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Stewards of Love and Forgiveness

The Rev. Canon Frank Logue gave this sermon
at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Savannah, Georgia on September 22, 2013
as a part of that congregation’s anniversary celebration.

Stewards of Love and Forgiveness
Luke 16:1-13

Underneath each seat, you will find an envelope with $100,000 in cash. Take a look. There is a pile of cash for everyone here.

Okay, so that’s not true. But that is how I wish I could start this sermon. In a perfect world, I would preach this sermon in the style of the Oprah Winfrey Show, which she still reigned over network TV afternoons. You remember what I mean, right? Back in 2004, she gave all 276 people in the audience a new Pontiac G-6 car to launch her 19th season. A few years ago in her final season and she got the farewell started by giving 300 audience members an 8-day all-expense paid trip to Australia, getting actor John Travolta to fly them down and is even paying the taxes the audience would owe for accepting the big present. Starting by offering an extravagant gift would be the perfect way to show what Jesus is teaching in the Gospel reading for this Sunday.

If this were Oprah, I would now be announcing that every one in the congregation at St. Matthew’s today is going to receive $100,000. What would you do with that $100,000? Before you decide, know that there is one rule that you must follow. The money will not be yours. Only the money you can make with the $100,000 will remain yours to keep. In a year, you’ll give the $100,000 back and keep whatever you earned.

The reason you have to pay it back is that Jesus tells the parable of a steward, or manager. He is in charge of his boss’s resources and earns a reward based on how he cares for what is entrusted to him. Take care of Oprah’s $100,000 and you are a steward. And a steward, like the manager in the parable we read today from Luke’s Gospel, is someone in charge of someone else’s possessions.

How would you go about caring for $100,000 you are given for being part of the congregation at St. Matthew’s Church? Are you planning to buy bonds or open a new restaurant? To help you decide, we have Jesus’ rather startling money management advice. Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

This does not sound like solid investment advice does it? Make friends with dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you. It makes it seem as if Jesus wants to take our $100,000 and squander it, and end up with nothing to show for it other than the friends we spent the money to make happy. Follow that advice and not only will you end up broke, but the fair weather friends on whom you waste your money are not likely to stick with you when you have nothing more to give them.

Jesus begins by saying, “There was a rich man who had a manager.” The one to watch in this story is the rich man. This is exactly what happens with the parable Jesus had just told. In the verses immediately before the parable for today, Luke’s Gospel told the parable of “The Prodigal Son.” Yet, there too, Jesus begins, “There was a man who had two sons.” By the end of that story, we realize that the parable we call The Prodigal Son is better named, “The Parable of the Forgiving Father” for it is the father’s action and not the actions of his two sons that are the heart of that story.

Here too we have the parable of “The Forgiving Rich Man.” Or better yet as he is referred to literally in the Greek as “Lord” we should call the story we read today, “The Parable of the Forgiving Lord.” The story begins when the Lord, who is the wealthy boss, learns that his steward was squandering his property. The word squandering is uncommon in the New Testament, but Jesus just used the same word to say that the son who demanded his inheritance from his father ends up squandering his wealth in riotous living. Both The Prodigal Son and The Shrewd Manager have squandered the gift that was given them and both find forgiveness.

In this, we sit alongside the son and the manager from these parables. Jesus is talking here about the ways in which we humans squander the gifts that God gives us. After all, we are all stewards of a life we were given by God, which we are called to give back to God. All we have is not really ours. Someone else will one day live in your house. Someone else will hold your job. Your property is yours for now, but not yours in any eternal sense. The stuff you have is only yours for a little while in the eternal scheme of things.

This Sunday we commemorate 158 years of black Episcopal presence first through St. Stephen’s Church and then, after the merger with St. Augustine’s, of the present St. Matthew’s Church. Many of you have been here for a long time, but no founders remain from 1855 and everyone plans on St. Matthew’s ministry going forward until Jesus returns, so the present congregation are stewards of what has been given by previous generations. You are entrusted this great treasure of a great church to care for it for generations yet unborn. And on this day when we gather with the theme “The Homecoming: Our Start Toward a New Beginning,” the Gospel reading gives us the curious story of an unjust steward. Unlike the generations of Episcopalians who built this church and carried it forward, the manager in Jesus parable had squandered what was entrusted to him.

To squander is to scatter or waste. Squandering also carries the meaning of being extravagant. The Prodigal Son lived extravagantly and so wasted his inheritance. To squander is to take what is entrusted to you and one way or another end up with little to show for all you received. Jesus is surely talking about money in this passage, but he is talking about much more than money. The question is, in the ways you use your money and other possessions, does it give honor to God? In the ways your money and possessions do not honor God, you are squandering what has been entrusted to you.

But let’s turn back to the parable for a closer reading. Once the steward is caught squandering the bosses’ possessions; he is told he will have to give an accounting of his management. Then he is apparently sent out to get the accounting together. Rather than working on cooking the books in the first century equivalent of an Excel spreadsheet showing profit and loss, the steward takes bold action. He knows that no one will hire a disgraced manager who squandered his last bosses’ property and so he is in a real bind. He goes to those who owe the boss and lowers their debt. In this way he curries the favor of the debtors in hopes to use his bosses’ money to gain favor.

All towns are in the end small towns where folks know one another’s business. The rich man learns what the steward is doing. Now what is the boss to do? He could go back on what the manager has done and those who owe him who had part of the debt forgiven only to have it added back will not think better of him. This is a culture in which honor and shame matter very much. The only admirable path for the rich man is to honor the debt forgiveness of the manager. Better to be thought well of for forgiving debt than to be the one who had to have every last penny. But to do so will mean that the rich man is now squandering his own property, forgiving real debts only because the unjust manager said they were forgiven.

I use the word forgiven on purpose. In speaking of sin and forgiveness, Luke uses the language of debt and forgiveness of debt. As Luke tells it, we owe a debt to God and God forgives that debt, putting what we owe on Jesus’ tab. It’s not fair exactly, but it is who God is and how God acts and it is more than fair to those of us who are the debtors.

Jesus then begins to wrap up in saying, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.” It is faithfulness to which we are called. Those who are faithful in little will be faithful in much. For Jesus, any amount of money is chump change. Money is the small stuff. If you don’t treat even the little stuff like $100,000 well, then how will you treat something truly valuable like another human being? And if you are dishonest with something relatively meaningless like money, then you will likely be dishonest when the stakes are higher.

In the winter of 1855, a new Episcopal mission was established in Savannah for free blacks. A long workshop in the bakery belonging to the free black William Cleghorn hosted worship. Just a few people attended the first service for which Bishop Stephen Elliott was also present. The Rev. Sherod Kennerly served as the Vicar and he invited the free black Charlestonian James Porter to come teach music. Within four years, St. Stephen’s could boast a Sunday School with more than 80 regular students and a congregations with 50 communicants and following the building of a church in 1860, the congregation soon grew to more than 200 members.

In many ways, the gifts of black leaders were squandered by the Diocese of Georgia. This certainly began with James Porter who was passed over for licensing as a lay reader for many years though he served in that capacity with Bishop Elliott’s approval. He was grudgingly made a deacon and eventually became an A.M.E. minister when the Episcopal Church never saw fit to ordain him as a priest. Later, promises were made and not kept about the new church building that would be built for St. Matthew’s at the time of the merger. In creating a separate convention for colored Episcopalians in 1906, the remainder of the churches of the Diocese cut themselves off from the voice and vote of their fellow members of the Body of Christ. There is certainly much that was squandered.

Yet, throughout this time, first St. Augustine’s and St. Stephen’s and then St. Matthew’s continued to be great gifts to Savannah, using wisely what the Lord entrusted to them. The best and brightest of the city were part of the Body of Christ in these churches, including Colonel John Deveaux, the collector of the Port who single handedly kept the city running during the yellow fever epidemic. The churches gave the city and state legislators and educators, doctors and veterinarians. And over the years deacons and priests including Fr. Harry Nevels, recently back for the sad occasion of his sister’s funeral. St. Matthew’s also gave The Episcopal Church Martha Wilson as a member of its General Convention and Executive Council. There have been giants in this church. Women and men who were giants of the faith and leaders of the community. You know what I mean and can recall many examples. This is your story. And looking back we can see gain and again in little and in much, the founding churches of St. Stephen’s and St. Augustine’s and then the merged St. Matthew’s proved faithful to the gifts given to them by their heavenly father.

Jesus says that we are to use what we have to serve God. That is the real lesson of the Gospel reading. Rather than paying attention to the steward, whether we consider him to be unjust or shrewd, we are to notice the rich man, the lord who is the true owner of that which has been squandered. And in this parable as in the linked parable of The Prodigal Son which comes before it, we find that God is eternally giving and forgiving. God is extravagant in giving. God is the Forgiving Father of the parable of the Prodigal Son and the Forgiving Lord of today’s reading.

Jesus used these two parables to show how much we have been given by God and so how we are to freely give. This parable reveals how God the Father is going out of his way to flood mercy, compassion, and forgiveness on us. In gratefulness for all God has given us, we are to lead changed lives empowered by the love of God. In the words of last week’s sermon, we are to “repent” which means to change our hearts and minds and our behavior as well. We who have been forgiven much are to be faithful with the resources God has given us and go out squandering love and grace and mercy and forgiveness on others. We are to follow the examples, not of The Prodigal Son or The Shrewd Manager, but of The Forgiving Father and The Forgiving Lord. Jesus is revealing to us here who God is and how God acts and this is to inform the way we live our lives.

For St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, this then is Our Start Toward a New Beginning. This is the season for healing and reconciliation. This is the time for both looking back to the amazing examples of the black Episcopalians who have been members of the Body of Christ in this place and to look forward to the children yet unborn who will need to be nourished by Word and Sacrament in this place. God’s vision for St. Matthew’s is undiminished. God wants to use this church to share the love of God in powerful ways. But God will not do this without you. God will do this through you.

So then, how would you spend the $100,000 if this sermon had been given on the Oprah Winfrey Show? Jesus says that to honor God you must be faithful with something so meaninglessly small as $100,000 as how you spend it will reveal what you think about something much more valuable, all the people around you. A real return on investment from Jesus’ perspective would be any investment that reveals that your true Lord is God and not money.

And beyond this, how might St. Matthew’s use this start toward a new beginning to grab hold not of my vision or yours, but God’s vision? Every idea you have or I have that is not of God needs to die so that what takes root and grows is God’s will. You have not been entrusted with something so insignificant as $100,000. You have been entrusted with the care of a church that has been a leader and has given its city and denomination spiritual leaders. You have been entrusted with a great treasure, bought at so great a price and preserved against the odds. You are St. Matthew’s and you are called not to be faithful with little, but to be faithful in passing this great gift on to children yet unborn stronger than you found it. In this, you will find your own abilities will not be enough, but with God all things are possible.

Amen.

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