Once, in college, I willingly attended a conference called Business Ethics for Christians. The general thrust of this event was to try and convince us Christian young people that as we left college and entered the business world, we had a responsibility to God to be the most upstanding and shining examples imaginable of honesty, diligence, and industry in our respective fields. We had to make Jesus look good out there!
The lecturer spoke about ten standard, yawn-inducing business principles and after each he provided a short quote from scripture to show us that these were, in fact, Christian principles and they represented how followers of Jesus should behave on the job. Unfortunately, our scripture reading from this morning did not make his list! Now that would have been an interesting lecture! Because (just in case you didn’t believe your ears and your eyes this morning) in our reading Jesus praises a swindler. Instead of praising the rich man who succeeded in business (we must assume) through the application of virtue and hard work, Jesus praises the poor man—a poor man who falls right into the worst stereotypes about poor people. This manager is a lazy, incompetent, selfish, liar. And Jesus holds this poor, broken swindler up! He holds him up while he’s in the act of defrauding his master for his own personal gain and points to him as an example of moral clarity for all of us to follow and learn from. Now, how can that be?
Also in my college years, I worked for a brief time in sales at an outdoor kiosk at Park Street Station on the Boston Red Line right across the street from the church where I heard that lecture on Christian business ethics. There was a man named Sam who sat on an old milk crate at the entrance to the station and sold the Boston Globe and the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to the business people commuting in and out of the city. Sam was a little grizzled, he had a very small limp—barely noticeable, and he had a pretty brisk trade selling these papers. When he’d run out of papers for the day, Sam would take off his clean sweatshirt and he’d replace it with this tattered old thing. He’d walk into the Boston Common and with each step toward the park his limp would get more and more pronounced. In the park he’d beg from the tourists and stuff their bills into the pouch full of the wads of money he’d made that day selling his papers.
Riding home from work on the subway one day, a man, presumably homeless, asked me for a dollar. I just turned my head away. He went down the car and I saw someone give him a five-dollar bill. It was Sam.
Now, I was friendly with Sam. People called him the mayor of Park Street Station, so it was hard not to be friendly with him. But every time he’d wave goodbye to me and head off to the Common, I judged him. I knew—for certain—that I was better person than Sam. But now look at us. The kid who sat through Business Ethics for Christians was being given a lesson in the Gospel of Jesus Christ from Sam the swindler. To put it in the language of Jesus from our scripture reading this morning: Sam was faithful with his dishonest wealth and I was faithless with my “honest” wealth.
Well, if you’re anything like me, you don’t plan on robbing or conning anyone and that’s not likely to change no matter what even Jesus says. So, what can these swindlers teach us about Jesus and what he’s actually asking of us non-embezzling types?
First, the parable of the dishonest manager teaches us that Jesus is skeptical of a world divided between a few rich people and the vast majority of poor people who work for them or are indebted to them or both. This reality is not compatible with the values Jesus preaches, teaches, or lives. It is not compatible with the Kingdom of God Jesus proclaims.
Second, Jesus is skeptical of the pious, the righteous, the devout, and the goody two-shoes of this world. He’s skeptical that the people who sit through lectures entitled Business Ethics for Christians and the people who think their goodness and rule-following makes them better than other people will actually, ever—despite talking a big game and loads of good intentions—that they will actually ever do anything for their themselves or for their neighbors that will address the broken and anti-Kingdom-of-God nature of our social-political-religious-economic structure. Because when you buy into this world, according to Jesus, when you benefit from the rules and norms of this world, you are not preparing yourself for the world yet to come, the Kingdom of God.
This is how the swindler becomes the unwitting hero of Jesus’ parable. The swindler (although acting without any lofty intentions) accidentally proclaims the Kingdom of God by forgiving the debts of his master’s debtors. And although the swindler is clearly acting purely out of a need for self-preservation, he still acts with respect to one of the great Biblical truths—that I am my brother’s keeper, that I cannot survive without a community, that we do not belong to ourselves alone, that we are one body of Christ, and we all belong to one another. As Jesus says in our reading this morning, “If you haven’t been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?” The dishonest manager is faithless to his master’s wealth and to the rules that protect it, but he is faithful to his master’s debtors, and that, says Jesus, (although achieved accidentally) is the proper loyalty—not to money and to power and to the rules that enforce them, but to God and to people and to the good news.
We also learn again that for Jesus our intentions and our appearances and good social standing and other’s high opinions of us don’t matter. If you think very highly of yourself indeed, and intend to change the world for the better one day, and devote yourself to proper moral reasoning, and have years of theological training, but you don’t have a dollar to spare on the subway, you will never be the hero in one of Jesus’ parables. And if you intend nothing but a bit swindling to save your own be-hind, but in the process you forgive debts, show mercy, and make friends, then you may be closer to the Kingdom of God than all the Children of Light. That is how Jesus sees us. That is how Jesus sees the world.
Jesus’ parables always bring us good news and this one especially is good news for all of us. Have you failed? Have you lost? Have you squandered? Have you been caught? Are you a rascal? A swindler? A liar? A cheat? Do you think you’ll never be able to fix it? Are you afraid that you’ll never find forgiveness or peace? Jesus has a way out: love your neighbors, forgive your debtors, show mercy to those like yourself. Starting right now, right in the middle of the mess and the stress and the chaos, be faithful to other people and you will begin to discover the true riches of Jesus’ way.
When Abraham Lincoln first met Edwin Stanton, they were both lawyers and they were supposed to be working together on the same case. It didn’t go well. Edwin Stanton said about Lincoln (loudly enough to be overheard and recorded in history) “Where did that long-armed creature come from and what can he expect to do in this case?” Lincoln was mortified at being denied a role on the legal team, but he remained in court anyway to listen to Stanton’s argument, and he was gracious enough to remark to friends how greatly he admired Stanton’s oratory skills and his knowledge of the law.
But this did nothing to raise Stanton’s opinion of Lincoln. Throughout the years Stanton lobbed all kinds of insults at the future president. He called Lincoln a clown. He said that explorers were foolish to search for the then-mythical gorilla in Africa when they could easily capture one in Springfield, IL. After Lincoln became president, Stanton publicly called him a baboon and an imbecile and criticized his handling of the Civil War.
And then in the midst of that very conflict, Lincoln (a Republican) called upon Stanton (a prominent democrat) to become his Secretary of War. Lincoln knew that Stanton was opinionated, and stubborn, and not easily liked, but Lincoln did his best to like him anyway, to understand him, and to believe in his human ability to rise up and to share with Lincoln the burden of the hardest job in the world.
Three years later, on the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Stanton rushed to be by his President’s side. Stanton, not known to be an emotional man, wept beside Lincoln’s unconscious body. And learning of Lincoln’s death the next morning, Stanton said, “Now he belongs to the ages.” While Lincoln was laid in state in the White House for his funeral, Stanton was overheard saying, “There lies the most perfect ruler of men the world has ever seen.” It's incredible what can happen when you don’t give up on people.
In order to not give up on people, you have to understand love in the way that I must assume Lincoln understood love. Love is most often celebrated in our culture as the fireworks that happen when you walk into a party and lock eyes with someone across the room—and you just know, right away, that they’re the one. But love is so much more than an emotion to jazz up a deep, pre-exiting affinity for another person. When a perfect couple falls in love, that’s nice—maybe even beautiful—but it’s not exactly a miracle, is it? But love can do so much more. Because love is patient. Love, like water over a rock, knows how to take its time. Love doesn’t know exactly what the rough rock will look years and years from now, but love has the confidence to know that even the roughest of relationships can be smoothed as long as you don’t turn off the faucet—as long as you don’t give up.
I know what you’re thinking—that it’s worse in our country now than it ever has been. That our opponents are truly evil people. That our discourse has fallen off a cliff. That our culture has regressed. I’ll just remind you that the 1860s and the years that led up to them were a far worse time in American history. A Civil War was being fought—the bloodiest war ever at the time. 2% of the US population died on the battlefield of that war. 4 million Black men, women, and children were held in the brutal bondage of chattel slavery. Abraham Lincoln was the commander and chief of the Union Army and in some sense the blood of hundreds of thousands of people was on his hands. But while Lincoln waged war on the Confederacy, he never gave up on the South. And while he emancipated the slaves, he never gave up on the slaveowners. He was one of the rare people who could balance justice and mercy, war and compassion, boundaries and love. And that is why he belongs to the ages—because Lincoln never gave up on the Union and he never gave up on the people (North or South, slave or free, Republican or Democrat) who made up that union.
Christians don’t give up on people either. We don’t give up on people because God has never and will never give up on us. It’s remarkable to leave 99 sheep alone and unprotected to search for one lost sheep. It’s wasteful to burn more in oil than the value of the little coin you’re looking for. But that’s how God encourages us to love. If we’re too safe in our loving, God asks us to take a risk. If we love prudently, God pushes us toward love foolishly, extravagantly, without counting the cost. If we go to war with someone, God demands we do not cut them out of our hearts or our prayers.
We Christians don’t give up on people. And, ideally, that means we don’t grumble about the fact that all the attention isn’t always on us—the well behaved 99. We don’t complain about the wasted resources of the lamp lit all night long—that’s expensive you know! Because we remember that everybody gets a little lost in the dark from time to time. Don’t you get a little lost every once in a while? If the light is always left on for someone, that means on the night I get lost, it will already be lit for me.
We Christians don’t give up on people. But it’s not easy, you know? Because giving up is so easy to do, you might not even know you’re doing it! You don’t have to say out loud three times, “I give up! I give up! I give up!” There are subtler ways to do it. If someone insults you, just take it personally. If someone disagrees with you, hold a grudge. If someone says something you don’t like, stop listening to them. When the world feels dangerous, stay at home. When church feels hard, stay away. When one sheep gets lost, just tell yourself you’re staying with the 99 because it’s your responsibility to keep them safe too. When one coin gets lost, just tell yourself it’s not worth your time or effort. It’s easy to give up without ever admitting we’ve quit at all. And so we always need to watch ourselves, to check our hearts in prayer, to make sure we’re not checking out on the world, to make sure we don’t give up on people.
Beloved, on this Celebration Sunday, we have so much to celebrate. God has never and will never give up on us. We will never give up on other people. As a church, over the next program year, we are going to pour our resources into seeking lost sheep and celebrating together. We know that love can do amazing things if we just give love a few opportunities and a little time. We are confident that God is with us and we are committed to being with one another.
Perfection is a mirage! We will never be perfect. And we will never all think or act alike. Do we even really want that? It sounds like the beginning of a piece of dystopian fiction. But we have something so much better than all that: We don’t give up on people! And that is a reason to celebrate.
If you go out into the world, you'll find that a lot of people well, maybe not a lot, but a lot more people than just Christians read the Bible. And there's good reason to read the Bible. There is some of the greatest works of literature, amazing stories, incredible theological treatises that have defined Western culture. You know, you think about something like the gospel according to John, I think the majority of people have read it at least once. They know a little bit about that struggle between the light and the darkness there in the beginning, or you think about the Nook of Job and that grand mythological story of the deal between God and the devil, the bet that they play, job's incredible suffering and his endurance, the friends that come along and give him all kinds of bad advice, but he holds on until God comes to give him an answer, and the answer is just another mystery. The story of Jonah being swallowed up by a whale, because he's trying to run away from God's commands. Just these incredible stories. And Paul wrote the Epistle to the Romans all about faith and grace that has defined Christian theology on both sides of the issue for hundreds of years.
Not many people who are familiar with the Bible as a work of great literature are familiar with Paul's letter to Philemon. It is a tiny little thing. Nikki read almost the entirety. There's just a few more lines saying goodbye at the end. It's not a great work of literature. There's not some amazing story. There's no theological pronouncements in it. But I think for us as Christians, people who read the Bible on the inside of the faith, there is more to the book of Philemon than there is maybe to some of the other books that are considered to be the great books of the Bible. And the reason for that is that this is a book all about relationship, a letter about relationship, a personal letter from Paul.
The context here is that Paul has been apparently imprisoned at this time. We're not entirely sure about exactly what that means perhaps it was while he was in prison in Rome. We know that he was imprisoned multiple times during his ministry. A friend of his, from some Christian community that he apparently founded or was close to named Philemon has given Paul one of his slaves to serve him while he is in prison in his ministry. Presumably Philemon is a Christian and so is Onesimus. The slave is a Christian. During this time, Paul becomes incredibly close in his relationship to Onesimus and he writes a letter back to Philemon saying, I am sending Onesimus back to you. He's your slave. And I could tell you what to do. I could command you, but I'm not going to do it. I'm going to let you decide to do the right thing. But I want you to free him. I want him to become more than a slave to you. Give him his freedom, let him go. Paul sits in the middle of a relationship between Onesimus the slave and Philemon the slave master, both Christians, both friends to him. And there he is in the midst of it, trying to work out God's will, God's love, God's vision of heaven on earth, and it's not easy to do.
Paul had, was familiar with slavery and he wrote about slavery in some of his letters. Paul wrote this, one of the most incredible lines in the entire Bible, “In Christ, there is no male or female, no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free.” In other words, in Christ all of our social distinctions are obliterated. We are equal. We are children of God. And there's no reason that a church shouldn't have members who are male and female, shouldn't have members who are slave and free, shouldn't presumably have leaders and deacons who come from all of these different backgrounds, Jew, and Gentile, all together. He saw this, the church, as a little bit of a vision of what heaven must look like, where all the distinctions are taken away, and we can all be one body of Christ together. But at the same time, Paul wasn't a radical, he wasn't a revolutionary. He wasn't saying let's overthrow the power structure. Let's get rid of the Roman empire, let's end slavery all together and fight to the death until we get what's right. Paul kind of sat in the middle. Paul believed that Christ was coming back and coming back soon. So he didn't necessarily think that the world order was something that needed to be changed. He kind of just said, well, let's just let the world order be and have a spiritual revolution within our churches and within ourselves. So he was kind of in the middle.
But then he writes this letter and this letter isn't a theoretical theological letter. It is a practical letter, a practical explanation of what it is actually like to be a Christian who is in relationship. This letter doesn't answer for us, “What should I, as a Christian, think about slavery? Is slavery, right? Or is slavery wrong?” Instead, it gives us something more. It answers for us, “What must I as a Christian do in relationship to slavery, in relationship to injustice, in relationship to people on two sides of an issue who are in conflict with one another?”
And the answer of Philemon is that a Christian always acts in relationship. That's who we are. It's interesting because we recently had a church council retreat just a few weeks ago as I was coming back from my paternity leave. We put a lot of time into planning and preparing it. It was a two day event for the church council. The first day was a Friday event and it was a time to come together and just sort of have community and eat food together and enjoy one another's company. And we had a few prompts for discussion, and we were talking about how the world had changed in the last three years after COVID and what we had lost and how the church had changed and what our hopes were for the future. And in the course of that amazing Holy Spirit filled conversation, we came to an understanding of ourselves as a church—that we are a church that defines itself by our relationships with one another. And that the most important thing to us as a church is the relationships that we maintain within our community and the relationships that we are growing out into the community around us. And everything else, no matter how amazing the event is, how important the issue or the mission is, what's most important is that we can be together in relationship to one another.
There's a couple of different ways of thinking about relationship. One is a word that we use around here all the time, and you hear it. It's a very Christian word, and it's the word fellowship. Right? We say this all the time, we have a fellowship hour, we have a fellowship hall and we often want to get together just to have fellowship, right? And fellowship is a beautiful part of relating to one another. Fellowship is being together, speaking to one another, listening to someone. And I think fellowship is even more. It's also serving someone, helping someone, being there for someone, being there for someone in their time of need.
And fellowship is really kind of the ground level of a relationship, but there is an aspect of relationship that goes deeper than fellowship. And I think that in Christianity we call that level of relationship communion. Well, fellowship is being together, helping one another, loving one another. Communion is being transformed by one another. It's about opening yourself to someone so completely that you let them change your mind, change your point of view. It's about being so open to someone that you take on their pain as your pain and their dreams as your dreams.
We're going to be having communion up here at the altar in just a few minutes. And a lot of the time we think about communion as my relationship to God, right? I'm gonna come down the aisle, I'm going to get the bread and the juice, and I'm gonna get right with God. I'm gonna be forgiven for my sins. And I'm going to reconnect with my God. And it doesn't matter what's happening with the person behind me in line. And it doesn't matter what happens to the person in front of me in line. But in reality, what this sacrament is about, the sacrament that we're going to do later on in the morning, it's about broken bread and a shared cup. It's about doing something that transforms us from individuals, looking for our personal relationship with God, into a community that is holding one another up, listening to one another, loving one another and letting the Holy Spirit come in between these relationships and transform all of us from a bunch of individuals, into a church, into the body of Christ.
And that's exactly what we see Paul modeling for us in this letter to Philemon. Paul enters into a relationship with Onesimus and he lets that relationship change him. It changes him so much that Paul who said, “Hey, you know, don't worry about slavery. Don't worry about this world too much. It's the spiritual things that matter,” that he wrote this letter to Philemon and said free Onesimus from slavery. And Paul, wasn't afraid to be in relationship to Philemon. He didn't say, well Onesimus is a slave and Philemon is a slave master, therefore I'm only going to be in relationship with Onesimus and I'm done with Philemon because he's a jerk who doesn't do the right thing. He came to him with the same kind of transformative love that Onesimus brought to him.
I think that this is the piece of Christian wisdom and practice that our churches and our wider culture need right now, the understanding that conflict and difference and disagreements do not have to be the end of our relationship or the end of our fellowship. If we let the Holy Spirit in and if we are willing to be changed by God and by our neighbors, then now is the time when communion actually can happen in our world and in our lives. It begins here with us. Are we as a church going to turn aside from our relationships when they make us uncomfortable? Are we going to hold back on giving our opinions because we're afraid that our opinions might offend someone? Are we going to walk away from a community of fellowship out of a desire for a more ideologically, pure community where nobody thinks differently than I do?
Or will we break the bread? Will we share the cup? And will we allow ourselves to be transformed by one another into what God is calling us to be?
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations