Sunday, September 23, 2007

Proper 20C

Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Crystal Springs; St. Matthew's, Forest

Amos 8:4-12; Psalm 138; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

I must confess I often have a hard time remembering sermons – even the really good ones. But there is one sermon I will never forget, a sermon I heard now almost 20 years ago at a tiny little church in Charleston, South Carolina. I don’t remember the name of the church, or the name of the preacher, or the text he was preaching on. But I remember the sermon.

The preacher, apparently, was not originally from the south. On the last night of his long drive from somewhere far away to Charleston, he stayed at a Howard Johnson just off the interstate. The next morning, he grabbed his roadmap and notebook out of the car, and made his way to the hotel restaurant for breakfast.

He was seated in a booth, and the waitress told him about the specials as she poured him a cup of coffee. The preacher had a favorite breakfast, though, and so he placed his order: two scrambled eggs, bacon, toast with jelly.

When the waitress left, he spread his map across the table, and with a yellow pen traced the last leg of his journey to the South Carolina low country. In his notebook he checked the list of things he would need to do when he arrived in Charleston later that afternoon.

It didn’t take long for the waitress to return with his plate, and so he moved aside his maps and books to make room for his breakfast. When she asked if there was anything else he needed, the preacher glanced at his plate and saw the scrambled eggs still steaming, the strips of bacon glistening, the perfectly golden toast with little packets of mixed fruit jelly…and a pile of white stuff topped with a square of melted butter that had begun to drip down the sides.

“Um, I didn’t order this,” he told the waitress. “This white stuff. I didn’t order this. What is it?”

“Honey,” she told him, “that’s grits. It just comes.”

That’s grits. It just comes. The preacher learned that morning what we already know – when you order breakfast in the south, you don’t have to request grits. You have to request no grits. Otherwise, it just comes.

A lot of things in life just come with no warning, no explanation, no placing an order. Beautiful sunsets, happy birthdays, phone calls from distant friends – wonderful things that we weren’t expecting. But also car accidents, debilitating illnesses, devastating natural disasters – terrible things that we never expected.

That’s life. It just comes.

Even when we know it’s coming, even when we have a long time to prepare, to plan, to buckle up, to board up…even when we know it’s coming, life can turn our worlds upside down and inside out, and we are suddenly in a new place with no map to help us find our way.

This parable is listed among what many scholars call the “hard sayings” of Jesus, and several suggest this one is the hardest. Jesus seems to lead us onto new ground where dishonesty and deceitfulness are commended, hard work is dismissed, and wealth is lifted up as a means for ensuring one’s own future.

Surely the dishonest manager knew that his boss might catch him cooking the books one day, and that if he was caught he would be fired. He must have known what was coming. But no matter how we interpret what the manager did next, he was still acting dishonestly, at least to some degree. Some scholars try to redeem him a little by suggesting that the amount he deducted from the debtors’ bills may have been the amount of illegal interest charged by his boss. Or that the reduction may have been the amount of the manager’s own commission. Perhaps he simply calculated how much each debtor could afford to pay, and then cleared the balance. In any case, the debtors did not know that the manager no longer had the authority to make these decisions. The boss did not know that the manager was still being dishonest. The manager deceived everyone.

But in the standard twist-at-the-end-of-a-parable, the manager, too, was deceived. He did not get the mercy he was scheming for – he got more. Whether he deserved it or not, the manager would be in the good graces of the debtors, because he had reduced their bills. What was unexpected was that he landed, at least for the moment, in the good graces of the master as well, because he had acted shrewdly. The manager, whatever his motives, had wrangled accounts, had managed available financial resources, in such a way as to produce a win-win situation for everyone involved. The debtors would repay what they owed (or least some portion of it), and out of gratitude to the manager, would be sure to help him out in his unemployment. The boss would collect his outstanding debts, and would finally be free of the manager who had been dishonest in his dealings.

What on earth does this hardest parable mean? What did Jesus intend to teach us? Scholars are all over the map on this one – there are enough explanations to provide for a lifetime of sermons. This morning, though, let us reduce it to one.

I believe this hard saying from Jesus can remind us that grace comes at unexpected times and from unexpected places. From dishonest managers whose self-centered scheming ends up benefiting others as well. From Oscar Schindler, and others like him, whose carefully orchestrated deceptions saved the lives of thousands during the Holocaust. From a man who routinely broke the law, who ate with tax collectors and sinners, who healed on the Sabbath, who deceived the greatest deceiver of them all by returning new life for death on a cross.

It is, I believe, the message that Charleston pastor preached 20 years ago: grace is like grits. It just comes.

Grace, like life – because of life, perhaps; in spite of life, sometimes – grace just comes. Grace, the overabundance of God’s love revealed in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who ministered to outcasts, who died for sinners, who forgave debtors, who rose for us all. Grace, the overabundance of God’s love poured into us by the Holy Spirit, whether or not we have asked for it, whether or not we want it, whether or not we deserve it. Grace is like grits. It just comes.

It comes at unexpected times and in unexpected places. In fact, God gives us grace at all times and in all places, an overabundance of love piled high on our plates, and so we are able to give grace, able to love more than we think we are. If left to our own devices, we might be inclined to look after ourselves as the dishonest manager did. But the real significance of grace is that it can make honest people of us – it makes us able, despite our shortcomings, to reveal God’s love to others.

The choice, then, is not whether or not we will ask for God’s grace, but rather, whether or not we will allow it to fill us when it is offered, when it comes. Will we be transformed? Whom will we serve? Will we store up wealth for ourselves, in the form of money or possessions or power or pride, or will we serve our true master whose immeasurable riches consist in love and generosity and forgiveness and grace?

The dishonest manager had something like the right idea – he needed to be in relationship with others to survive. And he was right that there are times when the shrewd – meaning the careful, thoughtful – use of financial resources helps to establish and maintain those relationships. But for what purpose? Jesus urges us this morning to establish and maintain relationships by grace, by that same overabundance of love that he has shown us through his forgiveness of our self-serving sins. He urges us to serve God, putting all of who we are – our lives, our hopes, our work, our resources, our wealth – in God’s service. We will be amazed at what becomes possible, amazed at the unexpected riches of love and generosity and forgiveness and abundant grace we receive at this table, that we might take it into a hungry world, to those who have never tried grace before.

Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Amen.


Anonymous said...

Abolutely beautiful & right on. Well done, Jen!
love, Dad

Anonymous said...

You go, girl! Way to preach! Glyn