an emerging, missional Christian community in the Scranton, PA area:
rooted in the Episcopal Church, welcoming all.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Boardroom Grace

Hello All,

We had a fascinating discussion last night at Northern Light about God's grace, about heaven, world religions, salvation, redemption, sin, even hell -- we covered it all! What I love about our community as it grows is that we are able to talk and listen to each other with so much respect, though our ideas and opinions may vary widely. When we are together in this way, the Holy Spirit truly does move within and among us. I'm grateful for that kind of connection with other people.

I remembered a sermon I wrote when I was a deacon at Grace Church in Allentown (2004). It expresses much of what I was trying to say last night about the radical goodness and mercy of God in Jesus Christ. I'm going to cut and paste it here for now -- at the end of this post for anyone who might like to read it. When Josh is able I'm imagining that he might put it on our website with a link. The sermon is written about a story in the Bible found in the book of Luke, Chapter 16 verses 1-13.

A big welcome to anyone who would like to join the conversation (it's not always so intense!)on Wednesday nights at Northern Light or on Friday evenings at our house. As the saying goes, "We'll leave the light on for ya!"

Boardroom Grace

So I admit it. I have to admit it. Today’s parable makes me have to admit to you that I am a fan of ABC’s The Apprentice. I justify it to my husband Scott by reminding him that I hold a Bachelor’s degree in sociology – and watching this kind of reality TV is just an opportunity to observe human interaction at it’s most, well, human. And, it’s fun. Each week two teams made up of smart, attractive (or when not attractive at least quirky) young people compete in a business task for the final grand prize of working for Donald Trump. At the end of the season, one lucky winner will be hired to run one of his companies. The Donald gathers the troops, gives them their task for the week and sends them off with a promise that when their task is finished, they will meet in the boardroom and someone from the losing team will be fired. And, sure enough, the teams, work, they scrap, they cheat, they fight, they brilliantly or clumsily complete their business tasks and the audience watches the boardroom scene with glee as the losers are raked over the coals, pelted with questions from Mr. Trump that he may or may not let them answer, and to hear Donald’s now famous last words to the worst or most foolish fledgling business person – “You’re fired.” And that’s it. Once you’re fired, once you leave the boardroom, and the gold-plated door handle clicks into its place, you are on the down elevator home – no turning back. I mean, someone tried last season to come back in to the boardroom to argue and it wasn’t pretty. When it’s over, it’s over. Your fifteen minutes are up.

Today’s parable opens in the boardroom. The business tasks are done. The score is in and the business manager is summoned to the rich man’s table. “What is this that I hear about you?” booms the rich man, and not waiting for an answer, “Give me an accounting of your management” and then, not waiting for an accounting of the management, says, “You cannot be my manager any longer.” Game over. The door closes behind the manager. Questions about his future divebomb him as he struggles to get his bearings. “What will I do? I am not strong enough to do physical labor, and I am ashamed to beg... How will I live?” A solution forms quickly in his mind, and before he clears out his desk, before word gets out that he’s been fired, he uses his authority as an employee of the rich man to summon his master’s debtors, one by one, to their own little boardroom meetings. He needs friends. And fast. He says to the first delinquent scallywag, “How much do you owe my master?” The answer comes, perhaps tremulously, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” “Make it fifty...” says the manager with a wink. To another, who owes a hundred containers of wheat, “Make it eighty.” And so on. Can you imagine the haggard faces of the debtors, who come thinking they are out of time on an unmanageable debt and leave with something they can handle, can you see the smile unfold, see the posture improve, see the hand reach across the table, the head nodding furiously. “Thank you, thank you, my friend!” How quickly they must have run home and back with their goods before the mistake was discovered – or lest the whole thing be a dream.

And yet... of course there is a problem. The ex-business manager sits in the boardroom of his ex-employer, surrounded by jugs of oil and containers of wheat - maybe chickens and eggs and maybe, even, in silver pile on the boardroom table, cash – or shekels. But, however much is there, it’s not enough. And it’s not his. Yet it is something. Something that gives him the power to summon the rich man back to his own boardroom. Now maybe the rich man was glad to get what he could out of debtors who might never have paid a penny; or maybe he was so rich the debts didn’t matter and it gave him a kick to see his employee take such a gutsy risk. Regardless, the rich man doesn’t put a hit out on his manager, he doesn’t call the police to have the manager thrown in jail. He “commends” the dishonest manager for acting shrewdly.” It takes one to know one, I guess. The question echoes through the marble hallways of the rich man’s estate – does the manager get his job back, or must he rely on the help of his new debtless friends? We’ll never know. It’s a parable after all. A glimpse into the kingdom of God. A story told by Jesus to his followers to give them a sense of who he was, what heaven is, who we are to be. The story ends with the perplexing words, “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

Parables are both trouble and fun. They’re trouble because they are hard to interpret, hard to understand – they’re slippery, contradictory, mysterious. Overinterpreted, they are even dangerous... because they then become what Jesus never meant them to be – rigid, unyielding, weapon-like. Parables, especially this one, can leave us shaking our heads like Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H, who was given the advice to stroke his chin thoughtfully when he didn’t know much about a subject – to just smile thoughtfully and say, “Ahhh... Bach.” Today we shake our heads thoughtfully and say “Ahh... children of light... dishonest wealth... eternal homes.” Dishonest wealth is bad, right? But then why is the manager commended? Jesus is being sarcastic when he says ‘go ahead, make friends with these scoundrels who can’t pay what they owe, let them give you an eternal home, right?” Or does he really mean it that the down and out can welcome us into the eternal home they will finally win in the end? So we struggle to figure out what it means, and where we fit in the story.

Robert Farror Capon, author of Kingdom, Grace, Judgment (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002, ISBN 0-8028-3949-5)– a book which would make excellent devotional reading, by the way), reminds us where this parable fits in the life of Jesus. If you read the preceding fifteen chapters of Luke, he says, to cast this as a parable of judgement doesn’t work. “Jesus has been on a grace trip for seven chapters now,” writes Capon, “he has been talking lastness, lostness, death, and resurrection, and he has again and again made it clear that the bookkeeping department’s heyday is a thing of the past.” (p.304) The parable of the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost son... the humility of Christ as he begins his final journey to Jerusalem don’t suggest that this is a parable meant simply to warn followers away from “shady dealings.” This parable, Capon suggests, is about death and resurrection – with a twist.

I don’t know about you, but when I first read or hear a parable I tend to cast myself as the main character. Narcissistic, I know, and I’m getting therapy for that... but I guess I figure that Jesus is trying to teach me something about how I’m supposed to be, behave, live – or not. The fun of parables is playing with them, turning them on their ears, trying the different costumes of each character on ourselves, on Jesus, on the God of the universe.

In this, “the hardest parable,” according to Capon, instead of casting ourselves in the starring role of the servant – called in judgement to the boardroom of God for an accounting of our works – Capon suggests that we cast ourselves as the debtors forgiven, and Jesus as the gutsy, calculating, servant. Capon submits that the dishonest manager is a “dead ringer for Jesus himself, because he dies and rises, because in that death and resurrection he raises others,” and, writes Capon, in the following long but glorious quote:

...and most important of all, the dishonest manager is the Christ-figure because he is a crook, like Jesus. The unique contribution of this parable to our understanding of Jesus is its insistence that grace cannot come to the world through respectablilty. Respectablility regards only life, success, winning; it will have no truck with the grace that works by death, by losing, which is the only kind of grace there is. This parable, therefore, says in story form what Jesus himself said by his life. He was not respectable. He broke the Sabbath. He consorted with crooks. He died as a criminal... and he did it all to catch a world that respectability could only terrify and condemn. He became sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers, and dead for us dead... Jesus baits us criminals with his own criminality... so we find ourselves drawn by the bait of a [Savior] who winks at iniquity and makes friends of sinners – of us crooks, that is – and of all the losers who would never in a million years go near...” [the big rich boss himself]. (pp.307-308)

And so we debtors come to the boardroom table - suspicious, scared, overwhelmed, because we know we can never pay what we owe, that we will never be able to catch up and be free... We enter the room and sit down, our eyes averted, braced against the wrath of a loan officer at the end of his rope. And instead we look up and see a sneaky new friend, pen in hand willing to take what we can give, and to write off the rest! We are set free to get on with it – with life -- transformed by his friendship, his risk, his grace, his sacrifice, his willingness to deal with the one in charge. We are in with the scoundrel Christ himself, and all he expects in return is that we become agents of the same kind of rebellious grace he slipped to us with such joy and abandon.

Thanks be to God. Amen!


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