A series of essays in the Episcopal Church
By The Rev. John Rettger
A sermon preached on 19 September 2004 at St. Bedešs Episcopal Church, Santa Fe The Sixteenth Sunday of Pentecost
This is my second visit to New Mexico, and my first to Saint Bedešs. It has been a wonderful trip to look forward to, to get reacquainted with Clarke Garrett after fifty years (wešre going to meet again in Minnesota in 2054) and to meet Peg Garrett and Dick Murphy and all of you.
The Gospel today has everything, don't you think? This is our kind of parable, not one of those dippy stories about how good the Samaritans are or running after one sheep and leaving the ninety and nine to fend for themselves. Todayšs parable is about how the world works, our American world anyway. It's about our post-Enron world, with a rich man and a middle manager who gets fired. It's been made into a television series called The Apprentice: a rich guy, some creative accounting, and oh yes, at the end the rich guy looks across the table and says "You're fired."
But the rich guy in our Gospel ain't no Donald Trump. When the Donald fires somebody they are gone right away, rolling their suitcase into the cab five minutes after the meeting is done. But when this guy hears that his manager is stealing from him, instead of telling him to clean out his desk he says, OK I'll give him a chance to prove the rumors wrong. And you know what happens. The manager may be dishonest, but he is also smart and an opportunist and very quick. Faced with terrible news that his embezzlement has been discovered and that his job is at risk, he immediately realizes that he has a problem. Accustomed to living the good life, with two kids in college, a mortgage, a car and a boat, he needs a job. He drives past panhandlers but he certainly doesn't want to stand on a corner with a sign because his friends or worse, his kid's friends, might recognize him. So he manages to find a way to let others in on the action, and quickly makes a second set of books. It is ingenious. He might lose his job but he's made friends. With a little luck he will avoid the handcuffs altogether, because he will have bought off all the witnesses.
Like I say, this is an entertaining Gospel but some of you may be wondering what it all means. We do not normally expect to find a parable without a meaning. Is it an instruction to be like the dishonest manager? We want a point that in some way answers a question that we have, but this parable is full of questions - six in all. This parable has at least six different meanings: it instructs us to be shrewd, to make friends with our wealth, to know that we must look after the little dishonesties and honesties, for they grow to big ones, and so on down to advice about serving God and mammon. Scholars tell us that line after line was added to the original story, with Luke adding the advice about the impossibility of serving God and wealth - Luke's favorite subject.
But who knows what this parable really means? If you believe that each and every verse of the Bible is true and that there is no conflict, this will be a hard Gospel for you. But if you believe that the Word of God speaks to the community of faith, then a few dissonances should not surprise you. Because communities are not normally places of constant agreement. They are made up of people with different life experiences, different hopes, and even different visions of God. And that, brothers and sisters, may not be what St. Luke intended to be the moral of the story. But it's what I see as important to our church right now.
In a few minutes we will say the Nicene Creed. We will say "We believe in one God" and these words that come from the fourth century church will announce our common faith. There is something very satisfying about shared convictions, and it makes us nervous when we donšt all think alike. But I like what Bishop Krister Stendal said: "Beware of the lure of monotheism." I think what he meant was that we need to watch out for wanting everything to be figured out, everything to be consistent, everyone to be in agreement, and God to be predictable. I think that today's gospel, if it has a message for us, is in part something like this: we are not called to a world of agreement and likeness, but to live out our Christianity in a world of conflict and change.
Our Episcopal Church has a history forged at the Reformation. In 16th century the English reformers attempted to build a church in which catholics and protestants could both feel at home. It was of course not entirely successful, and today we know that many people could not live with it. But it was I think an effort to break through the either/or character of much of the thinking of the church of its time. Today it seems to me we are in danger of losing that "big tent" quality. We want answers, not questions. We want to speak with authority in an uncertain world.
But the way of Jesus was often to invite people to do their own theology, driven not by his answers but by his questions. In today's gospel there are six questions, as I said. But as I thought about all these questions, I thought of others. Have you thought about Jesus' questions? My favorites are: "Who do you think I am?" "Who was neighbor to him who fell among the thieves?" "Who among you is without sin?" "How many loaves do you have?"
To the blind man who struggled to find his way to Jesus, even though our Lord could plainly see the empty sockets, there was a question: "What do you want?" To the crowd of soldiers waving swords and torches, even in the agony of Gethsemane when Jesus certainly knew the answer, there was a question: "Who are you looking for?" Even after he was raised from the dead, a great time to shower people with answers if there ever was one, he had three questions to Peter, all the same: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" "Do you love me?" "Do you love me?"
Questions have a way of leading us more deeply into things. Instead of forcing us to defensiveness, forcing us to take a position at one of the polarities of disagreement, we can work through the issues once again.
Of course not every question does that. Some questions give injury or belittle or attempt to control: Are you saved? When did you stop beating your wife? Won't you give more to the church? - oops, that's a good question I guess.
But the loving question is one in which the questioner gently invites the other to reveal him or herself further, and then takes the answer seriously. Questions help us find weaknesses in our own thinking but at the same time they help us to learn. Reflecting on issues really does matter.
So today this preacher is going to practise what he preaches, and end with a question. Here it is:
Does any of this make any sense to you?
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