Transcribed from the audio.
Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our collective hearts be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Having just heard that gospel lesson that is commonly known as the Parable of the Dishonest Steward, how many of you would like to ask Jesus some follow-up questions? You’re not alone. As one commentary writer put it, “this parable has baffled biblical scholars from the beginning of time.” And I’d like to thank my clergy colleagues for the honor of preaching today!
In truth, if you look at the moral and ethical arc of the Scriptures appointed for today it becomes a little bit clearer. The prophet Amos is holding the nation Israel to account for breaking the Covenant by their neglect of the poor and the needy in their midst. That theme is picked up in the psalm and then, of course, touched on in the gospel lesson as well. The 16th chapter of Luke essentially challenges us to look at what is the faithful living into the gifts that God has given us? And if we as Christians believe that all that we are and all that we have are gifts from God for the up-building of God’s kingdom, then that actually raises some different questions for us.
In looking at the Scriptures, I was reminded of a meditation I read years ago in Forward Day by Day. The story goes that a young girl, as she was growing up, had a practice with her family on Sundays. Every Sunday morning her parents would give her two nickels and she was to place one nickel in the alms basin at church and she could use the other nickel to buy an ice cream on the way home. And so one Sunday when she was getting out of the car at church, she accidentally dropped one nickel and watched with horror as it rolled along the street straight for an open grate over the storm sewer and went down. She burst into tears and when her father came around the other side of the car and saw her in tears and in clear distress, said “What’s wrong?” She looked at him and she said, “Was that God’s nickel or mine?” Well, that is the question, isn’t it? What’s God’s? What’s ours? And that’s what I’d like to explore with you for a few minutes this morning.
Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine, who wrote a book about parables called Short Stories by Jesus, notes this about parables. She says, “What makes the parables mysterious or difficult is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface the unasked questions, and they reveal the answers that we’ve always known, but refuse to acknowledge.” She goes on to say that we might be better positioned to focus less on what the parables “mean” and more on what they can do: “remind, provoke, refine, confront, disturb.” And I would add, inspire.
In the six years that I’ve had the privilege of serving at the Cathedral it is been my privilege to be in ministry with you. And how you have inspired me by the ways that you reach out to the poor, the hurting, the vulnerable: those on the margins in our community. Whether it’s your faithfulness to our monthly gathering of food—1800 sandwiches, 1000 pieces of fruit—that go to Martha’s Table to feed the hungry that day. Whether it’s your participation in Street Church in downtown Washington where the homeless are invited to break bread at the Lord’s Table to fill their souls, and then receive sandwiches to assuage their hunger. Whether it is your faithfulness in prison ministry, bringing the light and the love of Christ into the darkness for those who are poor in spirit and are all too often forgotten and feel alone and afraid. Whether it’s our knitting and crocheting ministry that makes hats and scarves and gloves for homeless children and their families in our city. You inspire me. You who have been faithful with little are also faithful with much.
As I was reflecting on our time together and some of the sermons that I have been privileged to hear in this great Cathedral, I remembered a sermon preached almost 4 years ago from this very pulpit by Adam Hamilton on the occasion of the Second Inaugural Prayer Service for President Obama. Adam Hamilton is the senior pastor of the United Methodist Church outside of Kansas City that has 18,000 members. He’s got to be doing something right with God’s grace! He talked about how his community decided to pray and discern together how they might address the root cause of poverty in Kansas City. And after careful listening and talking to those in the know and some prayer, without exception, what they learned was that the most important step they could take was to address early childhood education. And so 2500 volunteers partnered with six elementary schools in Kansas City—90% of their students are on free lunch or subsidized lunch—so essentially the poorest elementary schools in their city.
What they did was to build playgrounds where there were no playgrounds. They went into the schools and painted and spruced up the schools. They bought books for the students to take home to read. They tutored. When they learned that 1400 of the students came back to school on Monday hungry, they filled backpacks with snacks that they would take over the weekend so that when they arrived back at school on Monday they were ready to learn. They embraced those students in every way possible and made a difference.
And they didn’t stop there. Adam Hamilton, with that congregation, made the commitment that they would take the biggest offering of the church year at Christmas and dedicate 50% of it to projects for orphans in Malawi and 50% of it to support these children in the six elementary schools. And he challenged them to give what they spent on their own children for Christmas presents. They raised $1,235,000 and they gave it away. Can you imagine?
Frederick Buechner says that to sacrifice something is to make it holy by giving it away out of love. Amazing. Inspirational. And as I was reflecting on that I began to wonder: what might it look like in this Cathedral community to have a big vision on how we have been faithful with little, but could be faithful even more, and then much. And what might that look like? And, of course, we know that our city has needs, too.
About two weeks ago I read a very arresting article by Petula Dvorak in the Washington Post. It was about school uniforms. You’ll recall that in the late 1990s the school uniform movement became prevalent because there was bullying and the social economic disparity just was not a good thing in our country. And so today, three quarters of the traditional public schools in the District of Columbia have school uniforms and, doesn’t that make great good sense to level the playing field? But if you dig more deeply, there is a story within that story. Petula Dvorak talked about the great debate that even in the first two weeks of school had ensued. The idea of a school uniform sounds really great, unless you’re poor and homeless and your family can buy one uniform, not five. And when you wake up in the car or in the shelter in the morning and your one school uniform is filthy, what do you do? What do you do if you are in a shelter and your floor has laundry day on Tuesday and by Thursday your uniform is a mess?
She talked about an 11-year-old girl—if that’s not an awkward age for girls anyway— who showed up on the second day of school with polka-dot socks and she was sent to detention because the school uniform mandated white, black, or burgundy socks— no polka dots. And she was told in detention that if she didn’t come into compliance in two weeks she would be suspended. As Petula Dvorak wrote, “welcome to the intersection of absurd and tragic.”
What might we envision together, using the gifts that God has given us in time and talent and treasure? As I was pondering this I thought about what Adam Hamilton said toward the end of his sermon that day. He told the story of Robert Louis Stevenson. When he was a boy and his father came home from work one day, Stevenson, the boy, was looking out the windowsill into the darkness and he was mesmerized. His father asked him, what you are looking at? What’s got your attention? And he responded that he was looking at the lamplighter go up the ladder, light the gas lamp, come down the ladder, go to the next lamp. And he said, I’m watching that man knock holes in the darkness.
My friends, Christ calls us to knock holes in the darkness, to bring the light and the life and the love of Christ into a sometimes too dark world. What might God be calling us to do? Where might we knock some holes in the darkness? “Whoever has been faithful with a very little will be faithful with much.” Let it be so. Amen.