Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year B)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on September 20, 2015 (Proper 20, Year B)

images-5Who among us is the greatest Christian? Now this is really important so we’re going to spend a bit of time getting to the bottom of this. And just to be fair, I’ll disqualify myself. Not because I actually believe that I am holier than thou — it’s one of those employees-and-immediate-family- members-are-not-eligible-to-win things. I mean, I’m paid to be here. I’m also going to go on record as disqualifying any nuns. We have several Sisters of St. Margaret among us as we do most every Sunday and, sorry, but that’s just not fair. So they’re out.

But what should the criteria be? If we based it purely on church attendance, that might lead to some uncomfortable squirming in the pews. And, anyway, we don’t keep a giant ledger with attendance charts in the church office (as far as you know). What about average hours of prayer logged in a given month? Not bad, but we’d have to go on the honor system and I don’t want to invite prayer fraud into the equation. “Lead us not into temptation” and all that.

We need something more quantifiable. How about money? Maybe the greatest Christian here is the one who has given the most money to St. John’s over the past year. Sure, there’s the little problem of Jesus’ story about the widow’s mite; the passage where he praises the poor woman who gives only two coins but gives from her heart. But we do keep meticulous giving records.

I think you see where I’m going with this. The whole notion of competitive Christianity is absurd. You can’t win the life of faith as if it’s some sort of competition. There are no trophies or certificates of achievement handed out at the Annual Meeting. There’s no parish ranking system.

And yet this is precisely what the disciples were trying to do as they walked along that road to Capernaum with Jesus. Jesus doesn’t call them out on it during the journey, even though he’s absolutely aware of what’s going on. He bides his time and waits until they’re all gathered later that evening and asks them, “So, what were you arguing about on the way?” And…awkward silence. Until they sheepishly admit that they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.

Just last week we heard Jesus rebuke Peter for setting his mind on human things rather than divine things. And here’s yet another clear example of the disciples just not getting it. They’re so focused on how their relationship with Jesus will benefit themselves that they fail to grasp the heart of his message, which is to look beyond themselves. They’re more concerned with how they’ll be perceived by others than actually serving others.

And you can’t really blame them. Well, you can, but think about the ways in which we judge our own self worth. We’re culturally rewarded for focusing on being the greatest, on winning, on being successful. Think about the ways we measure ourselves against one another. What’s your GPA? What’s your salary? How many bedrooms are in your house? What kind of car do you drive? How much do you give to your alma mater? What tax bracket are you in?

And lest you think clergy are above all this, you’ve never been to a clergy conference. ‘What’s your Average Sunday Attendance? How big is your operating budget? How many programs do you have? What’s the size of your endowment?’ It can quickly devolve into a not-so-glorified pissing contest. And you realize you’ve been feeding right into the mentality against which Jesus has warned us.

number-one_foam-finger21It’s also an oppressive way to live, all this competition; over time it beats you down because you can’t win everything, you can’t be the greatest at everything. I mean go to a football game and you’ll see fans of both teams holding up those “We’re Number 1” foam fingers. Yet both teams can’t, in fact, be number one. There will always be a number two. But they don’t sell foam fingers that proclaim “We’re Number 2!” at the concession stand.

The larger point here is that in Jesus’ realm it’s not about being successful but being faithful. So much of our energy and time and effort goes into pursuing perfection and self-promotion when we should really be pursuing peace and promoting harmony. Human wisdom, human ambition only gets you so far. The portion of James’ letter we heard this morning continues the theme. “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.” Again, it’s about seeing things from the divine perspective, not the human one. “For what will it profit them,” Jesus says, “if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life.”

So here goes Jesus shaking up the entire order of things — something he does all the time. I mean, is there anything more counter-cultural than telling people that the “first shall be last and the last shall be first?” This isn’t just to make people who come in dead last in a road race feel better. Or to buck up those at end of the buffet line. Jesus is placing all of our notions of societal order and place and status and tossing them into one of those lottery machines that mixes up all the numbered balls.

Or maybe that’s a lousy analogy, because it’s too random; but time and again those who are most honored in God’s kingdom are the servants and those who are the least. We see this all the time in the gospels. Those who are the most blessed, those who get most of Jesus’ attention are not the ones with the fattest bank accounts or the biggest houses or the most followers on Twitter. The ones Jesus blesses and commends are the sick, the blind, the lame, children, outcasts, sinners, tax collectors, women, the elderly — in other words, those on the very margins of society.

If we’re able to see the world through Jesus’ eyes, from that divine perspective, it changes our entire outlook on what really matters. It puts into perspective our silly and ultimately hopeless strivings to be on top, to keep up with the Joneses, to be “successful” as it is defined by others. You’re already successful in God’s eyes. Being made in the image of God takes care of that. Which gives you the freedom to pursue faithfulness with reckless abandon. To spend time growing your relationship with Jesus and reaching out to those in any kind of need or trouble and being present for those who need your love. That’s what it means to focus on divine things. And in so doing, the urgent need for worldly success fades to black.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015


Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20, Year C)

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on September 22, 2013 (Proper 20, Year C)

This seemingly bizarre parable we hear from Jesus this morning is known by various names. You’ll hear it referred to as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager or the Parable of the Shrewd Manager or the Parable of the Unjust Steward. Most preachers simply call it a bear to preach on. 

It’s a tricky parable — probably Jesus’ most confusing lesson in the entire Bible. There’s all sorts of disagreement about its interpretation and the naming controversy simply highlights the confusion. There’s quite a distance between “dishonest” and “shrewd” and “unjust.”

So why am I standing up here? Why didn’t I foist this one off on Anne or Geof? Quite frankly, I didn’t look at the readings when we were putting the schedule together. So here I am — this is clearly not the Parable of the Shrewd Rector

The story Jesus tells his disciples is about two people, a rich man and his property manager. You might think of this as the CEO of a Fortune 500 company and his money guy — his CFO. The rich man hears a disturbing account that the manager was “squandering his property.” Maybe he was siphoning some of the profit off to his personal account or maybe he was just lazy. Perhaps he’d gotten comfortable in his job, enjoyed sitting in his big leather chair, and was just phoning it in. Who knows? But the bottom line is that the bottom line isn’t where it should have been. 

So the owner confronts the manager demanding an account of his actions. Now at this point his manager starts sweating. He realizes the jig is up. He probably felt like one of those guys at Enron when the real auditors were sent in to untangle the mess. The truth would come out and there would be major consequences. So, figuring he has nothing to lose, the manager gets creative. If necessity is the mother of invention desperation, at least in this case, was the father of creativity. 

He summons the rich man’s debtors and starts bargaining with them. “You owe a hundred jugs of olive oil? I’ll tell you what, let’s make it 50. You owe a hundred containers of wheat? Let’s make it 80.” This is a pretty brilliant move actually in terms of saving his own hyde. And we know from his inner monologue what he’s trying to accomplish. He figures if he curries enough favor with the debtors he’ll be taken in and treated well once the axe drops. 

And if you think about it from the other side, what a great deal! How would you like to get a call from your mortgage company saying, “We know you owe $100,000 on your mortgage. How would you like it if we cut that in half. And as long as we’re on the topic, why don’t we just cut your monthly payment in half as well.” You’d feel like you won the lottery! And you’d be very, very grateful to whoever made this happen. This guy would have been a hero to the rich man’s debtors; a veritable Robin Hood.

So it’s a pretty audacious move. And, not only that, based on the cultural norms of the day, the rich man would have been bound to accept the lower amounts, unable to reverse them without losing face with the debtors and the wider community. Whether you call him shrewd or dishonest or unjust, the manager has played this very well. He may be losing his job but he’s set himself up for life.

But here’s the twist in the parable and the part that makes it so odd: the master praises the manager for his dishonesty. He commends him for acting shrewdly. Which is amazing considering the manager just lost him about 450 gallons of olive oil and 200 bushels of wheat. There’s no doubt that the manager is clever but the praise seems a bit much. Plus, you could read this parable and your takeaway could be “The Bible says it’s okay to steal!” You could leave church and feel perfectly justified hot wiring a nicer car than yours and driving home in greater style than you arrived. Of course you’d be both wrong and arrested for grand theft auto. 

It’s important to take a moment to remember that Jesus is telling a parable, a short story that makes a broader point. Obviously no real life rich guy would commend someone for stealing him blind. He’d have him thrown in the slammer. But in this case, as in parables like the Prodigal Son, the rich man or the master is a stand in for God. And as often happens in Luke’s gospel, authority is subverted, the lowly and downtrodden are lifted up, the outcasts and sinners are brought to the table, and there is a general reversal based on love and compassion rather than power and riches.

This manager is commended as shrewd because he is part of this reversal. He’s sticking it to the man! And although he’s hardly a sympathetic character — he’s a whiner and a thief — he’s pretty honest about it. I love that line where he says to himself, “I am not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg,” thereby admitting he doesn’t have the fortitude for manual labor and yet he’s too proud to ask for charity. 

But one important point gets lost in the translation between the way we hear this parable and the way Jesus’ audience would have. Jesus’ hearers would have been rooting for this guy despite his questionable ethics because he found a way to subvert what appeared to be an inescapable system of economic oppression. There were no bootstraps to pull yourself up by — you were born into a particular class and there you remained. In this sense he’s a symbol of hope. Because of his creative action, he’s no longer the victim beholden to his master, he’s broken free of the system, something Jesus’ hearers can only dream of as they fantasize about a life rooted in economic, political, and social justice. 

And I also think we can all relate to the fact that ethical dilemmas are rarely black and white. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations in life or work that are full of gray and this parable is a recognition of the complexity of our interpersonal relationships and interactions.

Jesus ends this parable by talking about money — he’s really getting at the point that if we let it, money can oppress us. We can’t serve two masters and money is the most likely “other” master that distracts us from acting in ways that help bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

Ironically Jesus shares this message through a questionable character, probably with tongue firmly planted in cheek. But the point, if not the parable itself, is unambiguous: faith demands exclusive loyalty and anything less is a mere shadow of God’s kingdom.

Oh, and I hope you enjoyed this little sermon because when this parable comes up again in three years, I won’t be preaching.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013