Sunday, September 20, 1998

The Steward Who Used His Head

By Keith E Gatling         Sermon for September 20, 1998

Lessons Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 20) - Year C
Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

If you’re a regular here, you’re probably aware of a certain running gag between Anita and myself whenever we have to preach when Pastor Paul’s away. However, for the benefit of those of you who don’t know the gag, I’ll bring you up to date.

Basically, when it’s time to pick a weekend to preach, I look at the assigned lessons first, and pick my preaching assignments based on what I think I can do with those lessons. Anita, on the other hand, is a little braver than I, picking her preaching assignments solely by the date. So far she claims to have been burned twice and is now considering using my technique, and ironically the two she thought were hard would’ve been easy ones for me.

Well, there’s a third technique for picking preaching assignments that we haven’t mentioned. It’s the “you’re the head deacon, everyone else has picked their weekends, and this is what’s left” method. And that’s how it came to pass that I got to preach on a bunch of lessons that many pastors have a hard time with. One tends to wonder if Pastor Paul knew these lessons were coming up when he planned to be away this weekend.

Now, to be fair, most people would have absolutely no problem preaching on the Old Testament lesson from Amos, about the rich cheating the poor, and most listeners would have no problem understanding it.

Similarly, most people would have no problem preaching on the New Testament lesson from Timothy, and most listeners would have no problem understanding it…especially since the bit about praying for leaders in government seems to be a hot topic lately.

The toughie. The one that people have a hard time preaching on and understanding…and, of course, the one I’m going to preach on…is the Gospel lesson from Luke. The one commonly known as the parable of the dishonest steward.

Did you notice the emphasis I put on the words “commonly known as?” Sort of like “the alleged offender,” or “the accused assailant.” Each of those phrases implies that things may not be all they seem. Especially when you look at it almost 2000 years later from the vantage point of a different language and culture.

The problem many people have with this lesson is that they see this steward who’s being fired for mishandling the masters finances, and then both the master in the story and Jesus, who is telling the story go and praise this guy for the way he handles things when he realizes he’s about to be out of a job. We can’t believe that Jesus is actually praising this guy for “cooking the books” and using him as an example of how we should be. There must be something terribly wrong here.

And there is. What’s wrong is the understanding many of us have of this story and what it’s saying. Let’s look carefully at it for a minute. First of all, most translations say something along the lines of “the steward was accused of wasting his master’s goods.” Any lawyers in the house? Any teenagers in the house? What’s the key word in this? Accused. It doesn’t say that he was actually guilty of, it said that he was accused, and perhaps unjustly, of not doing his job well. And when you look at it that way, the picture changes a little bit. You might figure that if the guy’s being fired unjustly, it makes sense for the him to create his own little severance package with the boss’s goods. And yet there’s still the problem of the boss and Jesus praising him for doing this.

Well, let’s add something else to the equation here. Did the steward stick it to the boss when he started giving everyone deep discounts, or was he taking it out of his own commission as steward? The answer to this question could change everything. If we go with our common understanding that he was sticking it to the boss, we still have a problem. But if we say that he was taking it out of his own commission, we can say that our friend here was acting wisely, sacrificing short term gain for long term security. That would be nice. That would be neat. That would take away all the moral problems that this story presents. And…there’s a 50% chance that this interpretation is wrong. So as much as we’d like to deal with the nice, neat, clean version, let’s take a look at the old seedy version that we’re familiar with, to see what it has to tell us.

What exactly is it that both the master and Jesus are praising? Are they praising what we might see as the steward’s dishonesty? No. What they are praising is this guy’s ability to think on his feet, his shrewdness, the fact that he knew how to make the best of a bad situation.

One can see where these actions might be proof to the master that the accusations were false and that this guy really was someone he wanted to keep around as a steward. But why was Jesus praise this?

The answer comes from a conversation I had with Cheryl a few weeks ago.

I forget what brought it up. Maybe it was a letter in Christianity Today or The Lutheran lamenting the old news that evil people flourish while the righteous are cut down like grass. If it wasn’t a letter or article in one of those magazines, it was something pretty similar…the old complaint that “the system” doesn’t work the way we think it should. The good should be rewarded while the evil suffer, and not what seems to be the other way around. We want a nice simple equation we can understand and deal with, and right now the results aren’t fitting our expectations.

And this is because we’re stubbornly using the wrong equation to try to solve the problem. Last year Marilyn VosSavant ran a problem in her column about the chances of two different families having different distributions of boys and girls. When she showed the correct answer and how it was worked out, the mail started coming in from both supporters and detractors, and it went on for months. It got particularly ugly when a person from risk management at a nuclear power plant wrote in to agree with Marilyn’s answer and her method, and someone wrote back later on saying that they were going to send that person’s name into the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as someone who had no business determining risk at power plants, because their obviously poor math skills posed a threat to the rest of us.

What was going on here was that the people who disagreed with Marilyn and the power plant person were people with basic math skills who weren’t getting the fact that this was a probability and statistics problem, that these problems need a whole different set of equations than most things we’re used to dealing with, and that while the answers may seem intuitively wrong, when you check them out against real world examples, they’re dead on. These were people who were stubbornly using the wrong equation to solve the problem.

And so it is with us and the way the world works. There is an equation that explains who gets what in this world. It’s also a very simple equation. But it’s one that a lot of us aren’t going to like. You see, it’s not based on whether or not you’re good, but instead on whether or not you’re smart.
Look around and you’ll see that except for those who have been particularly lucky, those who have met with success, whether evil or good, have by and large also been smart. Similarly, once again making exception for those who have been particularly unlucky, you’ll see that for the most part those who have not met with success, whether good or evil, have not been so smart.

It is the being smart which both Jesus and steward’s master praise. It is being smart in knowing how the world works that is the point here. And Jesus notes that it is this knowledge and understanding of how the world works that many of the children of light are lacking.

And the sad fact is that there are way too many naive Christians out there. There are too many of us who believe that faith in God is a substitute for acting wisely. Too many of us who don’t think before we act, and expect God to protect us from the results of not thinking things through. Too many of us who have traded in using our God-given brains not for the child-like faith that Jesus says we should have, but for a childish faith that expects all to go well for us because we are God’s. Jesus praises the steward in the parable not for acting dishonestly, but for the smarts that those actions showed.

A few years ago the big news here was about how The Rescue Mission, along with many other Christian schools and organizations got taken in by a pyramid scam from the New Era Foundation. As I read more and more about this scam, it became apparent how much of its ability to succeed was based on the simple naiveté of the Christian organizations that were taken in by it. When approached by New Era’s people about investing in the fund, no one thought about doing a little background check because there was a long list of other Christian organizations that had already signed up and done well. Surely these organizations wouldn’t have signed up if there was any sign of fraud. And in fact, when a financial person at one of the schools involved suggested doing a little checking around, he was told not to bother for those exact reasons. It was only after he, at great risk to his own job, decided to check things out anyway, that he found out enough to alert the Federal authorities that something seemed amiss…which indeed it was.

I suspect that a dishonest person, being familiar with the aroma, would’ve smelled a rat a lot sooner. Even a relatively honest, but slightly more “worldly” person would’ve thought that this deal sounded too good to be true, and done a little investigation into it. But the pattern was that Christian institution after Christian institution, after hearing about this plan to double their money in a short amount of time through this “Christian” investment scheme, fell for it hook, line, and sinker because of their naive faith and lack of street smarts…a combination which New Era’s backers knew to look for because it is all too common among us.

Jesus seems to be saying here that your faith in him doesn’t require having to check your brain at the door. I know this is good news to me, because I’ve seen far too many churches that seem to require just that. I like the brain God gave me, and I want to be able to use it. And I’ll admit that I may be reading too much into it by suggesting that it also means that faith in him is not a substitute for using the brains God gave you in the first place. It is perhaps even possible to misplace your faith in God if you use it as an excuse to not do the hard work yourself.

One of my favorite stories about misplaced faith and not using a little common sense involves a man who was caught in a flood. And as he stood on his front porch watching the waters rise, a woman came by in a boat and offered him a ride to safety.

“Oh no,” our friend said. “I have faith in God. He’ll save me.” And so the boat rowed away.

A little later, standing in his second floor window, our friend saw another boat come by with another offer of a ride to safety.

Again, our friend said, “Oh no. I have faith in God. He’ll save me.”

And so a little later we find our friend standing on his roof when a helicopter comes by and drops him a ladder. And again our friend says, “Oh no. I have faith in God. He’ll save me.”

Well, shortly after that the waters rose beyond our friend’s ability to stay above them and he drowned. As he stood at the gates of Heaven, St Peter could see that the guy was quite upset, so he asked what the problem was, and our friend said, “I had faith that God would save me, and he let me drown anyway.”

To this, St Peter, exasperated, said, “Well good grief man. He sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?”

What is it about our faith in God that makes some of us so stupid? What is it about our faith in God that makes some of us think that it’s all up to him and we don’t have to do anything ourselves anymore? And what kind of witness to the rest of the world is this?
Jesus expects us to use our brains. He expects us to ask questions. He expects us to check things out. He expects us to be able to think on our feet and make the best of a bad situation like the steward in the parable did.

Jesus says that you can be his follower and use your brain. This is good news to me and should be to you too. It tells you that you’re expected to question to make sure that you’re following him and not charlatan preying on “standard Christian weaknesses.” Not only that, but you are expected to use your brain to help yourself and others, and to be a witness to him by doing so, because I’m telling you, the last thing we need is more stupid Christians.

God gave you brains. Use them to his glory. Amen.

Sunday, June 14, 1998

Amazing Grace

By Keith E Gatling         Sermon for June 14, 1998

Lessons for Pentecost Proper 6 in Year C
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10
Psalm 32,
Galatians 2:15-21,
Luke 7:36-8:3

One of the best books I ever read was one that I got as a Christmas present from Cheryl this past year. In fact, it was a book that I asked her to give me as a present af­ter I saw it in the holiday flyer from Sacred Melody. It was a book by one of my favorite authors, Philip Yancey, and it’s called What’s So Amazing About Grace? When I first got it, I figured I’d read a chapter a day, and finish the whole thing in about three weeks. Instead, I found myself with a book I couldn’t put down, a book I devoted pretty much every waking moment to reading, a book that I had devoured within a few days, and a book that changed the way I see a lot of things.

It was shortly after I finished the grace book that Pastor Paul gave me the list of preaching dates he needed covered for the summer. When I looked at the dates and the readings that went went them, the ones for this weekend jumped out at me because they tied in so perfectly with what I had just read and things I was still thinking about, and I knew right then and there that this was the weekend I was signing up to preach on. So here I am.

Where to begin…there are many places, but perhaps the best place is with the readings for this weekend. The reading from Second Samuel talks about David’s sin with Bath­sheba and his realization of his guilt, but doesn’t talk about God’s reaction that sin. That’s saved, perhaps for another set of readings. Psalm 32, on the other hand, goes on about the joy forgiveness. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul talks about how we are saved by faith and the grace of God. And fi­nally, in Luke, Jesus is himself involved in and tells us a story of forgiveness through grace.

Forgiveness and grace, the same thing, in­separable facets of the same thing, things which imply each other? Perhaps…and I’m going to treat them as such as I talk to you today.

Where to begin? My friend Patty was watching one of those abominable TV talk shows a few years ago. You know, the ones that find all the worst cases in society and give them an audience. The shows we all say there should be fewer of, and yet inexplica­bly their ratings keep going up? Anyway, on this show they were talking about a man who had committed some heinous crime, and a woman from the audience stands up and says that she hopes this man rots in Hell.

Interesting. Patty found this very inter­esting. Why? Because for all practical pur­poses, it’s we Christians who gave the world the concept of Hell as a place where you go to be punished for evil things. But perhaps more importantly, it’s we Christians who gave the world the concept of God’s grace and forgiveness shown through Jesus’s death for us, and are supposed to want people to seek this forgiveness so that they can be with him forever. Patty found this whole thing in­teresting because this woman, if she was a Christian, shouldn’t be hoping that anyone rots in Hell. Warning people of the distinct possibility…yes; saying that a person de­serves to rot in Hell (as do we all)…maybe; hoping that they go there…no.

If anything, we should be hoping that no one rots in Hell…not Lewis Lent, not Ted Kaczynski, not even the popular worst case example Adolf Hitler. We should be hoping and praying that at some point all come to understand that they are sinners and need God’s grace and forgiveness. And we should remember that we need it too.

In the reading from Luke, Jesus is involved in a story about grace, explaining how the woman is showing such great love because she recognizes the great role that God’s grace has played in her life. But he also goes on to tell a cautionary tale of what may hap­pen if you don’t respond to the grace shown to you with grace towards others. The fact that God’s grace makes it possible for him to forgive us all kinds of things means that we should strive to show that kind of grace too. Perhaps we won’t be as perfect in our ex­pressions of grace as God, but that’s not the point.

I used to complain to God on a regular ba­sis about my part. Yes, about my part…or rather, the fact that I didn’t know what it was. In this grand production of his, I had no idea what my lines were, what my blocking was, what my entry and exit cues were, how I was supposed to interact with the rest of the cast. There was nothing written out for me, I had to ad lib everything, not knowing what effect it would have on the rest of the people in the show.

I complained saying, "How can I do what you want me to do if you won’t tell me what it is?" I was worried that I would, with the best of intentions, do something that hurt someone else. I was worried that I might, with the best of intentions, do something that was totally contrary to what God really wanted. I had reached the point of saying, "Okay. If you don’t tell me what you want and how you want me to react in this situa­tion, then it’s not my fault if I get it wrong." I was concerned about doing it right, and not getting it wrong.

Then I read Yancey’s book, and all of a sudden it all fell into place. I was putting too much emphasis on my getting it right. On my being flawless. On my being blameless. And not enough emphasis on the fact that God’s grace was big enough to take care of any number of mistakes I made in good faith. Suddenly I realized that the point was not my getting it right, but trusting God’s grace to take care of the places where I inevitably messed up. Once I understood that, things became a lot easier for me. It didn’t mean I could now be sloppy about things, knowing that God would mop up after me. It meant that I could now say, "I’ve done my best, God will do the rest." We are to trust in God’s grace, and not in our own efforts.

Once we understand that, things should be a lot easier. It should make it easier for us to go about in our lives not worrying about messing up. It should also make it easier for us to show grace toward others, knowing that they’re doing the best they can, even when they’ve hurt us.

I first heard of Butterfly McQueen one evening when I was a kid in North Jersey sitting in the backseat of our 1966 Ford Mustang. I don’t remember where we were going, but the radio, as usual, was set to WOR 710-AM, and we were listening to Barry Farber interview her. They may have talked about her famous role in Gone With The Wind, she’s the one who said, "I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies," and they may have talked about some of her other movie roles. But that’s not what I re­member. What stuck with me from that in­terview was her talking about how she had started her own religion because she just couldn’t deal with the fact that in Christi­anity you could do some really horrible, awful things, ask God to forgive you, and then you were all set. It just didn’t seem right. It just didn’t seem fair.

Well, the funny thing is that in her objec­tions she got it right. That’s exactly what God’s grace is all about. It is exactly about being able to say, "Oh my God, I’ve just re­alized and understood the truly horrible things I’ve done that I can’t possibly make up for. Please forgive me for the sake of your son who died for one such as me." It is exactly about being able to say that and knowing that you will be forgiven.

Yes, Butterfly McQueen was right…it’s not fair. If you will not rest until you know that someone will be punished for some terrible deed they did to you, then God’s grace is an affront to your sense of justice, and seems like a cheap and easy way out. But, on the other hand, if you’re honest with your­self…brutally honest with yourself…you’ll re­alize that you’ve done some awful things too, things you might not even be aware of, and that you need to call upon God’s grace too.

McQueen and others like her are afraid that people will take advantage of God’s grace, and our grace if we offer it, in the worst possible way…planning to do things knowing that they’ll be forgiven. But I’m not sure that God can be manipulated that eas­ily. I’m not sure that premeditation counts. In order to know and understand that you need grace and forgiveness, you need to know and understand that you’ve done some­thing wrong. Not just that you’ve broken some little bureaucratic rule that happened to get in your way, you need to understand that you’ve done something wrong, and un­derstand the effects of it. Once you under­stand that, you’ll understand God’s grace and you’ll understand how it will not be manipu­lated. You’ll understand this because you will be changed by it, and once changed by it, you won’t seek to manipulated. The woman who washed Jesus feet with her hair was a per­fect example of someone who truly under­stood grace. The man who was forgiven his great debt, but wouldn’t forgive someone else their much smaller one was an example of one who didn’t and sought to manipulate it.

What is it that makes us Christians? Basi­cally it’s the belief that through God’s grace Jesus died for us while were still sinners, and that it this same grace that will bring us into God’s presence, although by all accounts we don’t deserve it, when we die. It is this grace and the faith in it, which is the hall­mark of Christianity, and the basis of all we believe in.

God’s grace, God’s amazing grace, is the important thing. If we believe, if we truly believe, that God’s grace is the main thing, then minor and even major differences in theology between denominations don’t mat­ter. Differences in communion practices don’t matter. Questions of apostolic succes­sion don’t matter. Differences in biblical in­terpretation or liturgical practice don’t mat­ter. If we spend too much time dwelling on these issues, we focus too much, as did I when I worried about my part, on our getting it right, and not enough on God’s grace which will bring us to him in spite of all the mis­takes we made in good faith.

John Newton, was a slave trader who was changed by grace and became a minister and hymn writer. He didn’t write "Amazing The­ology, how sweet the sound." Nor did he write "Amazing Communion practices" or "Amazing Liturgy." These are simply re­sponses to what is truly important and what he did write about. Please stand and join me now as we sing Amazing Grace.