So this is the sermon I came up with when I was considering the story of the dishonest manager, and reading what I read for Constructive Theology. The readings that I tapped (see my last post) and my reflections lead me to this.
Two things you should know. The last sermon I preached I started with a joke and it was bad. Crickets after I finished. In the moment I said I’d never start a sermon with a joke again. Which is why I started this sermon as I did. The second thing is that I did preach this sermon at the First Baptist Church of Berkeley, just this recent Sunday.
The Shrewdest Generation
I know I said I would never start a sermon with a joke again, but, like falling off a horse, I have to get back on or I’ll lose all nerve. Ready? Here goes.
There was once a pastor who preached amazing sermons. Each week, she waited until the spirit came to her and then her sermon practically just wrote itself. It felt like the spirit was just whispering in her ear, and every Sunday she found herself with another great sermon in the pulpit. One week, as she looked ahead in the lectionary to the following Sunday, she shuddered. She hated the coming passages, but she decided to trust the inspiration of the spirit and prayed for revelation. Tuesday, and Wednesday, and Thursday, came and went without the visit of the spirit, while she was busy with the other things her church required. Then Friday came and went. The bulletin was pushed through with no title for her message. Saturday, she knelt in prayer, begging the spirit to come inspire her. Nothing. After a night where she kept waiting to be awakened by inspiration she found herself very early on Sunday morning, still staring at a blank page, without so much as a sermon title. She prayed one last time for wisdom, and the whisper of the spirit came to her: “Maybe you should have cracked a commentary on Wednesday.”
Ok, to be fair, that’s more of a cautionary tale than a joke, but I’ve heard it used as both. Like that pastor, I struggled with the lectionary readings for this week. At first I thought I might just ditch the readings, and find another passage to preach on. Honestly, I also considered rewriting my first sermon, but I like you all too much to make you suffer through that. Instead remembering that tale I just told, I doubled down, and did not wait for divine inspiration. It just so happens that classes started last week at ABSW, and because God is faithful, our first set of readings for my Constructive Theology class sparked against these passages. I have to tell you, it still took some wrestling to get this sermon I’m preaching, because I have always disliked this parable.
I’ve mentioned before, from this very spot – well, maybe a foot more that way – how the Gospel according to Luke is my favorite. I’m not going to reiterate all the reasons here, but one of the most important is that this gospel, more than any other, focuses on Jesus as teacher. This Bible is the one that FBCB gave me just after the Oakland Hills Fire a month shy of 25 years ago to replace the one that I lost in the conflagration. It has a helpful chart between the Hebrew and Christian Testaments, called a “Synopsis of the Four Gospels.” This parable is in a section helpfully called out as Luke’s Special Section. Parables and teaching moments fill the 9 chapters of Luke’s Gospel which is considered part of this section. The other three gospels don’t really have a section like this. And of all the parables, this is maybe the one I’ve struggled the most with.
The parable of the Dishonest Manager comes right after the tale of the Prodigal and his Brother – one of my favorites. I always felt the messages of these parables were really off kilter from one another. In the tale of the Prodigal, where the father is often interpreted to be God, we are shown redemptive healing love from God. In this parable of the Dishonest Manager, on the surface, God, as the Master, is giving the tacit endorsement to lie and steal. Before now, because that’s what it seemed to be saying, I think I had a tendency to just let that surface level be enough, admit that I didn’t always understand the divine mind and move on. I have learned, that operating like this is the cheap way out. “God is vague and mysterious,” may be a true statement, but it’s rarely a helpful one. So I read, and I re-read, and I read again this parable. I read my class readings, I read this parable. I read a book about Jesus, and I read this parable. I watched a movie about Jesus, the excellent Last Days in the Desert, directed by Rodrigo Garcia, and I read this parable. I wrote a blog post for class, and I read the freaking parable. Sometimes it felt as thin as it always has. Sometimes certain parts seemed to resonate with me. Particularly, the words that Jesus shared at the end: “And his master commended the dishonest manager, for he had acted shrewdly. For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation then are the children of the light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into eternal homes.” It was in these words, despite the seeming tacit approval of lying, that I found my entry into how to dig into this parable in a new way. To me, these words now ring with hope.
I feel lucky to be in seminary, and frankly, graduating from seminary at the time that I am. I see the church as on the cusp of transformation. This transformation is necessary, because church in the traditional model doesn’t seem to be connecting with people in the West like it used to. There are theories out there about how often the church transforms itself in a major way – but the most prevalent I’ve seen is that roughly every 50 years is typical. The Vatican II conclave, which had ramifications in both Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, could be called out as a point in church history that precipitated a change – or marked a change already in progress depending on your point of view. I think it’s important to note that conclave closed in 1965.
So here we are – right on schedule (more or less) and again the church in the West is faced with a decision: change or become irrelevant. Perhaps that is a harsh way of stating it. Yet, despite the church is growing by leaps and bounds in the developing world, it is not possible to deny the massive uptick of the SBNRs. That acronym means people who identify as Spiritual But Not Religious – persons who maintain a relationship with God, but want to leave the church out of it. I have to be honest and say that without change in and by the church, I see a whole generation coming up which will fall into that category.
When I look at my peers, and at the young adults in their 20s, and perhaps especially when I look at my children, I see a group that has good reasons to identify as Spiritual But Not Religious. In the West, all three of these groups have been fed line after line by the church as a whole. We’ve been told there is this one way to do church. We’ve been told that there is no incompatibility between the Gospel and the Great Western Religion of Consumerism. We’ve been told that Pastors and Preachers are beyond reproach, more moral than we ever could be. We’ve been told that we will have a planet to inherit, one with endless resources, so don’t worry about how many of them our parents, and grandparents are using.
But then the secular scientists point out that Global Warming is a crisis that will overwhelm the poorest areas of the world and harm millions if not billions of people. And then Pastors and Preachers are caught in hypocrisies and inflicting the worst harms on the very congregants they should be caring for. And then we see how Consumerism has subverted our society so that we ration human life by how much a lawsuit will bring. And then we see that the church is not at all what we were told it was…and we look earlier and see that there are as many ways to do church as there have been iterations of the church.
I don’t say this to indict anyone. I don’t have to because Amos does that just fine for me: “You’ve pushed down the poor, taken over the land, skimmed God on what God is due in the name of pushing for ever greater profits, and cheated your fellows to make a few extra coins. You’ve bought out the future of your own children for the price of your comfort and wealth now. And God won’t forget any of that.” Whew! That’s certainly a heck of a legacy to leave behind.
Maybe that’s why Jesus tells us this parable. Jesus knew he was the primary teacher of a radical, liberating theology which would change the world. Jesus presented a way of relationship with God, meant to reshape the world and bring about the Heavenly Realm into the here and now. This transformed world would bring Justice not just for the rich, not just for the powerful, not just for the well connected, but also and especially for the poor, also and especially for the weak, also and especially for the other. Jesus shared that vision, and it was heard and interpreted by those around him. I think we can look at this parable with Jesus as the Master. And those who heard, and interpreted immediately around him – the women who would bear the Gospel message first and most importantly to his 12 followers, his 72 followers, and then through them on to the world? They are the dishonest manager – just like every generation of preachers, teachers, forgivers and healers since.
Since I’m stuck on acronyms today – let’s move on to WWJD?. “What Would Jesus Do?” is the cry that many raise up. Sadly, this cry is raised before denial of the humanity of people in the Middle East because they have one more prophet than we do. Horrifically, this cry precedes acts of terrible violence inflicted against gays, lesbians and transgendered people. Lamentably, this cry comes before calls to war. Awfully, this cry anticipates new and exciting ways to exclude the alien, orphan, and widow from participating “the American Dream.” Let me say it here, and let me be clear – WWJD? – “What Would Jesus Do?” is bunk. It’s the wrong question. At best it’s an educated guess. At worse it’s speculation to justify our preconceived notions of the world around us. It’s the cry of the church as it has been, not as it could be.
WWJD is a GIGO – that’s “Garbage in, Garbage out,” computation. The question we should be asking should be more concrete, more helpful, and take out the guessing – What DID Jesus Do? I have to tell you that if we were constantly asking not WWJD but WDJD we’d be looking at a radically changed world. Because if we are honest in answering “What Did Jesus Do?” the actions which follow it look very different. That cry precipitates acts of radical love which accept the whole person, not demanding they leave part of themselves at the door of the church. WDJD leads to the feeding of the hungry, the welcoming of the stranger, eating with sinners, making peace with those set on harming us, and calling out the highest levels of power to let justice RING OUT through a land which so desperately needs it. WDJD is the question that leads us to realize that Jesus sent out followers who couldn’t understand his vision perfectly – even as we understand it imperfectly. It was these same women and men who at being sent out by Jesus tried to help people close out their accounts. They reduced or closed out accounts of shame, accounts of self denial, accounts of improper stewardship of resources, and the weak and poor among them, accounts of separation from God’s neverending love. Forgiveness of debts that didn’t belong to them – a shrewd maneuver by a manager who has mismanaged the property and people committed to their care. Because even Peter and John and those who knew Jesus didn’t get it all right. They argued about who was their neighbor, not at all considering that Jesus had already showed them this answer. It was an answer Jesus had learned, according to Luke, from a Centurion of the force occupying his homeland, and shared in the story of a Samaritan, another enemy of his people, who showed great compassion. But they were the Shrewdest Generation – they were welcomed into the homes of those whose accounts they helped close out.
Eventually Peter, John, Mary, and Paul sent out dishonest managers of their own: Women and men like Phoebe, and Barnabas, and Timothy, and Prisca, and Aquila. They didn’t quite get it right either, I assure you. But they reduced the accounts of the people they encountered. They were the Shrewdest Generation, talking to their peers using ideas that their teachers hadn’t considered, couldn’t have considered. And they sent out dishonest managers, who became a Shrewdest Generation of their own. And they sent…
I’ve neither the need to list Apostolic Succession on down to today, nor the ability. But let me assure you that each of you in this room as been part of the Shrewdest Generation in your time. Each of you has tried your best to do better than the generation which came before you – and to help people and even the church itself close out its accounts of shame, accounts of wrongs inflicted, accounts of continued separation from God’s ceaseless love. You have been part of laying down a foundation, one based on the foundations which came before you, for the generations to come to work with. Like every generation, shrewd though it may be, our generations, which ever one each of us belongs to, has gotten some things wrong. And the Shrewdest Generation to come – they have seen our sins and wrongs – and that’s why they’re asking if Church must be what it has been, and are ready to leave it behind if the answer is yes.
It’s an exciting time to be in seminary, and an exciting time to be graduating from seminary. We are at the brink of transformation of the church yet again. Who can yet say if the communities will be physical, virtual, or some combination of both? I can tell you that the legacy we have laid down – this foundation – will shape that future. And yes, there may be things we’ve gotten wrong – but I tell you that there are things we have gotten so right.
Living out the Good News of God’s love for all people. That is not a casual thing to attempt. It is hard work. And we have stumbled. We will stumble again. But I tell you, First Baptist Church of Berkeley, that we have lived, and are living, the Good News of God’s love for all people. We have welcomed in people who thought a church could never accept them, because of who they loved. We have empowered people who thought God hated them to understand that not only did God love them without reservation, but that they could help other people realize that too. We are not asking the misleading WWJD question, but living out the answer to WDJD. There is a legacy that this church has created – a legacy that will persist whether FBCB is here a hundred years from now or if we faded away tomorrow.
As for the coming Shrewd Generation, one guaranteed to be the Shrewdest Generation we’ve seen so far, they too will stumble, but, despite the cracks in the foundation, the strong supports we’ve built into it will be enough for them for them to lay a foundation of their own.