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Pentecost 18 September 18, 2016 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
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Sermon for Sunday, September 18, 2016 | Pentecost XVIII | Proper 20
Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; I Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
 
Christ Episcopal Church
Tacoma, WA
Sunday, September 18, 2016
The Rev. Samuel Torvend

Here is a rich landowner and a manager of the rich man’s land, a manager who is being fired from his position for apparent mismanagement. At the same time, there are poor farmers who rent from the landowner and work the land in order to subsist on its produce. Jesus notes that they are in debt to the landowner: they owe him, as part of the rent, a healthy measure of their wheat and olive oil, two staples in ancient and contemporary Mediterranean life.
 
Jesus does not mention in his parable what the landowner could have done once he discovered his manager’s incompetence or theft. He was well within his rights to impose on the manager a fine for the total cost of what was lost; he could have the manager imprisoned; or he could have him fined and imprisoned: all of them public actions that would damage the manager’s reputation for the rest of his life, making it all but impossible for him to find managerial work again. Note what he says: I’m too weak to become a laborer and I’m too proud to beg on the streets. Those listening to Jesus would have expected to hear that the manager was imprisoned or forced to pay the injurious financial penalty. What they and we discover is the unexpected: the unexpected Mercy of the owner who simply and quietly dismisses the poor man.
 
But the manager is no dummy. He knows that there is a window of opportunity before the renters find out that he has been dismissed and in that time he meets with them and generously alters their contractual debt to the landowner. This clever ploy then places the rich master in an awkward position. If he rejects the new contracts, he will provoke anger and derision in the renters who are already celebrating his generosity. If he allows the new contracts to hold, he will be short on the rental fees he was expecting at the end of the year. He will be poor in wealth but rich in generosity among his renters who, for at least this one year, might live above the poverty that normally beset their lives and their families.
 
Jesus thus offers insightful and surprising commentary on what wealth is and where it ought to be found for he suggests that wealth or surplus is not, is not, to be stored up in a personal retirement account or kept to oneself or one’s closest friends or family members, as he notes earlier in the gospel (Luke 12:13-21). Believe me: that is challenging advice for a good many middle class Americans, such as myself, given our conditioning by the financial and insurance industries. Indeed, I was raised by parents who, in their 40s, took steps to insure that their children would not be “burdened” with caring for them or supporting them financially in their old age. But their sensible and responsible practice emerges out of a highly individualistic view of life (my family and me) that is anchored in a particular socio-economic class: those who have sufficient surplus to invest in retirement. Jesus, however, suggests that there are oceans of people who have no means to invest financially in their future: people who live in poverty, with chronic anxiety about the future.
 
This past week, the Census Bureau trumpeted the 5.2% increase in median household income, a sign – said commentators – that the economy is rebounding from the recession of 2008. But then the number of people who struggle with poverty has barely budged and incidence of chronic hunger continues to increase. The parable of the well-off landowner who became rich in generosity and poor in personal wealth seems to suggest that if one enjoys inherited wealth, earned wealth, or surplus, it is to be given away in an act of generosity, an act of generosity that will entail the simplification of one’s lifestyle. Perhaps Jesus is trying to expand our vision of who is in need and asking his listener, then and now, to invest in human beings, in people who have little if nothing to invest in the future. A university colleague of mine, a clergyman, asked me if I would be preaching today. When I said Yes, he said: “You gonna’ talk about wealth and money, man? That kind of talk makes people nervous.” Perhaps he is right, but then I wonder: are you and I to be tutored in this use of our treasure by Wall Street or by the gospels?
 
It should come as no surprise to us that the earliest description of Christian worship notes that those who have surplus give it to the priest or the deacon who shares this surplus with orphans and widows, with the sick and unemployed, with migrant workers cut off from their families, with anyone in need. In other words, the local church, through its ministers, becomes one of the places in which surplus is invested in living human beings, drawing them from diminishment, isolation, and despair into sustenance, community, and hope. Is it any wonder, then, that this sharing of wealth and surplus took place, takes place, on Sunday, the day on which the Christian community celebrates God’s mercy, God’s generosity, God’s power to raise human beings from diminishment and death into life, health, and wholeness? In other words, our local church, animated by the generosity of God, can become the conduit through which our collective treasure, like the multiplication of loaves and fish, can feed the hungry and give them cause to celebrate the generosity of God. I am mindful of the question raised by the great Spanish mystic, St. Teresa of Avila: Shall we live simply so that others might simply live?