When It's Shrewd to Cancel a Debt, Sermon 09.17.2010

When It's Shrewd to Cancel a Debt, Sermon 09.17.2010

Amos 8:4-7 and Luke 16:1-13. Preached at Old First Reformed UCC by the Rev. Michael W. Caine.

People tell me with frightening frequency that they don’t… can’t believe in the Bible. Not you all so much, but sometimes! Usually other people, in situations, God forgive me, when I’m not thinking all that much about the Bible– like when the dental hygenist is working in my mouth with that little, sharp instrument.

Maybe it’s because I am a minister, and presuming I have this “unswerving, blind faith,” they feel driven either to confess their sinfulness or to puncture my naivety (the difference between the two seems to be whether or not they had a catholic school education).

Funny thing is, if I understod the Bilble like they often do, I’d usually be in total agreement with them. I wouldn’t believe it either.

Perhaps you have as many people saying something similar to you. Because finally it’s about how many people actually find the Bible, or what they believe it says, or how it’s used problematic…

That’s the most likely explanation when you consider how many of us who are in church regularly, how many of us who call ourselves “faithful,” “followers,” “believers,” Christians,” (however we might describe ourselves)… how many of us take issue with this or that about Scripture. The difference may be, that appreciating that the Bible adds something to our lives, we’re freer to overlook the problematic parts.

I mean, let’s be honest (we are in church afterall), how many of us regularly turn the other cheek when someone literally or figuratively strikes us. And have you walked the second mile for the person who did your wrong in the first mile.

I bet most of us can think of a time or two. But, living in a dog eat dog world, I bet we can empathize with folks who find the Bible hard to swallow. We know there’s times when we’ve got a bit more wary, less willing to be hurt, manipulated or misled again.

And how do we respond when the Bible starts talking about our pocketbooks and our checkbooks. Even if it seems only to say, “Make money serve something bigger than yourself, rather than enslaving yourself to it.” I wonder, are church folks more generous than the “non-biblical folks”?

Finally, if you remember how many more people aren’t in church than are… It’s a wonder that the Bible isn’t sort of like Rodney Dangerfield, carping “I don’t get no respect.”

Maybe there’s just a whole bunch of people all around us in whose experience the Bible is nothing more than hard to swallow.

This morning’s parable about the Dishonest Steward has always been one of my problems with the Bible. Not my only problem mind you, but let’s stick to today’s topic.

Is Jesus really praising a cheat? Dishonesty as a means of feathering your own nest or saving your own skin?

Are our role models to be corporate captains of industry who device ways to walk away with millions — without regard to the company, the stockholders or the public good? “Quick, you’re about to lose your multi-million dollar a year job, grab a gazillion dollar bonus; maybe no one will miss the corporate lear jet; and clear out the office supply cabinet too– run off with all you can…” Sadly, it seems like a real-life Wall Street parable through this last economic downturn. The poor hurt more and more. The middle class are getting pinched. And the rich are getting richer.

But I have to admit, Jesus’ parable of the Dishonest Steward really doesn’t make much more sense to me than Wall Street’s. Never has.

I figure maybe Jesus used this story, one, possibly, his contemporaries already were familiar with to make a clear, almost unforgettable point.

…Almost unforgettable, because somehow, along the line, in transmission, after Jesus first spoke it, as it was passed down by memory and word of mouth, until it got written down on paper and incorporated in the canon, the parable seems to have gotten garbled or at least lost the unforgettableness of its clarity!

To make matters worse, it picked up, along the way, a couple of competing editorial comments. Imagine, you’ve inherited this sacrosanct saying of Jesus, but it doesn’t make much sense. So whether you are some biblical storytellers or redactor of the canon, without realizing you are taking editorial license, you add on at the end an interpretive line, almost an aside. Actually, it looks to me as if there may be four different, even contradictory interpretive lines at the end of the parable.

Continuing in my confessional mode: I’ve peached the parable before, mostly from one of the concluding interpretive phrases. Or according to this commentary or that interpretation. But I’ve never even completely convinced myself.

If our task with Scripture is to understand not only what Jesus meant to tell his original hearers, but also what God means for us to hear today, was I… can we… with this story, reach our Mark (or Luke as the case may be)?

A young women in seminary with whom I correspond… we were talking about our sermons earlier this week. She made this suggestion, shared an insight: “Michael, I agree– as a morality play about money, it hardly makes sense. Or is hard to make sense of.”

“But,” she continued, “if you let it be more metaphorical, think of the debts in terms of the way we use that word in the Lord’s prayer…” The scales began to drop from my eyes!

“And,” she went further, “if we think about how this parable might have functioned in one of Jesus’ most common contexts– answering his critics, legalists and religious leaders who despised his generosity of spirit, and the freedom it gave Jesus, and the grace he was at he’s preaching to others…”

All of a sudden, after 20 years of preaching, “the shrewd steward reducing what is owed on the debts to his master” was beginning to take on a whole new meaning for me.

Think about it, church:

What if this parable is not one of the many times Jesus blusters into the unwelcome territory of telling us what to do with our wealth or warning us we are too materialistic.

What if, instead, this parable, is an everyday example illustrating the absurd generosity of God. Like the Parable of the Laborers and the Hours, it’s explaining the largesse of the ministry that Jesus offers to those who were taking issue with it.

Jesus had turned the Pharisees into enemies over his willingness to forgive sins, freely, in God’s name, all those who came to him. That freedom to forgive (more often than not the healing which he effected) was Jesus’ crime in the eyes of many. The Pharisees were quite sure this Jesus wasn’t a rabbi who was playing by the rules. They wouldn’t have called him an “honest steward.”

Beloved, Jesus’ parable of the dishonest steward is about God’s impulse to “give the farm away.”

We still hear the reactions, the protestations in church today. “You know, pastor, this church is just too nice…” And that sentence ends, depending on who the speaker is, with some elaboration of a worry about how the church is letting others take advantage of us:

~“Everyone expects the church to be here, but how many are willing to put in the work, or contribute to the costs of keeping it open and running?”

~“Too many families we’ve never seen before just show up asking us to baptize their kids, and then we never see them again.”

~”We’ll just let anyone do most anything… take communion… eat at the potluck… sleep over in the courtyard or in the church…”

~”People from the cupboard are selling the cans of soup we give them, to a man buying them for just a few cents, right at our driveway.”

~”Hope UCC’s problem is not our responsibility; why should we let the men in their program become our shelter guests?

~”There’s cream cheese and butter missing from the fridge.”

~“We can’t always be there for people; there’s got to be some limits.”

~”We just can’t do any more!”

The shrewd steward is about Jesus cancelling, overlooking, disregarding the debts people owe his boss left and right. His shrewdness is getting beyond what the debtors deserve or, it turns out, can be expected to deliver on.

To the Pharisees and the Scribes, it looks as if he’s mismanaging his role as a Rabbi, in order to make the people like and favor him.

But we know the rest of the story, that the people turn out to be neither that consistent nor that faithful. But we also know, that’s not really why Jesus disregarded people’s debts. Rather than looking forward to what he could expect from them, he concentrated on their needs. Or the freedom that comes of forgiveness to offer random acts of kindness. Jesus was never about feathering his own nest or saving his own skin. He was just living out God’s outrageous generosity– how grace is undeservedly and freely squandered on us all.

Beloved, who we help… who we are there for… who we accept, welcome, work with, even when it looks like we are getting taken advantage of… Jesus challenges us to remain vulnerable, to take the risks, to remain free in our forgiveness, even when we get burned. Jesus challenges us never to limit those we think deserve God’s trust, faith, grace and love..

We just can’t remain the church and protect ourselves. Getting taken advantage of is the cost of being in the ministry business. The UCC’s Affirmation of Faith calls it “the cost of discipleship.”

Because people really need our help. And in responding, we have to determine: are we gong to decide like bankers, based on our reasonable chance for a return, a profit, or like God based on the generosity of grace?

The latter means we’ll get used sometimes. And hurt. And made to look naive. Even like fools sometimes. Because we are a servant community. For God’s whole world. Well beyond our membership. Or our faith. Or people like us. Or people likable to us. Or even people who are on the up and up and will respect our largesse.

Jesus was, is wreckless. Generous to a fault. He doesn’t get everyone’s approval. He doesn’t even explain half the time. Or wait for the slowest to catch up. There’s just not enough time. He just gets excited and starts acting. Forgiving. Reconciling. Making something new.

The choice is yours: If you could go to Jesus to experience yourself his passion, to walk in his way, would you wait on the temple authorities to figure out when they could schedule a meeting, get you on their agenda, consider all the pros and cons, and put you through their ceremonial or institutional ringers?

We hear the criticism from the conservative side of the church aisle all the time. You liberals are dealing in “cheap grace,” meaning that we’re cancelling too many debts, letting too many off the hook, letting too many sinners into the church, as if they can come near the throne of grace.

But that isn’t liberalism. It’s the gospel. It’s shrewd stewardship of a gift God’s giving a group as undeserving as we are! Not because it makes us popular or particularly populated. Not because it makes a lot of sense in the world as we know it. But because that’s how we do what Jesus does what God does.

We welcome ten lepers without worrying about the sin that made them lepers in the first place. And knowing from our own painful past experience that we better not expect to hear much gratitude.

We forgive the men and woman caught in adultery without much proof or confidence that they’re going to change their ways.

We care for and work with the alcoholics and the overeaters and the criminals, even though we know they’re likely to relapse and need to start over again.

We love one another, though we know we are all still sinners…

Jesus just keeps giving benefits away– God’s love, second chances, hope we’ll live up to grace this time– so regularly and consistently and freely one might think we actually deserve his confidence…

No wonder Jesus’ actions infuriated church leaders. I can hear the leadership trying to reason with him now. “You know, pastor, if you keep this up… if people don’t have to pay something, earn their own way, if we don’t make them wait. If they won’t work within our system…”

Jesus wasn’t very good at locking the doors, limiting the liabilities, worrying about  the sky falling,  or protecting the institution. His boundaries were a bit loose. You might say he just kept marking down the fees, breaking down the barriers to Divine forgiveness until it was affordable, open to everybody! Jesus made God accessible.

He’s more of a permission-giving, “relax and let’s see where this goes,” “what do we got to lose” sort of Savior, rather than “oh, no, gate-keeping, it’s getting out of control.” That’s why I’m in favor of the open, gracious attitude of our new governance system.

God’s love is out of control.

What would it look like if we in the church let that wreckless love and the freeing forgiveness that comes of it flowing among and through and beyond us, motivating us, moving us and others to someplace new?

Beloved, who would it be shrewd for you to forgive and give a second chance? What does a shrewdness like God’s demand you let go of? And by the way, when are you going to forgive yourself? And how will you be changed– perhaps by learning to forgive, even more than by  experiencing forgiveness?

Jesus says, If you forgive someone’s sins, so does God. If you hold on to them, God’s stuck with them too– maybe not in the person who sinned, but in your heart who will not let them go).

Jesus praises the Steward for acting generously, even though it seemed dishonest! Go ahead, let go. Give it away. Dare lavishness. For all that has happened, say, “Thanks.” To all that will happen, say “Yes.”

Let us pray:

O God, mother of us all, birth in us a new courage to give away the best of what you share with us. Be patient with us as we learn how to empty ourselves of our fears and protectiveness and our scarcity mentalities. Breathe into us the freedom of new life, trust that becomes new courage, love that translates into new daring and generosity, so we, like Jesus, can say “Yes” to you. Into your open hands, we place our lives, your church and your world. Amen.