So what is this parable about?  Let’s read it through.

          A rich man has charges brought to him that his steward was squandering his property.  We don’t know exactly what that means but it was clearly bad, probably something like extortion.  He demands an accounting from the steward but also fires him.

          The steward is in a quandary. What to do now?  I don’t particularly like to get my hands dirty and I’m too proud to beg.  Then he has an idea, the point, apparently, where he is shrewd.  He wants to see my books, does he?  He thinks I’ve squandered his property does he? He hasn’t seen anything yet!  And this should have the effect of giving me a good reputation with the people and perhaps they will see that I am well taken care of.

          So, instead of finding a way to un-cook the books, he decides to cook them even more.  He calls his master’s debtors in and gives them amazing discounts.  Why some of them end up repaying less than they had borrowed in the first place.

          And then comes the surprise. There’s usually a surprise in Jesus’ parables, and it’s usually where you should look for the meaning.  Jesus says, “And his master commended the dishonest steward because he had acted shrewdly.”

          Now wait just a minute.  The master should have been furious.  He had just lost a great deal of wealth at the hands of the steward, and he had acted to do so without consultation after he had been fired!  He should have had him arrested.

          How did the master, who began the story as a pretty determined bean counter, end the story celebrating the underhanded shrewdness of the manager?

          Why?  Because this is a parable about the radical grace of God. It has immediately followed, with no interruption, three other parables of the grace of God: the shepherd with the lost sheep, the woman with the lost coin, and the story we call the prodigal son, but is really the story of the forgiving father.  Those three parables had been reactions by Jesus to criticism by the religious authorities that he associated with tax collectors and sinners, the wrong kind of people.

          By the time he is through with the prodigal son, you can imagine some in his audience simply increasing their grumbling.  They sided with the elder brother in that story who was furious that his younger brother had been welcomed home to a party rather than a rightful punishment and significant period of earning his way back into the family’s good graces.

          So Jesus goes on to be even more provocative by telling this fourth story, about the dishonest steward.  God has indeed allowed the books to be cooked, and Jesus himself is the cooker.  The announcement could not be clearer.  Salvation by bookkeeping is dead.  The divine bookkeeping department is closed.

          The Church has struggled with that message ever since.  It is hard to believe when you’re in the religion business that you are not also in the bookkeeping business.  And when a piece of the church has acted like its bookkeeping days are over, it usually gets accused of looking like the world, operating like the world.  I have stood before meetings and Councils of the church and been told that my declaration that the bookkeeping is over is a total capitulation to the values of the world.

          But I believe it is a total capitulation to the values of Jesus.  I believe it is simply time for the children of light to be as shrewd in dealing with our current generation as are those whom Jesus called “the children of this age.”

          Which is to say that our message is homecoming not bookkeeping.  If we are going to invite people back into our tradition of Christianity, we need to be clear about two things:

1.    What is it that we are inviting people into?
2.    What is their perception of what we are inviting them into?

To take the second question first, the perception of the vast number of people who these days are frequently called the “nones” (because they check “none” on surveys when it comes to religious preference—and they are the fastest growing religious preference in this country), those folks perceive that what we do inside here is try to keep the books clean for God.  We are bookkeepers who worship the Divine CPA in the sky.  What we are best at is counting sins, especially other peoples.

Their perception is aided by a great deal of the Christian Church who steadfastly believe that Jesus gave the church his ministry of keeping God’s judgment books, even though they know perfectly well that the grumbling about him was that he indiscriminately welcomed sinners and ate with them as if they were not.

          So what is our message?  One of the writers on the New Testament that shaped my thinking was an Episcopal priest named Robert Farrar Capon.  It happens that he died just a couple weeks ago at the good age of 87.  Capon would say, does say, about this parable that the message is that when it comes to judgment, Jesus is a scoundrel.  Here’s what he has to say

This parable…says in story form what Jesus himself said by his life.  He was not respectable.  He broke the Sabbath. He consorted with crooks.  And he died as a criminal….Jesus who winks at iniquity and makes friends of sinners—of us crooks, that i—and of all the losers who could never in a million years go near a God who knew what was expected of himself and insisted on what he expected of others.

You don’t like that?  You think it lowers standards and threatens good order?  You bet it does!  And if you will cast your mind back, you will recall that is exactly why the forces of righteousness got rid of Jesus.  Unfortunately though, the church has never been able for very long to leave Jesus looking like the attractively crummy character he is:  it can hardly resist the temptation to gussy him up into a respectable citizen.  Even more unfortunately, it can almost never resist the temptation to gussy itself up into a bunch of supposedly perfect peaches, too good for the riffraff to sink their teeth into….[But Jesus] is the only mediator and advocate the likes of us will ever be able to trust, because like the unjust steward, he is no less a loser than we are—and like the steward, he is the only one who has even a chance of getting the Lord God to give us a kind word….Thank God we do not have to deal with a just steward.[1]

          Which means for us that our ministry is homecoming not bookkeeping.  Our ministry is hospitality not judgment.  Our ministry is welcoming folks as they are to the table, not insisting that they clean themselves up first.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Grace (Eerdmans, 1988), pp. 150-151.

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