Did Anyone Get a Ten-Spot?!

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's Episcopal Church
19 September 2010 / Proper 20C (Luke 16:1-13)
To download an audio version of this sermon, click here.

Imagine walking into church one day – or the grocery store or your child’s school or a local pub – I guess what I’m trying to say is location doesn’t matter. But for the sake of expediency, imagine walking into church one day and receiving a $1 bill.[i] Your reactions of course might vary. Maybe you’d look around you to see if someone had dropped it. You might wonder if it was a mistake; if perhaps you’d been mistaken for somebody else. Then, as you saw the confused looks on other faces, you’d perhaps begin to realize that everyone received a bill. Weird. What does it mean? Are we supposed to give it back? Maybe we are supposed to give it to someone else? Are we supposed to put it in the offering plate? Is it ours to keep? What did we do to earn it? And, for some of us, the smart-aleck ones (and we know who we are), we might wonder, did anyone get a ten-spot?! And, in this state of wonderment and confusion, our questions go unanswered as we focus our hearts and minds on worshipping our God.

I think for the Pharisees and the Scribes and, most likely, the disciples too, being with Jesus caused this same kind of confusion. And Jesus’ parables were meant, at least in part, as a response. Last week, we heard the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin- how the shepherd will hold nothing back to seek out the one lost sheep and upon finding it will carry it back to the flock; how the woman will search diligently – moving furniture and lighting lamps – until she finds that one lost coin.[ii] We heard these stories and understood them to mean that God’s desire to be in relationship with us is so strong that he will risk it all to bring us back – to take us back – to reclaim us as children of God. When we heard last week’s parables, we intuitively knew that the stories were not about sheep or about lost coins at all – they were about God’s relationship with God’s people.

This week’s reading offers a greater challenge for contemporary readers – and perhaps it did for Jesus’ followers as well.[iii] Here we have an odd store of a rich man and his manager. The manager has been accused of squandering the rich man’s property and so he is being fired. But before he leaves the job, the rich man wants an accounting of his management. We don’t know for certain, but this is how many of us believe this business system worked: the business owner earned his money by selling for a profit, much like business owners in our own society make their money. The manager, however, made his money directly from the customers by collecting even more. In other words, the manager was not paid out of the owner’s profit. So, when the manager sits down with the customer who owes 100 jugs of olive oil and tells him to make it fifty, it is likely that the owner is still receiving his full profit. It is the manager who will go away empty handed - making nothing on the transaction. Likewise when he tells the customer who owes 100 containers of wheat to make it eighty, it is likely that the owner will still receive his full profit. Again, only the manager will go without payment. And so the owner commends the “dishonest” manager for his shrewdness; after all, the owner has received what is his.

This commendation for dishonesty and shrewdness is what typically throws modern readers for a loop. What are we to make of it? On the one hand, it is possible that Jesus’ point in telling the story is to condemn the manager for his financial dishonesty. The concluding line of today’s reading points in that direction: “you cannot serve God and wealth.”[iv] But, I think there is something greater here. The Rev. Thomas Brackett, the Episcopal Church Center’s Missioner for Church Planting, suggests an alternative reading. For Brackett, a new reading of the parable is available to us if we understand the facts of the story to be already familiar to the people of Jesus’ time - the equivalent of a local headline – “Dishonest Manager Fired by Rich Man.” Unfortunately for the contemporary reader, MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN have all gotten hold of the facts and each has put their unique spin on the story and now we have the story as it appears in Luke’s Gospel with facts, opinions, and multiple layers of meaning thrown in for good measure – all of which makes it difficult for us to figure out Jesus’ point.[v]  

But we do have some clues. In the first place, the story appears immediately after the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal sons.[vi] Each of those stories was told to answer the Pharisees and Scribes anger that Jesus had the audacity to forgive sinners, the audacity to take on himself a role – that of forgiver of sins – that only belongs to God. Today’s gospel begins by telling us that Jesus is talking to the disciples; however, if we read just one verse beyond today’s pericope we are told, “The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.”[vii] That one verse, in my mind, makes all the difference as it connects this story to the previous three suggesting that as those earlier stories were not about sheep and coins, so this story is not about money and its management.

All of these stories are about grace and forgiveness. Today’s parable tells the story of a manager who squanders the owner’s property showing dishonesty and shrewdness, acting without regard to social mores, without regard to laws. And, it is the story of Jesus who, in the eyes of the Pharisees and Scribes, is squandering what is God’s – that is forgiveness - without regard to social mores and without regard to religious laws. Mores and laws which would, in the first place, Jesus has no right to dole out forgiveness and, in the second place, would say that sinners - tax collectors and prostitutes, you and me – are most certainly not deserving of such forgiveness. It is a story of Jesus squandering forgiveness – showing reckless abandon - in showering all people with mercy, with grace, and with love.

Do you remember the manager’s response upon learning that the owner is about to fire him? He says 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” - there is absolutely nothing I can do to earn my way.[viii]  And isn’t that the way you and I feel when we face God’s amazing love? For there is absolutely nothing you or I can do to earn our way into God’s heart, into God’s kingdom.

A couple of weeks’ ago, Pastor Mark Marius from Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Wildwood introduced me to a song called “Mystery of Mercy” by Caedmon’s Call. The verses speak powerfully of our role in the salvation story:

I am the woman at the well, I am the harlot
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path
I am the son that ran away
And I am the bitter son that stayed.

I am the angry man who came to stone the lover
I am the woman there ashamed before the crowd
I am the leper that gave thanks
but I am the nine that never came
And, with the same conviction, the refrain speaks powerfully of God’s role in that same story of salvation:

My God, my God why hast though accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King?
My God, my God why hast though accepted me
It’s a mystery of mercy and the song, the song I sing.[ix]
There is absolutely nothing we can do to earn our way into God’s heart. We are not strong enough to dig and we are ashamed to beg. So, how can we respond? What can we do? Our questions go unanswered as we focus our hearts and minds on worshipping our God – a God who squanders love on sinners like you and like me with reckless abandon.

[i] In fact, parishioners at St. Mary's this morning did receive a $1 bill in their bulletins.
[ii] Luke 15:1-10.
[iii] Luke 16:1-13.
[iv] Luke 16:13.
[v] Thomas Brackett, “Jesus the Rogue Rabbi,” Day1 (a ministry of the Alliance for Christian Media) accessed here on 14 September 2010.
[vi] Luke 15.
[vii] Luke 16:14.
[viii] Luke 16:3.
[ix] Caedmon's Call, "Mystery of Mercy," Back Home (2003).


Sinners Rejoice

Proper 19 C - 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-10
Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
September 12, 2010

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.

"Mystery of Mercy,"  Back Home (2003), Caedmon's Call


The Cost of Following Jesus

Proper 18 C - Jeremiah 18:1-11; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33

Sermon Preached at St. Barnabas by the Bay Episcopal Church (Villas, NJ)
September 5, 2010

To hear this sermon, click here and download the audio file.


2nd Annual Blessing of the Backpacks

Click here to read the article from The Press of Atlantic City (thank you Caitlin Dineen and Danny Drake).

My comments:
This is a story about people: those who receive and those who give. As we began our collections of backpacks and school supplies this year, I began contacting schools. As a result, I received this response from Mary Margaret Lynn, Principal at Ocean Academy:

We would be very happy to participate in the Backpack Blessing on August 29th. I attended last year, and Ocean Academy was very grateful to receive 16 fully stocked bags! The students who received these packs were so delighted! Many of them never had brand new backpacks before, let alone a bag stocked with all those goodies!!!! So please keep us on your list of recipients of the bags. Sixteen bags was a perfect number...just enough. And we will trust your judgment with regard to the contents. You did a great job last year! I am looking forward to seeing you in August! Hopefully, it will be as beautiful an evening as it was last year!
I also received a phone call from Mona L. She wondered if her son, Matthew, could receive a backpack. I assured her that yes, we would definitely set one aside for him. He was at the blessing Sunday night and announced, “I’m glad it’s green – it’s my favorite color.” Pamela called. Her son, a 17 year old with autism and a degenerative disk disorder also needed a backpack, “but, could we get one with wheels?” As for supplies, she said, “we don’t need much – just some loose leaf paper and ‘clicky’ pens; we’ll use the folders we have from last year.” Pamela didn’t have enough gas in her car to pick up her son’s backpack, but rest assured he will get it – filled with loose leaf paper, ‘clicky’ pens. . . and new folders and binders. Two students from Maud Abrams were at the blessing Sunday night. They heard we were giving away backpacks that night and wondered if we had some for them. We did. After the blessing when we all came inside to eat a hot dog dinner, the two of them were on the sofa, uneaten hotdogs on the table in front of them, excitedly going through their new packs. “Look! It’s even new stuff inside!” one of them exclaimed. It’s a story about receiving.

But friends, it is also a story about giving, about generous hearts, about giving even when it seems there may not be enough to go around. I cannot tell you how many parishioners from each church came up to me and said, “Pastor, I can’t give very much, but I want to help” as they placed a $5 bill in my hand. Bev Larson sent letters to local businesses asking for donations. Mysteriously, a case – a CASE – of Crayola® crayons appeared in the church office - a local Stone Harbor business man wanting to give something back. Herr’s Food, through its Herr’s Has Heart program was able to supply us with more than 500 bags of chips at $0.12 per bag. All they asked in return was for a photo of the event. Andrea Nowack contacted Gaiss’ Deli in Villas and connected with one of their “meat guys” Ed Dworchak who is also a parishioner at St. Barnabas. He donated 200 hot dogs. As I was shopping for additional supplies to “round out” our collection, the manager of a local office supply company waived the 3 per customer limit on rulers so that we could purchase 39 rulers at one penny each (I have 13 separate receipts, each for $0.03 as evidence of her generosity). At Wal-Mart, as I was loading my shopping cart with markers, another shopper commented, “Oh, a teacher’s work never ends.” When I explained that actually I was shopping to fill nearly 100 packs with school supplies for local children she smiled and said, “What a nice idea.” About 5 minutes later, she came looking for me to give me $5 – “just a little something to help.”

This is a story about people: those who receive and those who give. And it is a story about blessings. We were blessed this year by two coordinators – Bev Larson and Andrea Nowack – who worked tirelessly behind the scenes to make sure we’d have the publicity we needed before the event and the food we needed at the event. We were blessed by Pastor Tommy, his wife, and their youth group from a church outside of Buffalo, New York who just happened to be at the This ‘n’ That Thrift Shop doing a service project, when we pulled up with our car full of packs and supplies. In just over 1 hour, those helping hands prepared 55 packs for distribution. And we were blessed again when a donation of 25 packs and bags of school supplies came in on Friday from Offshore Getty (Villas) and Dina Ziemba and her kids (Meg, Stanley, and Jennette) just happened to be at The Branches and volunteered to fill those packs the next day . . . and blessed again by the grandchildren of Doris Dorsett who also just happened to be at The Branches on Saturday and offered to help the Ziemba family.

In 2009, a handful of parishioners from St. Mary’s and St. Barnabas gathered at The Branches to brainstorm about an event that both congregations could get involved in, an event that would involve the community, an event that might fill a need, and an event that parishioners from both churches could share. We discussed the number of blessings that occur in area churches – blessing cars, blessing bikes, blessing animals, blessing food baskets, and then it hit us – why not bless backpacks!? Better still, why not collect backpacks and school supplies for area children and then hold a blessing of the backpack event at The Branches. And we did.

In 2009, we collected more than 70 packs, filled them with school supplies and distributed them to the elementary schools in Lower Township, to Ocean Academy in Middle Township, and to several area social workers. This year, things got bigger. We collected 96 backpacks, enough supplies to fill them all, and a little more than $500 in cash donations which were used to buy more school supplies and to adopt a classroom. Supplies were distributed once again to the three elementary schools in Lower Township, to Ocean Academy and to Glenwood Avenue Elementary (Wildwood), Crest Memorial (Wildwood Crest), Catholic Charities, Caring for Kids and The Arc of Cape May County.

But, it isn’t about the numbers, it’s not even about the backpacks; it’s about the people and God’s generous spirit flowing through those people – this is a story about blessings!