September 18, 2016

18th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you. Amen.

Can this be right? A dishonest manager cheats his employer by squandering company finances. When he gets caught, he quickly cheats some more, erasing the debt that the company’s lenders owe, in order to make friends outside the firm. And just when we expect him to be condemned and forced to pay for his actions, his boss comes by and slaps him on the back, applauding him for his brilliance. Jesus goes on to tell us to make friends for ourselves with dishonest wealth, because those friends will be the ones to welcome us into our eternal home. (It’s in the bible!  I’m not kidding.  Luke 16:1-13.) What?

This text makes a lot of us scratch our heads and wonder what Jesus is really praising. Cheating? Squandering others’ property? Dishonesty? Shrewdness?

We usually expect the gospel to lead us into virtuous morals, good standards of business, right behavior, but more often than we’re comfortable with, Jesus throws standards to the wind and makes us take a step back.

Remember what we heard last week? The reign of God is like a shepherd who loses one sheep, but risks the well-being of 99 others to search for the one wayward, willful, obstinate one. It’s not really a good practice for shepherding, is it? And the reign of God is like a woman who wastes one of the last few coins she has to celebrate that she found it after it had been lost. Well, what good did that do her?

If you would have read the verses that came between those stories and today’s text, you’d have been reminded by another rich man who doesn’t sound too wise. There Jesus tells us that the reign of God is like a father who extravagantly forgives a son who has mocked him and squandered his inheritance on selfish pleasures, even though his other child, the diligent, respectful, stable offspring, the firstborn who probably was in line for the fatted calf and the gold ring, wasn’t even at home to join the party.

While we may struggle with understanding the exact context for everything Jesus says in today’s gospel, the conclusion he comes to is all too clear to us: We cannot serve God and wealth.

How are we supposed to live in a society that expects us to own property, and make sound investments, and to prepare for our retirement, and still be faithful to the gospel?

This week we learned that a prominent bank is being investigated for opening millions of fake bank and credit card accounts for unknowing customers over the past five years. The illegitimate accounts allowed the employees to report inflated sales figures, and the bank to earn extra fees. Over 5000 employees are implicated, some who recognized that what they were doing was unethical, but who felt caught in the process because they needed their jobs.[i]

Yesterday, I heard that the investigation into VW’s fuel emissions scandal is being widened to other manufacturers, raising suspicions that the tendency to report false numbers might extend to other companies.[ii] The push to balance sales while meeting regulatory standards is precarious and costly.

And it’s not just the business world that struggles. Last year, 11 teachers from Atlanta were convicted of cheating on state-administered standardized tests, in order for their students to show improved academic achievements. Teachers in 44 districts confessed to cheating, blaming the ‘inordinate pressure’ they were under to meet targets set by their district and saying they faced severe consequences such as a negative evaluation or termination if their students’ scores didn’t improve.[iii]

It’s easy to point fingers and shake our heads when we hear some report of malfeasances, but I wonder how many of us face similar pressures? Are all of the people implicated in these and similar actions evil? Or are they simply too caught up in systems of injustice from which it is too complicated to be extricated? The demand to be faithful and diligent at work is caught up in a need to make a good living and to meet expectations of industries sometimes controlled by standards that exceed honest work practices. What can we do?

I doubt Jesus wants us to be dishonest or fraudulent. I suspect he knows he’s addressing a culture in which he recognizes the complexity of economic life.

In case today’s gospel text doesn’t seem strange enough for you, here’s another one. A Jewish Hasidic master, Reb Zusha, was born in 1718. He was said to have been an expert in many things, “most impressively the ability to see the divine spark that burns even in the darkest transgressions. One day, his students brought before him a thief, who had been caught stealing for the ‘umpteenth time.’ They shoved the young criminal before the aged rabbi, expecting the sage to mete out some fiery justice. But Reb Zusha just looked at the criminal with kind eyes and smiled. ‘I’ve learned so much from this man!” he told his stunned disciples. “He invests such great effort in what he does! He takes risks to get what he wants. And he is swift on his feet. Most importantly, he is always optimistic. If he fails, he always tries again and again and again.’” [iv]

Perhaps Jesus, our own wise rabbi, is trying to point out to us how desperate we can be in trying to make a profit, or to make friends, or to feel successful, and encouraging us to use that same level of desperation and creativity in recognizing the reign of God around us. We, who know how to cheat our neighbor (or who at least recognize how easy it would be to commit fraud if we wanted to), fail to recognize how beautiful and gracious it is to live in the reign of God.

The prodigal son comes home from a life of cheating and scheming, and finds that his father is prodigal too, receiving him in mercy, celebrating his arrival, showering him with gifts, and welcoming him into the reign of joy.

The dishonest manager comes to his own senses and forgives the debts of his neighbors. They weren’t even his to forgive, we might argue, but the rich man, whose property was at stake, celebrates the manager and commends him, showering him with praise and admiration for recognizing what it really means to experience mercy[v].

Somehow I doubt Jesus is actually teaching an economics lesson, or giving a seminar in fair employee work standards here. Rather, I suspect he’s giving us a glimpse the counter-cultural goodness of God’s reign, and reminding us that it’s all around us. Rather than teaching us to cheat our neighbors, our investors, or our employers, I think Jesus is asking us to consider that our neighbors, our colleagues, even our enemies, all share the goodness of God’s creation with us. And Jesus is inviting us to be creative and ingenious in finding ways to celebrate that.

No slave can serve two masters, Jesus says. We can serve the “master” that requires us to focus only on our own wealth, our own security, our own ability to cheat or get ahead, or we can love our neighbor as ourselves. We can jealously complain about the party being thrown for those who have behaved badly, or we can join our brother at a banquet of reconciliation. We can live in the scrutiny and pain of trying to get away with little shortcuts, causing injury to our environment, to our society, to our employers, to our neighbors, and ultimately to ourselves. or we can work for the benefit of all of God’s creation, all of God’s children, enjoying life in all the goodness God intends for us.

So what would that look like?

Today many of our 3rd graders and their families are enjoying a day at Waverly Lutheran Church where they are making new friends and learning about agricultural stewardship in a rural community. Our friends at Waverly are planting tiny seeds of recognition for our children that their food comes from the efforts of people they know, people who depend on good weather and a fair food economy for their livelihoods. Their wellbeing is tied up with ours, and their care of God’s creation is related to our willingness to pay fair prices for the food that lands on our tables.

This week our 7th through 10th graders will begin another year of confirmation. It’s becoming increasingly counter-cultural to presume that families can invest this much time in developing a mature understanding of faith. Our culture encourages young people to spend quality time in sports, academic pursuits, perhaps a musical or artistic endeavor, and many of them hold part time jobs as well.

To ask them to also spend a significant amount of time growing in faith and in community is to encourage them to grow in a way many of their peers don’t value. Our program invites them to develop a relationship outside of what the culture sees as important, focusing on God’s involvement in their lives, rather than their own private success or accomplishments. We encourage them to discover that life lived in community, and faith developed within friendships may prove more valuable than their own personal status.

What we’re inviting them is to be diligent and creative in celebrating grace, in joining a party of undeserved love, in feasting on forgiveness given to those who deserve it, and to those who don’t, in taking part in a festival of communion and homecoming for the least, the last, the lost.

This is the celebration of endless mercy we have all been invited to share. Asking for forgiveness for times we have been unfaithful in a very little, or unfaithful in very much, here we are welcomed into a community of life. This is a community in which loving-kindness is more highly valued than profit, and generosity sought for more vigorously than any achievement, or privilege or power. Here we are called to feast at a table where no one is hungry, where debts are erased, and love is extended to all.

Counter cultural indeed. Thanks be to God. Amen

 

Read the texts for today at:  http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=280

[i] “U.S. opens investigation into Wells Fargo fake accounts scandal,” by Matt Egan, Shimon Prokupecz and Cristina Alesci, http://money.cnn.com/2016/09/14/investing/wells-fargo-investigation-federal-fake-accounts/?iid=EL

[ii] “U.S. Is Investigating Bosch in Widening VW Diesel-Cheat Scandal,” Tom Schoenberg and Alan Katz, September 16, 2016, Bloomberg News, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-16/vw-diesel-cheat-probe-widens-as-u-s-said-to-investigate-bosch

[iii] “Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlanta_Public_Schools_cheating_scandal

[iv] “We Are All Anthony Weiner,” Liel Leibovitz, September 2, 2016, Tablet, http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/212318/we-are-all-anthony-weiner

[v] See a deeper comparison between the Prodigal Son and this parable discussed near the end of “Girardian Lectionary, Proper 20C.”  http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-c/proper20c/