Click Below to Listen to the Sermon Being Preached
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
18th Sunday After Pentecost/C • September 18, 2016
What’s your favorite recipe? Most of us have one: a set of steps we go through to make something we like. We have recipes for the way we live, too, patterns that tell us how to do things from weddings to funerals. We live, in fact, with a great store of patterns that whisper with the voices of the past. How do planning sessions usually start?—“What did we do last year.” These voices are like ghosts, telling us how to do things, what we should do. But the ghosts can blind us to new possibilities. Henrik Ibsen’s play, Ghosts, traces the downfall of an entire family because they are controlled by their past. Which way are you looking: are you seeing only where you’ve been or looking forward to new possibilities?
Living With Change
Jesus lived in the midst of great economic changes. For centuries the villages of Galilee had functioned with a few very poor and even fewer very rich people. The hillsides were terraced and full of small farms and olive groves. The villages themselves were home to craftspeople like Jesus’ father, a maker of wooden tools. History focuses on the blood and fire of battles and kings; in the Galilee, life went on, day to day, year to year, in the same way for hundreds of years. People were born, lived, died. New settlers moved in, others left. Not much changed.
But after a long period of civil wars and wars of conquest, the Roman Emperor Augustus had created a settled system of rule. Rich Romans and others, benefitting from trade and Imperial preferment, began to buy up the small farms and turn them into larger businesses. Of course, these people didn’t want to live out in the rural areas; having pushed small farmers off the land, they hired managers, stewards, who had the authority to act on their behalf, while the owners themselves lived in luxury in cities. Often the former farm owners worked for the new landowner but now as a kind of sharecropper, owing a portion of the produce to the new owner. These loans were written with owed amount including interest payments, often large ones; after all the sharecropper had no choice but to accept the terms.
The Situation of the Steward
I’ve taken this detour into economics, hoping you’ve stayed with me, so you will understand the situation behind the parable we read. Imagine the man called the steward in the story. Perhaps he grew up on one of the little family farms that no long exist. Perhaps his family had lived there for generations, passing the land down. But the chain has broken; things have changed. Imagine how happy he must have been when he got the job as the steward for the big landowner. No more trying to scratch out a living; no more worry about the bills. His position would make him a big man in a small town.
So he makes deals, loans; after all, that’s his job. Some of these are large. The amounts in the story are tremendous: the oil amounts to 900 gallons of olive oil. The steward himself works on a commission; the more he squeezes the farmers, the more he makes. So while he may have been a leading citizen, I imagine he was someone people more feared than liked. When he walked into the local tavern, conversations quieted, people looked away, perhaps someone behind on his loan left.
When someone got hurt by his pursuit of profit, I imagine him saying, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” Perhaps he crosses some lines; perhaps he makes a few shady deals, perhaps his accounting is off or perhaps he just openly steals. There are complaints, maybe there is an investigation. We don’t know how things came to a head, but there is a crisis. He’s about to be fired.
Now imagine the night after this message. He’s about to go from a big man in a small town to unemployed. This crisis isn’t just business: now it’s him and it’s personal. He considers the alternatives, rejecting them one by one: ‘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.” [Luke 16:3] Shame, strength, these things limit his alternatives. But he has one thing going for him: he’s a smart, crafty guy. That’s what got him into trouble in the first place; now he uses it to find a way forward. He uses it to change things.
Making a Change: Facing Forward
The change he makes is to put relationships first. His only hope is to create a situation where he will, as he says, be welcomed into the homes of people in the town. So one by one he calls them in. One by one, he cancels the interest on their loans.
Can you imagine their reaction? Suppose your mortgage company called and said, “We’ve reviewed your account and decided to give you the title, free and clear.” Suppose your credit card company said, “We’ve decided to cancel your remaining balance. Thanks for being a customer.” Imagine it: can you? It’s hard isn’t it, because these things don’t happen. It’s hard to imagine the joy of those people in the story. It’s hard to believe that joy. Change is like that. We are so used to living from where we’ve been, we forget to face forward.
Jesus tells this story about an amazing change, and it takes your breath away. What happens here is wrong, what happens here is illegal. This steward has no business using his client’s business to improve his relationships, to set himself up for the future.
Reacting to the Parable
This story is so wrong that even before Luke wrote it into his gospel, preachers were trying to figure out why Jesus told it. The parable itself is just the first seven or so verses of the reading; the other lines are a series of interpretations. One commentator said, “You can almost see the sermon notes here.” We can even hear an echo of the disciples at verse eight, where it says, “The master commended the dishonest manager..” The word that’s used there for ‘master’ is usually translated, ‘Lord’; it’s the same term used for Jesus. Imagine Jesus telling his disciples this story, see them waiting for him to condemn such dishonest, money grubbing, cheating stewards and then see the surprise on their faces when Jesus ends the story with the dishonest steward coming out great at the end after cheating his employer, just as he had cheated others. What can the Lord have in mind?
What Is Jesus Saying?
Perhaps it is meant to show the disciples how to face forward. The crisis of discipleship cannot be met with old recipes and his disciples must face a new world where they find new ways. We see this all over the preaching of Jesus. “Forgive,” he says, and what is forgiveness but the decision to cut the chains of past hurts and face forward into a future without the dead weight of old anger, old resentment, old fear? In his ultimate moment, at the last supper, he will remind them of Jeremiah’s vision of a new covenant, not like the old covenant. His whole life, his death, his resurrection are meant to show God breaking into our lives in a new way.
An Example of Facing Forward
The movie Scully is a simple story of a 208-second long flight that began as an ordinary trip from LaGuardia airport to Charlottesville, VA. I’m sure the passengers were full of everyday thoughts as they waited to board, found their seats, stowed their luggage. I can almost say the speeches of the flight attendants as the flight got underway. “Please make sure your seatbelt are securely fastened…The cabin door is now closed, cellphones must be turned off or placed in airport mode for the duration of the flight…” The aircraft backs away from the terminal, taxis into position, the pilots are given clearance and there is that exhilarating moment when they are rushing down the runway, jumping into the air in a moment that still seems magical.
The flight departed at 3:25 PM. Three minutes into the flight, when the airplane was still under 10,000 feet, the magic ended. Hit by a flock of birds, both engines died. The airplane was powerless; decisions had to be made. The recipe said to return to the airport and land the plane.
At first, Captain Sulzberger, the pilot announced he was taking this option but within seconds he realized it wouldn’t work. Moments later he committed to landing the aircraft on the Hudson River off Manhattan. Water landings are extremely difficult but Sulzberger believed that although this wasn’t the right answer, it was the right course of action.
At 3:30, less than five minutes after departing, he successfully landed in the Hudson; flight attendants evacuated the passengers onto the wings, some going into the river. All were rescued, along with the flight crew, by police and ferry boats. Sulzberger saved 155 lives that day by facing the future in seconds. The movie focuses on the FAA investigation and attempts to show the old recipes would have worked: it ends with the understanding that it was Sulzberger’s capacity to face forward in seconds that saved those people’s lives.
Facing Forward With Jesus
“On the way…” is the most frequent comment about Jesus. He always faced forward and it’s significant that this shocking story of change beyond normal boundaries is addressed explicitly to his disciples.
Every day brings occasions that ask whether we will follow the recipes we’ve been given or face forward and find new answers. I wonder: what blessings would you plant facing forward? I wonder: Jesus mentioned even a small seed, a tiny one, like a mustard seed, might just grow into a huge, unexpected tree, might have an effect we never imagined.