Not so very many days ago my husband and I traded the endless rain and hubbub of London, and headed out of town to visit friends who live in a quintessential English village on the edge of the North Yorkshire moors. For me it was a wonderful and soul-refreshing week of strenuous walking and partaking of those things that we think in our Disneyfied imaginations only happen in small English villages. Fully participating in village life was the reason why, besides good manners, we agreed to accompany our friends to the weekly gathering of the Scarborough Rotary Club in this seaside town.
The guest speaker was a woman who is the Chief Constable for the North Yorkshire Constabulary. She is at present the most highly ranked woman police officer in the United Kingdom. After not so gently scouring the assembled company of Rotary members who were all men about the absence of women in their ranks—except as guests—she went on to tell her own story. And obviously talked about the issues of crime, punishment, and policing this mostly rural area of North Yorkshire.
What I was taken with was the extent to which good policing is not so much the outcome of tough laws, or “throw the book at ’em magistrates,” a patrol car on every street, or some combination thereof. Good policing mostly has to do with being a responsible community whose members walk the street and greet their neighbors by name. And pick up the litter. And ask the people oh so politely when they are doing when they seem to be trying to enter a house or a car with something other than a key.
But most especially, good policing has to do with parents, teachers, friends, counselors, coaches, relatives, clergy, vergers, choir directors, and even the occasion stranger who are willing to give young people guidance and their undivided attention.
The Chief Constable for North Yorkshire grew up in the poorest section of Exeter, and if you have traveled in the United Kingdom you know that this is a double whammy because not only did she grow up poor, she came from the West Country. And that’s as deep into the sticks as you can get in Great Britain.
What stood between her and her mates, most of who are now dead from drug overdoses or in prison for a variety of crimes, small and grave. Were all the adults and the occasional friend who were willing to guide her away from what might harm her and toward what might interest her result in a life that might be rewarding, make it possible for her to change her life? Most pointedly, in her remarks, it was clear that all these adults who took an interest did so rather accidentally. There was no great personal rescue plan for her. Nor a great community plan for others like her. By equally happy circumstances, she also paid attention to what adults had to say to her.
So all of this brings me to the juxtaposition of my story, the commissioning of the new members of the choir and the acolytes for this Cathedral and the Scripture lessons today. You knew I’d get there sooner or later!
First, for the benefit of all of the parents, the family members and friends who have gathered today to celebrate this commissioning, let me say at the outset that I do not believe that participation in the choir and acolytes is all that stands between these young people and the road to perdition. However, it is possible that immediately following this service the music director and the vergers may want to disabuse me on this notion.
What this important event shares with my story and the Scripture lessons is that each is a reflection upon the point of all of our biblical narrative today. And the point of that narrative is stewardship. The care that we exercise as God’s creatures for what belongs to God. And that my friends is literally everything. I think some days we might be better stewards if we could abolish all possessive pronouns in the English language. It certainly would make my job easier.
We are not commissioning these young people and adults to do something that they appear on the scene ready to accomplish. Rather we are commissioning them to give their God-given talents for the glory of God, and keep at the hard work that perfects these gifts as a ministry in this Cathedral and in the Church.
In the Church we have a tired and sometimes trite formula for expressing all of this. The good use of time, talent, and treasure. And the word of the Lord today is simply brimming with examples of what not to do when it comes to being good stewards. Beyond the accusation of squandering, we’re not told what prompted the rich man to tell his steward that he had until sunset to clear his desk. Maybe somebody from procurement just got sick of purchasing yet another set of hammers for fifty sheckles that could be had at the local market for five, and finally reported it. Maybe the master finally got around to reading all those accounts and discovered as many people who did not pay their bills as did. Suffice it to say the most insightful moment of the steward’s life probably arrived the moment that he was that he was history. The steward really gets it that he has neither talent, nor appetite for manual labor. So the steward sets in motion a plan to win favor with his master’s clients by reducing their debt. Tomorrow the master’s clients were all going to wake up and owe a whole lot less on their MasterCard’s and VISAs, not to mention their American Express and Discover accounts. It is ambiguous whether all this debt reduction for the clients was done at the master’s expense or the steward’s.
But it does come to the master’s attention that through this action the steward demonstrates a whole lot more capability than the master ever imagined the steward ever had! The parable ends with the unforgiving rich man proudly commending his latest golden boy, and Jesus telling us to be just as smart and savvy as the steward. And of course, given all the commentary that follows, we are left to wonder what the heck does that mean?
So here, the reading from the prophet Amos offers a possible way for discerning where this parable may be headed.
Amos, cranky. Amos is always cranky, and right on the money, so to speak. Don’t you just hate that in a person? Who’s of the image of the seventh century before the Common Era consumer society in which he lives and pushes us to ask many of the same questions that the parable in Luke poses. In what do we take our ease? In what do we find our security? How false is it, to what extent have we complacently bound our lives to what we own and think we need or want? In what ways does our indifference squander the gifts we have been given to exercise in our work, in our communities, in our congregations, in our households? How blinded are we to the issues of peace and justice by our own desire for a comfortable life? How many times this week have we substituted giving stuff to our kids, our friends, our family, instead of the gift of our own availability and time?
Between Amos and the Gospel of Luke we ride a roller coaster of violence that is perpetuated by complacency and indifference when we live only in our comfort zone. Complacency and indifference are not just practiced by a steward cruising towards “slacker of the year.” These were also the products of ancient merchants who wanted to speed up all that religious observance so they could by-pass all those annoying reminders from God about caring for the poor, who stampeded toward economic gain preferably a 24/7 work place underwritten by short measures, bad scales, shoddy goods, and disreputable accounting.
Now I need to say here that all resemblance Amos and the front page of most of Business Section in the Post really are intentional. On one hand, these twin vices led to the squandering of the goods of one person and cost another his job. On the other, the thing-one and thing-two of social, political and religious underachievement, make a mockery of God’s rule of mercy and justice, costing rich and poor alike a stable nation and the very presence of the word of God.
Can we be savvy and prudent enough to snap out of our complacency and indifference before the heaven-sent crisis? Do we understand the extent to which we deprive others when we are not good stewards of time, gifts and the money that we think is all ours? The awful and wonderful thing about parables is that they really do summon us to decisive action amid the highly ambiguous circumstances of real life. Jesus tells this parable to his disciples, and in doing so is presenting a fully materialistic view of discipleship and faith.
Like the disciples and Jesus, we don’t live apart from the world, but in it. The things of this world are many times in fact necessary for faithful discipleship and serving God. I suspect for good measure the Gospel writer wanted to be sure that we understood that cleverness should not be a cloak for dishonesty, and in our uses of famine we remember to forsake our own advantages.
But helpful as all this advise is in the mouth of Jesus, about faithful discipleship and stewardship, I can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t distract us from the real ’ah ha’ moment in the parable. This moment comes when the steward realizes categorically and without a doubt that he has nothing. Nada. No job. No prospects. No money. No home. No skills. No relationships. No options. He is, my friends, dead in the water.
As the Rotary Club evening speech continue, this really was the point that the Chief Constable was making about herself as well. It made her open to what the adults around her were offering. It makes the steward recognize the grace he has been given, the gift to think through a scheme that may change his life, and in fact does.
But, of my friends, this is a challenging parable, because it lowers or destroys every typical standard we can think of to measure our lives as good or bad either in religious or secular terms. Because in the end, failure and losing bring grace, not success and winning. Grace may appear as a divine gift. You know, right on the edge of honesty and respectability, grace—oh this is really tough—grace may even upset religious law and order as we have received them. Oh God, forbid.
But having nothing awakens us all to the reality that in an accounting or reckoning of our lives is the necessary first move to changing them. Having nothing prompts us to wrestle with the ways we want to be welcomed especially by those whose offerings are not quite what we want, but may be precisely what we need. Most importantly, having nothing makes us supplicants to the Son of Humanity and the Son of God who gave himself as a ransom for all.
With his face set resolutely towards Jerusalem, Jesus tells a story all about how grace upon grace comes into the world in broken Sabbath laws and healing the uncleaned and diseased and demon-possessed, in children and women who are counted as nothing more than property in this time, in the dinner company of sinners and people of the wrong ethnicity, and other outcasts whom nobody would dream of ever having at their house, in teaching and preaching that never fails to remind us of the joyful indebtedness to every other person that welcoming the free grace of God entails.
Finally, we are to see how grace enters the world in this itinerant rabbi from Nazareth who was executed as a criminal on a cross outside Jerusalem. Fat, happy, and oblivious in our comfort zone may be a complacent and secure place, but is rarely a state of grace. Too often it is the barrier to our availability for grace, to our stewardship, to our loving care for all that God gives us.
In an article written in the early 1990s after the recessionary dust had settled from another exuberant time, another war had ended in the Middle East that unleashed as much trauma as it settled, and after, well a fairly vitriolic national election, the Jesuit theologian George McCauley wrote these words.
Jesus trusted us enough to become the price of unity between the have’s and the have-not’s. It cost him everything, but it demonstrates to the believer in having nothing, one can have everything that matters.
What is our self-interest? To what extent can we put aside our selves so that accidentally or intentionally, we meet those who need our guidance and our care? Of what will we have to divest ourselves to be empty enough to receive this grace, and shred enough to invest in the rule of God?