Saturday, September 28, 2013

When Dishonesty is Honored

Luke 16:1-9
September 29, 2013
William G. Carter

Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.

Our Wednesday night Bible study group confirmed what I believe about this parable: it can be a real stinker. Preachers avoid it. Teachers ignore it. It creates more trouble than it’s worth.

A wealthy landowner hears that his manager is wasting his property. Calling him in, he says, “Hand over the books. You are being relieved of your position.”

This is when we discover how greasy the manager really is. He devises a quick plan to cover his assets. Before word gets out that he is fired, one by one, he summons the people who owe his boss some money. “How much do you owe?” If the first man says, “A hundred jugs of olive oil,” worth the equivalent of a year and a half’s salary, he says, “Cross it out, write fifty.”

The next debtor says, “I owe a hundred containers of wheat.” He says, “Not any more. Cross it out and write eighty.”  We can expect a smile to emerge on both of their faces.

This manager is sly. He is as crafty as he is dishonest. He will cut a deal with the neighbors in the town where they will all continue to live. And if the boss discovers these deals, he will look terrible if he goes back on the manager’s word to tell the merchants what they really owe him. That’s assuming, of course, that he actually has kept track, and had not turned over the whole matter to the manager.

The manager cannot be trusted. That was the accusation, now we have the proof. And did you hear what the boss says when he discovers the whole mess? He says, “Good for you. I have to praise you. You are really on the ball.”

That’s the parable. The Word of the Lord.

Most people want this parable to say a good bit more. They want the Boss to condemn this behavior or to have that crook thrown into jail. But the Boss won’t have any of it. He compliments his former employee for his shrewdness and presumably lets him off the hook. He lets him go.

It seems like Luke, the Gospel writer, wants the parable to say a good bit more. He scrambles through his collections of Jesus’ teachings, tacking on some wise words about wealth and its corrupting power, declaring definitively, “Nobody can serve God and their stuff; it’s one or the other.” True enough, but it really has nothing to do with the heart of the story. Jesus is telling a story about a wily crook who gets away with his scam. He says it with admiration in his voice.

We know these people, don’t we? Of course we do. Part of the issue with reading this parable is that we read it in here, inside a church. But step outside the church and we see these people all the time.

Eugene Peterson tells about visiting somebody at the hospital in downtown Baltimore. He was looking for a parking space near Johns Hopkins Hospital. The parking garages were full. Needless to say, so were all the spaces on the street. Eugene circled the hospital three times, looking for something to open up. He even resorted to praying for a parking space.

Suddenly a space opened up right in front of him. It was perfect. And he knew he could brag to family and friends about what a wonderful prayer he had offered. He pulled in and parked. He went to see the patient. The visit went well. Whistling down the steps, he returned to the car, only to look inside and see his keys dangling in the ignition. He had locked his keys inside the car. He stopped and wondered what to do.

While he pondered this, a ten year old boy wandered up. “Something wrong, mister?” he said. Eugene muttered, “I locked my keys inside the car.” The boy said, “I can help you.” He removed a long wire contraption from his pocket, jimmied it in the window, and within thirty seconds, the door was open and he handed the keys to Eugene.

He was astonished. He thanked the kid, who looked at him and said, “Is it worth a dollar to you?” Eugene pulled out his wallet and said, “It’s worth two dollars.” And the kid bounded away with the money. Eugene drove away, thinking, “Here’s a kid at ten years old who already knows how to break into cars, and what a wonderful thing that he showed up right when I needed him!” Was he thinking about calling the cops and turning in the kid? No, not at all.

Step out of church when you hear this parable. This is how the world works, isn’t it? We had a man named Dave as one of our members. He’s transferred his membership to heaven. When he was still around here,  he was telling me about his work as an electrical inspector in the city of Scranton. “Reverend,” he said, “I can’t tell you how many times I inspected a wiring job, and a contractor or electrician said to me, ‘I have a paper bag full of money on the countertop and I am going to walk out of the room for a few minutes. Take your time. Leave whenever you need to.”

Dave was getting up in years. I said, “Is there anything you want to confess to your pastor?” He smiled and said, “Whenever that happened, I always failed the inspection and left the bribe behind. One time I called the cops to complain. They sent an officer over to check it out and the paper bag disappeared.” Dave sighed and said, “That’s the way of the world.”

Jesus tells this story about a dirty rotten scoundrel who easily worked the system of the day. Not only did he get away with it, he is commended by the boss and is held up as a sort of left-handed good example of what the kingdom’s people might be if they were a good bit shrewder than they are. Certainly we know church people who think things to death and then never get around to doing anything.

Not this guy; he says, “My back is not strong enough to dig ditches, and I have too much pride to beg.” So he devises a slick plan to do what he wants to get done. Jesus says, “Hey church – pay attention to him. Learn from his artful cunning.”

Now the problem, of course, is good Christian people hear this story, maybe for the first time. They get alarmed at the morality of this dishonest manager. True enough; Jesus seems indifferent to the man’s morality. He’s one of the dramatic rogues of the stories that Jesus tells, like the cranky judge who refuses to hear another word from a persistent woman, or the man who refuses to get out of bed when his friends knocks on the door at midnight. Jesus tells stories about Jewish boys who fall down so far they end up tending pigs and solitary travelers who don’t have the good sense to avoid the lonely road to Jericho. In the next couple of weeks, we will encounter a few more of these parable characters.

Sure, the hero in our story is a crook. But this is not a story about morality. If you want morality, recite the Ten Commandments. The text is clear: Thou shalt not steal. Jesus knew that one; he was there on the mountain when it was given. But that’s the Ten Commandments, not Luke 16.

Please understand: Jesus is not teaching morality in this parable. He is teaching about grace. The Boss discovers that his manager cannot be trusted. Does he throw him in jail? No. The manager cuts a few deals with the people who owe his Boss some money. Does the Boss call a stop to it and exert his rights? No. The dishonest manager gets away with it.

It’s just like the story immediately before it. Remember? A son says, “Father, give me my inheritance,” an insult like saying I wish you were dead. What does the father do? He gives it to him…without punishment. And when Junior slithers home, does the father judge him? No, he throws him a huge party. And when the older brother refuses to dance, what does the father do? He goes out to try to bring him in, because the party is for everybody. That is grace.

Do you see what grace does? It lets people get away with things. It cancels all forms of punishment. Grace declares that God’s heart is so full of joy, that God’s life is so full of laughter, that nothing matters more than a complete union between heaven and earth.

It’s no wonder that a lot of people don’t like grace. If somebody hurts me, I want them to pay for it. If somebody offends me, I demand that they apologize. But what if we simply forgave them? What if we canceled the debt? What if we stopped the chain-reaction of “he said, she said”? What if we let it go – if we gave it away – if we for-gave? That would be the same thing that God does for us . . . it would be hard thing, because it is a holy thing.

We don’t want to do the holy thing, we want to do our own thing. Maybe that’s why the human race continues in the mess that it is. Imagine what kind of shape we would be in, if we could be gracious to one another? Merciful to one another?

The Boss discovers what his manager has done, and he cuts him a break. He cuts him a break. Can you imagine that? When was the last time you cut anybody a break? When was the last time the Boss cut you a break?

On Friday night, my wife and I parked in Row 27 at the Bloomsburg Fair. I think that’s about six miles from the main gate. But the walk was refreshing, and there were deep-fried Oreos waiting for us. After tasting all the delicacies that the fair had to offer, we walked back to the car, but it was Friday night about 9:00. Looking at the traffic jam, we wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while.

After sitting for fifteen minutes in our perfectly-positioned getaway parking spot, some kind soul let us into the exit line. Not that it mattered; the line wasn’t moving. We inched forward, then paused. Another inch, then stop. I waved to another poor soul and let him pull in ahead of me. Nobody was moving.

Then the glacier began to budge. We began to roll ahead. But to my shock and dismay, I discovered the guy that I let in ahead of me was letting everybody in ahead of him. Why was he doing that? It is one thing to allow in one car; that’s paying ahead the favor that somebody first paid you. But to let everybody else in? Why, that would be . . . why, that would be just like God!

How gracious God is; how stingy I am.

You know, there is one prayer that I pray every day. I highly recommend it. It is the one prayer that I really want to have answered every day. It fits every circumstance. I need to pray it every day.

Goes like this: “God, be merciful to me…” And God answers it with more grace than I could ever expect. Know what I mean?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Story of the Dysfunctional Family

Luke 15:11-32
September 22, 2013
William G. Carter

If you read the Bible, you won’t find a lot of healthy families there.

That fact is usually lost on people who wave the Good Book around without ever opening it. Perhaps they pick and choose their selective verses to support pre-existing points of view. Or somebody will go on TV to grandstand on the great issues of the day, attempting to squelch all opposition by citing a verse from Leviticus and declaring, “The Bible says . . .”

Well, the Bible says a lot of things. We might expect that if we remember the Bible was written over twelve hundred years or so to people in a shifting culture. Nations rose and fell, rulers came and went, economies grew and dwindled. Yet God persisted in speaking in many ways through a variety of people. Some of that was remembered and written down. So the Bible says a lot of things.

And one message that it repeats is that the human family is a great big mess. A sloppy, disastrous mess. That’s why the nations rise and fall. That’s why no king or queen has permanent tenure. That’s why greedy people devour the weak and needy. We are a mess. And this gets played out in our families.

Whatever else we say about this famous story of Jesus, it’s a story about a messed-up family. Once upon a time, there was a father who had two sons. He doesn’t seem to have any influence over either one.

The younger son says, in essence, “Dad, I wish you were dead. Give me my share of the inheritance that I’m going to get when you’re gone.” He shows his father no respect, and simply demands what he believes he deserves. When he receives it, he blows it all, even to the last nickel. His life is a complete waste. When he hits bottom, he rehearses a speech to con his father into taking him in.

Meanwhile, later on, the older brother sits out in the family field, his arms crossed. He refuses to reconcile when his brother returns. He has no joy that his brother is home safe and sound. Instead he complains to their father about “that son of yours.” He will not budge. He is set in his ways. He has convinced himself that his own lack of adventure and unwillingness to take risks is a sign of his superior character, so he has no time for the party.

That is a messed-up family. When the story concludes, there is no sign of any movement. They are just stuck. 

We have no assurance that, the next day, after the younger boy sleeps off the effects of the party, that he’s not going to steal a couple of silver candlesticks and head for Vegas again. And so far as we know, his older brother spent the night in the field, arms crossed, jaw clenched. He probably didn’t get a wink of sleep, and he’s going to blame his brother for that, too. 

It is a single parent family. No mama in sight. No sisters either. Just this father whose broken heart was mended when Number Two came home, only to have it broken again when Number One Son refuses to forgive.   

Nobody wonders why Jesus tells a story like this. It’s a story about a family, and family is where we have to work out the issues of life and death, wealth and waste, mercy and punishment. The Bible never backs off from that. The great lessons of love and grace don’t make any sense for any of us unless we can work them out within the crazy circles of relatives where God places every one of us.

I remember an older preacher telling me about his first job. He graduated Yale Divinity School and took a job as the chaplain of a Christian campground in South Carolina. That’s where he was from. He couldn’t wait to get down there, have Bible studies, and work with the teenagers. Every night was going to be a family campfire. They would sing Kum BaYah and make s’mores. He couldn’t wait to get started.

Then the campers started rolling in. His counseling load grew until it was overwhelming. All these families that never spend time together were now forced to spend seven days and nights under the same roof. One rainy day, he had to phone the sheriff six times because of domestic disputes.  So he quickly resigned and took a job as a pastor of a United Methodist church. That has to be easier than being a chaplain at a Christian family camp, right?

We don’t know anything, really, about the two sons in Jesus’ story. Did the younger one want to get off the farm and head for bright lights in the big city? Did the older brother lack imagination and initiative? We don’t know. The story is two thousand years old and sounds so familiar.

Maybe the story is even older than that. Ken Bailey, the Bible scholar, says Jesus did not have to invent this tale out of the air, especially with families the way they are. In fact, says Bailey, Israel already had a story of two brothers who didn’t see eye to eye. That was the story of Jacob and Esau. They were twins, and they were nothing alike. Jacob was the younger, a thief and swindler. Esau was dutiful and obedient, and never strayed far from home.

You may remember that Jacob tricked his brother into giving him the birthright as Number One Son. Then, with his mother’s help, he fooled his father into giving him the irrevocable family blessing – a blessing usually given upon death. Jacob had no scruples, and Esau was furious when he discovered what his brother has gotten away with.

It’s a familiar story, isn’t it? In some of our families, it is the same old story repeated every generation or two. And the question is, what are we going to do when there is anger, bickering, and frozen conflict?  What are we going to do when lines are drawn, positions are fixed, and nobody is willing to budge? What do you think?

I will never forget when Eddie showed up in the wrong room. It was his sister’s wedding, as I recall. Eddie had done hard time for robbing a gas station. He had been desperate and foolish, thinking to himself, “I will just get some money now and pay it back later.” Sadly it didn’t work that way. He disappeared from public view after his arrest. Nobody talked about it.

When his sister Darla got married, the whole family was there. You know how it is: people were sitting on opposite sides of the aisle, neither side giving much time to the other. The back door opened and Eddie walked in. His head was shaved, his face was grey. When he walked in, everybody froze. Nobody moved. Some of the people on this side of the aisle glared at some of the people on that side of the aisle as if his appearance was their fault. Nobody spoke. Nobody budged . . . until Darla dropped her bouquet and ran down the aisle. She hugged her broken brother and said, “I’m so glad you are here!” With that, there was a huge exhale and nobody knew what to do.

Do you know what she did? She took Eddie up the aisle and introduced him to her new husband. After the service, she took him around the fire hall and introduced him to everybody at the reception. I was just a kid, but I didn’t know you could do that. The world that I lived in taught us to stay to ourselves, to hold fast to our intractable positions. I don’t think I had ever before seen such aggressive grace.

That is how the father acts in the story of Jesus. It’s really a story about him. “There was a man who had two sons…” and he is aggressively gracious toward each one. He goes out to each son. Unlike any other father in the first century Palestinian world, this father leaves the seat of power and runs to embrace the returning younger son. That’s not how it normally worked back then; you go all the way to your father. You never expect him to come toward you. In a shame-based village culture, that father runs to welcome his boy, thus signaling to the whole village, “Hands off, he is all mine, and I refuse to punish him since he returns to me.” He cuts off the well-polished apology speech (did you notice that?) and cries out, “Bring him a princely robe and my signet ring. Call the caterers and hire the zydeco band. It is time for a joyful party!”

Likewise, the father goes out to the older son, too. He knows it cannot truly be a joyful party unless everybody is welcomed to the rejoicing. In his flesh, he makes real the words that he speaks to the self-righteous son: “All that I have is yours. Everything that is mine belongs to you as well - - even that crazy brother of yours that just returned home. He is your brother too.”  As far as know, the father is still out there, begging that hard-head to come and enjoy the barbeque.

Now here is the point: neither one of those boys did anything to deserve such treatment. That is the definition of grace: it is favorable treatment that we cannot win and could not deserve. Yet it comes anyway. Grace is aggressive. It comes toward us from a God who moves beyond any system of punishment or reward. Grace comes in complete goodness, for the purpose of creating joy, to the end that all people love one another as brothers and sisters.

This is the Gospel. This is the mission of Jesus. Luke says this is the message first sung by angels to the shepherds: Unto you is born this day a Savior, who is the Christ, the Lord. If I may translate that First Nowell: You shepherds weren’t even looking for him. But in him, God came looking for you

How amazing this is! In the midst of dysfunction that characterizes the whole human family, God runs to us with aggressive grace. God does not want anybody to stay broken or to keep fighting.

Like old Jacob and Esau! When Jacob realizes God is bringing them face to face, with all the bad blood between them, what does he do? He marches his kids and his women-folk at the front of the line, hoping that will soften Esau’s heart just a little bit. Then he braces himself for the inevitable. But that’s not good enough for Esau. He falls on Jacob, holds him, embraces him, begins to weep.

Welcome home, little brother. Welcome home.

This is a snapshot of the mission of God. It is a picture of what God’s people – God’s Christian people – are called to be: ambassadors of God’s aggressive grace.

I have great respect for the father in this story. No hesitation. No hangups. No fear. No guilt trip. No revenge. No bitterness. If he had any such baggage, he let it go. You know how hard that is? It takes superhuman ability, some power way beyond what the rank and file person has. You need the ability to let go of hurts. You need the skill of welcoming the warlike, the resentful, and the headstrong. You need to look upon those who reject you and feel nothing but deep love. I consider this, and wonder if I ever could become like that. It is such hard work.

Then it strikes me that I already have a Father like that. So do you. Boundless mercy. Unrequited love. Watching and waiting, even pursuing, always glad to see me. Ever know grace like that?

With our house emptying out this summer, my wife decided we needed a dog. I confess what a few of you know. I am not a dog person. Dogs need to get up early. Dogs leave white spots on your lawn. Dogs need somebody to watch them when you hit the road. I prefer cats, even though all my cats have died. I didn't want a dog. But my wife said, “I want a dog.” And I realized if I wanted a wife, I needed a dog.

So a springer spaniel named Pippa came to live with us earlier this year. It has gone pretty well. We have lost a few shoes. There are some spots on my lawn. But Pippa has big brown eyes and cute floppy ears. And she doesn't seem to care that I am not, by biological makeup, a dog person. No, she sits on the back of the living room chair and watches for me. She gets energized when I pull into the driveway. 

Pippa is always glad to see me. With something like a pure love, she does not ask any questions or remind me of my faults. She makes no requirement for my return. Just dances around with excitement and barks. It is as if she is saying, “Welcome home! I want you close by my side.”

That's a parable. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.