Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Sep. 18, 2022

Posted by on Sun, Sep 18, 2022 in Season after Pentecost, Sermons

The 15th Sunday after Pentecost

Sep. 18, 2022

The prophet Amos’s words of warning are for dishonest marketplace dealers, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land,” he begins. He imagines their thoughts as longing for festival or sabbath days to end so that they may sell again, and suggests they will undertake unjust and well known practices, making “the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat.” Meaning they will trade a smaller measure of grain (ephah) for more shekels (a measure of gold or silver weight) for less than its worth, against the law as stated in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Amos is not anti-trade or condemning business of the marketplace, they are essential for day to day life in a community. He only condemns those who do so dishonestly, or with callous disregard for their effect on those most vulnerable or dependent on them. Amos calls them out because they, like ourselves, are supposed to live their faith in all aspects of their life, be it in the marketplace, the synagogue, or or their homes. We know our actions reflect our beliefs, (for good or nought) so how does one embody faith when at the same time we’re tempted by getting more, having more, keeping more? 

Is Amos’ call for honesty and fairness in business, at odds with Jesus’ parable of the rich man and his reportedly dishonest and then commended manager? The manager is being fired and now must make an accounting of his business dealings. Fearing he’ll be unable to support himself he seeks to ingratiate himself to those who owe his boss money by reducing their debts, cutting some even by half. Luke’s gospel doesn’t tell us if the manager had pre-inflated prices when the debts were incurred, or if now he was merely reducing or cutting his commission, legitimate or otherwise, but those are speculations scholars have made over the years. They may well be true, the text just doesn’t say. It does say that “his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly”, (the Greek describes the manager, not as dishonest, but as unrighteous or unjust). He was commended for his actions—what would Amos have said?! This time the advantage is going not to the owners or bosses, it’s going to those already indebted and seemingly not paying up. It’s interesting the boss calls the manager ‘shrewd’ here, not dishonest, nor does he accuse the manager of cheating him. 

Parables tend to make us try to assign actors to the roles; are we the managers? Is Jesus the master or is he the manager? Or are we the customers who owe large unpaid debts? Of course parables are never so simple as that. This one pairs with the parable just before it, that we call the Prodigal Son, and I see one informing the other here, just as with last weeks parables of the lost sheep and lost coin and how they related to the ‘lost’ son. The link with today is that both the son who left his father and brother squandered his inheritance, and the manager is said to have been squandering the master’s property. In both parables the one described as squandering or wasting is shown to be valued, loved, or redeemed. 

Two perspectives arise for me with today’s parable, and since we get to unpack Jesus’ parables again and again, we can learn anew each time what there is to draw on.

First, wonder if we equate the squandering manager today with Jesus? God entrusts him with all of us, and so rather than see Jesus as a lousy manager of property we see him writing off debts and being generous with forgiveness. He does this even knowing we’ll probably incur more debts and make more mistakes for which we’ll need mercy. May we push the analogy to think about those around Jesus who complained to God about his ways? How he was willing to sit at the table with just anyone, show generosity to the worst of people, give forgiveness, healing and love so freely as to perplex and provoke their ire? Those complainers would see his generosity as manipulating good will, even as unfair to those who obeyed all the rules and paid their bills, and expected it was the only righteous way. Yet in the end, the ‘master’ commends him for such shrewd, even extravagant, generosity. Who do we want making an accounting of us, a scrupulously accurate business manager, or a squanderer of God’s love, who calls us to acknowledge our debts and then forgives them?

A second possibility is to see ourselves as that manager, to whom God has entrusted much treasure and many gifts. We might squander them or misuse them purely for ourselves instead of being good stewards and managing well. Don’t think for a minute that God doesn’t know we do this! We make mistakes and wander into bad choices, we can be lured and duped by all sorts of temptations. When we finally come face to face with what a mess we’re in it’s as if God asks for an accounting of our behavior and choices. Line by line we re-evaluate and adjust, trying to make good where we can. Instead of condemnation, we receive God’s forgiveness. Our relief is great, though God’s joy in our reconciliation and return is even greater. 

Both possibilities call us to consider how we steward the gifts God gives us. It’s surprisingly easy to slip into the grasping usurious dealings that Amos condemns. As people wanting to reflect God’s image to the world, we are assured that when we’re called to account we will find mercy and acceptance. Jesus sounds a bit cryptic on this, so I’ll insert the broader definition of the Greek word we translate as gone to see if it helps a bit. He said, “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone [when one fails, dies out, comes to an end], they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” The parable reads both situationally for us and also in the bigger picture of our faith, of this life and of life eternal.

So, what is the God-given treasure in your hands? What do we do with it, and what more could be done? This isn’t only about money or spending, it’s also about our time, our abilities, the expertise and wisdom we have. Are such gifts brought to bear in ministry, prayer, study of scripture and faith? God gives us time—how are we spending it? We have hearts made for relationships; do we treasure them, encourage and deepen them? Whom are you blessing with your life? We can be like that manager just cruising along, perhaps thinking we’ve got it made, until we’re faced with taking stock of our present and our future. Is it just about our own preferences or are we people of loving care, compassion, forgiveness, people being Christ to one another no matter how much or how little we have? The psalmist praises the Lord for “He takes up the weak out of the dust and lifts up the poor from the ashes.” Who can we lift up? Who can I be present with? Who needs these arms to offer God’s welcome?

This past week has been busier than usual for me, and a few things have pulled my attention sideways a bit, Yet I still found time to walk the dog, eat meals, check email, and do a couple of this week’s Wordle puzzles. Sadly my prayers were shorter and more looking for help than giving thanks. I missed Midday Prayer both days, and I only read scripture in preparation for preaching today. Blessedly, such weeks are the exception not the rule, because it’s insidiously easy to keep giving short shrift to God’s call and to what nurtures the relationship we treasure with Christ. This happens to everyone, so what calls us back? God never cuts us off for not paying our spiritual bill, (though when thinking I can do it all continues too long it does feel like ‘the power’ is going out!). 

Thanks be to God that our Lord never runs out of forgiveness, patience, presence, or love. Thanks be to God who comes to be with us in the ashes, in our pain and sadness. Thanks be for the One who calls us to give of ourselves, for such giving will refill and refresh us, and builds the kingdom of heaven. Thanks be for the One who gives us eternal life, reducing—no, erasing our debts as we are gathered home.

Amen.

© 2022 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.