Faith Handles Change

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Luke 16: 1-13

Opening

Before us today stands Jesus Christ, robed in mystery and announced in a strange parable. There is no easy interpretation for this parable. Why is its hero, my favorite accountant, commended for dishonesty which is a breach of the ninth commandment? We do not know. Why is his master happy to be cheated? We cannot say. Why is an accountant’s swindle upheld, in this parable here attributed to Jesus, as a preparation, somehow, for heaven? No one can tell. What, please, does verse 9, as tangled in the Greek as it is in your bulletin, intend? We do not see. What possible connection is there between the story, and the four trailing proverbs? Little at all, except that they all deal with money. How did this collection make it into Luke’s travel narrative? It is not clear. Is this dishonest manager our role model, in the church, as we try to “manage wealth in the direction of justice?” (Ringe)

Soprano

Let us recall the mystery of Christ, the Stranger in our midst. Today is voice, so equable and magnanimous and serene, can just barely be heard above the cadence of the traditional (rabbinic?) story here told. Today his voice is like a whispering soprano descant. We can announce his presence today, again today. He is among us: dealing with issues we dismiss…speaking with people whom we dislike…considering options we disdain…selecting vocations that do not yet fully exist…expanding spaces that we constrict…accepting lifestyles that we reject…attending to possibilities that we ignore…approaching horizons that we avoid…healing wounds that we disguise…questioning assumptions that we enjoy…protecting persons whom we mistreat…making allowances that we distrust. So, strangely, is He among us.

For the mystery of Jesus Christ falls upon us, approaches us, and enchants us, when and where we least expect Him. In the strange world of the Bible. In the midst of the community of strangers that is the Church. Hidden in the odd estrangements of our personal life. Here, behold, the Lord Christ Jesus, the Stranger.

Contrary to much preaching, televised and popular today, his presence is neither simple, nor surface, nor easy, nor fundamental, nor shallow, nor ideological, nor one dimensional, nor ahistorical, nor primarily political. He draws us, lures us, and enchants us. So he sets us free.

For St. Luke has captured a collage of portraits of Jesus, “On the Road”. We are on a journey, as Luke reminds the church. We are making a trip to the promised land. We are headed in a certain direction. With our spiritual forebears, we are traveling, on a journey. Israel left Canaan to go to Egypt to find bread. There they became the slaves of Pharaoh. But Moses led them out, parted the Red Sea, and guided them through the wilderness. He brought them the ten commandments. At last, he sent them forth, with Joshua, to inhabit the land flowing with milk and honey. In such a glorious land, they hunted and farmed. They even built a temple, and chose a King. Samuel, Saul, David, and Solomon reigned, but were followed by others less wise and less strong. Although the prophets did warn them, the children of Israel left their covenant and their covenant God, and at last suffered the greatest of defeats, the destruction of Jerusalem and the return to slavery in Babylon, 587bc. Like Israel marching in chains to Babylon, and then trudging home again two generations later, we people of faith are on a journey, from slavery to freedom.

Luke’s mysterious Christ meets us today, hidden in the calamity of unexpected change and economic crisis. On the road, the journey of faith, Luke has most to say, and Jesus most regularly addresses the issue of money. Remember how Luke traces the Gospel. Mary in the Magnificat honors the poor. John the Baptist preaches justice, in the great, unique tradition of the Hebrew prophets, from Amos forward. Isaiah’s words and hopes are affirmed. Jesus blesses the poor, not just the poor in spirit, in his ‘sermon on the plain’. Remember the parable of the ‘rich fool’, “tonight is your soul required of you, and these riches, whose shall they be?” Luke sets Christian discipleship at odds with, in contest with, anxiety about possessions. And in conclusion, meet Lazarus and Dives. Jesus Christ calls us to manage our possessions toward justice, both as a church and as individuals.

Alto

Keep this portrait of the shrewd manager in your wallet, especially for the days your wallet is empty. He meets the report of his mismanagement, itself possibly false, with calm. He does not try to change the world, or this news. He raises the basic question with courage: “what shall I do?” He thinks creatively, acts with enterprise, communicates astutely, relates cleverly, strategizes shrewdly…and lands on his feet. When the cheese moves, he does too. He moves quickly. Here we overhear in a contralto solo the alto voice of an earlier period in the life of the church, earlier than Luke that is.

Before we understand the parable of the crafty steward against a moderate, modest background of proverbial wisdom, as does Luke, we might sing alto for a minute. Before we recall ‘wise as serpents, innocent as doves’, we might want to hear the parable of the clever steward against a sterner, more rugged background of judgment: ‘the Lord himself will descend with a cry of command…Some there are who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man…The kingdom of heaven…the good seed bears fruit, 30 and 60 and 100 fold. Quick. The contralto voice of the church before Luke may have heard it just so. Seize the day. Now is the acceptable time. Today is the day of salvation. Quick. It’s later than you think. Quick. Someday you may need to make a hard, sudden decision. Keep this parable in mind. Quick. You have been shrewd, clever and prudent in the decisions of this age, this world—houses and jobs and moves:

There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries

And what of the lasting things? Matters of heart, of soul, of friendship, of love? Have you been as assiduous with the things of God as you have been with things? Quick.

Tenor

But you may wonder whether this parable speaks to you, especially if you are in financial calamity. Along Luke’s Jerusalem road, Jesus has a healing word to say about possessions, money, wealth. At least, in a tenor voice, this is what look says. He reads the parable remembering other teachings: before you build a tower, count the cost; before you wage war, study the enemy; be clever, shrewd and prudent; one man sharpens another like iron sharpens iron. The lord affirms not dishonesty but prudence. So at least our gospel writer sings out in his firm tenor voice.

To me it is clear that the chief communal issue before Luke’s (Antioch?) congregation was the management of wealth. This means that they had money. This also means that they did not immediately throw it away. This further means that they reasoned that the apocalypse of the end was not so very near that no financial planning was necessary. This additionally means, as Luke’s writing shows, that they were trying to lear
n to become prudent, astute, imaginative, shrewd, clever, insightful, accountable, enterprising managers. So they are reminded, in argument from less to more: “Keep faith in the little things, to be ready for the big ones.” An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. “Be faithful with money, which belongs to God, so that you will become faithful in soul, which belongs to you.” A stitch in time saves nine. “Do your pre-season training with possessions, so that you will be ready for the regular gridiron season of the spirit.” Look before you leap. Be penny wise, not pound foolish.

In other words, “use possessions so as to gain, not to lose, your future” (Craddock). Be creative. “For all the dangers of possessions, it is possible to manage goods in ways appropriate to life in the Kingdom of God” (Ringe). Remember that you are a manager of someone else’s accounts, an absentee landlord who has a claim. And go ahead, be clever. Be creative and loyal, but if you have to choose—be creative.

Bass

The deeper truth in this passage, though, is simply that faith handles change. And this is the bass line, the deep voice of the community of faith, which has lived with this odd parable for 2000 years. Faith carries the power to master the vicissitudes of change. Ultimately, this parable cannot be interpreted along moral, or economic, or even political lines. So read, it makes no real sense. Luke has gone ahead to read the parable so, in part, by appending the four parables about fiduciary fidelity. We have honored his teaching. But the parable itself says something else. Like the mystery of Christ itself, the story is not moral but mystical, not theoretical but theological, not law but grace. It is good news.

The good news is that faith handles change. A man gets the pink slip, and leaves under suspicion, with the sheriff on the way. He is looking at doing time. He is on the lamb. He is headed for jail, prison, the lockup, the pokey, hoosegow, calaboose, the slammer, the joint, the tank, in stir, goin’ up the river, doin’ time, in the brig, the gray bar hotel, the big house, the can. (Isn’t language wonderful? As the steel magnolias said, “accessorize—it’s the only thing that separates us from the animal kingdom”. I would add speech.) He is not a moral exemplar. But just as his ingenuity handles the sudden change in his circumstance, so the powerful grace of faith, the faith of Jesus Christ, handles the constant change of life. Faith manages change, masters change. So Paul can shout, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me and the life I live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me.” (Gal. 2:20). The faith of Jesus Christ, working heteronomously through life, handles change. Faith is nimble, not flatfooted; agile not stolid; creative not loyal; shrewd not complacent; quick not quiescent; fast not slow.

A couple of Sundays ago I came home in the early evening to settle in and read the papers. On the front page of the (NYT) book review I was surprised and delighted to find a report on THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS. Over dinner, last year, I had come to know the author, BU professor Isabel Wilkerson. As sometime marvelously happens, at table, she had captured my imagination about the book was finishing. She enthralled me with accounts of three people, on three trains, in three generations, headed north. Hers is the story of the epic migration of African Americans from the south to the north, on three train lines: one along the east coast, one up the Mississippi, and one across Texas to California. “What linked them together was their heroic determination to roll the dice for a better future.” Of course I found the account mesmerizing, told as it was in such fine detail, with such realism and hope: “a hopeful search for something better, any place but where they were. They did what human beings looking for freedom throughout history have long done. They left.” And of course I found it such a quintessential BU story, of freedom wrestled for, freedom won, against the tides of prejudice and poverty. What troubles have we seen, what mighty conflicts past? Fightings without and fears within since we assembled last.

Faith handles change.

Then, nearly setting the paper aside, I leafed quickly to the last book review page, and there again, a similar account, a fine book, a BU friend and author. Andrew Bacevich, a military man and a conservative, whose voice is one of the truest of our time in its search for the things that make for peace. His latest book, WASHINGTON RULES, calls to us to look hard at what we are doing around the world. He criticizes our condition of permanent national security crisis. He criticizes our tendency to ignore those doing the actual fighting on our behalf. He praises Eisenhower’s warning against the ‘military industrial complex’. ‘Bacevich in his own populist way sees himself as updating a tradition—from George Washington and John Quincy Adams to J William Fulbright and Martin Luther King, Jr.—that calls on America to exemplify freedom but not actively to spread it…the country is lucky to have a fierce, smart peacemonger like Bacevich’. And so is this community, this city, this University.

Faith handles change.

Days earlier, reading another day’s paper, I came upon the account of the Mt Nebo Bible Baptist Church in New Orleans’ 9th ward. Katrina wrecked the church and parsonage. Over five years, the pastor rebuilt his home, and conducts services there, now, every Sunday. The long story of wreckage and rebuilding was well told in the article. But it was the ending that stuck with and struck me:

When Mr. Duplessis first inspected the wreckage of Mount Nebo’s building – pews tossed aside like toothpicks, chunks gone from the roof, there a wall knocked loose – he also learned that several boats had been tiedto the steeple. With 20 feet of water around, the second floor of Mount Nebo was, in more ways than one, a sanctuary. And so he has persevered in his living room. On this particular Sunday, the faithful finally did arrive, a dozen by 10:15 a.m., nearly 25 by 10:35. Mr.Duplessis preached from the Book of Joshua, all about determination. He conducted a baby blessing. And he joined his people in singing lyrics that were almost unbearably freighted with double meaning:

Storm clouds may rise
Storm clouds may blow
But I’ll tell the world
Wherever I go
That I have found the Savior
And he’s sweet I know

Are we ready to apply this gospel to our own lives and to affirm in the ways we live that faith handles change?

~The Reverend Dr. Robert Allan Hill,
Dean of Marsh Chapel

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