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September 18, 2022

We’ve talked about Wordle before, the game where each day you try to guess a five-letter word.  You get six guesses, with some hints along the way about which letters you’ve gotten right or wrong.  I had a pretty good streak going – until Friday morning.  After two guesses I had all but one letter figured out, but I kept guessing the wrong word – again and again until I was out of guesses.  The word was “parer” – as in a knife you use to peel things, I guess?  I guessed everything but the right answer – pager, paver, paler, pacer.  So that was that.  Streak broken. 

I was bummed about it at first, but I soon discovered that I was not alone.  Everyone started sharing their Wordle despair online, and suddenly friends and family from all over the country were reporting their own failure to figure it out. I later learned that only 41% of Wordle players that day had solved it in six tries.  The usual percentage is close to 99%.

I couldn’t figure out, but I was not the only one.  Most of us couldn’t figure it out, and I found that comforting.

As it turns out, that’s a helpful parallel for our approach to this morning’s gospel.  No one really seems to understand this story of the dishonest manager.  My colleagues and I struggled in our weekly Bible study to make sense of it.  The scholarly commentaries on which I often rely to inspire some wisdom mostly said, “We don’t really understand it either.”  There were some educated theories among them, but I’m not sure any of them were that enlightening.

It was comforting to know I was not alone in being tied up in interpretive knots.  So let’s give ourselves permission not to understand the story with utmost precision and instead to wonder about it, to try out some reflections, and to let the story be as strange as it is.

The so-called dishonest manager ends up in his predicament by being bad at his job. He squanders the rich man’s wealth, and when the boss demands an audit, the manager realizes that he’s about to be fired.  Give the manager bonus points for self-awareness, though.  He knows that he’s too weak to do hard labor and too ashamed to ask for help.  So he starts wheeling and dealing.  He makes some bargains with the people who owe his boss money: “You owe the master 100? Let’s make it 50…You over here…you owe 100?  Let’s say 80 and call it even.”

It’s hard to know his exact motivation, but there’s a good chance he’s doing all this to curry favor with his neighbors.  That way, when he’s out of a job, they might invite him to dinner or let him crash on their couches.  His manipulations seem self-serving in this way.  He’s cultivating relationships not because he feels a genuine sense of connection with these folks, but because they might prove useful to him later.

There are so many unanswered questions about this story.  Why does the rich man commend the manager for apparently reducing the man’s profits?  Why does the rich man celebrate the manager’s “shrewdness”?  Why does Jesus appear to recommend this practice of manipulating others with “dishonest wealth”?

The short answer: I don’t know.  I don’t know for sure.  I’ve wondered this week if Jesus is using this story to highlight the way the world works.  If you want to get by in the world’s terms, you better wheel and deal.  You better look out for yourself, and that means cultivating relationships that are self-serving.  People are only as valuable as the favors they owe you.  Maybe Jesus is deliberately setting up a contrast between the world’s economy and God’s economy.

In this regard our first reading is a little more straightforward.  The first reading comes from the Hebrew scriptures, from a prophet named Amos.  Amos lived somewhere around 760 BCE during the reign of Jeroboam II over Israel.  Amos did not grow up with wealth but was called by God our of a humble life of tending the flocks into a life of telling the people some hard truths about their corrupt values.[i]

The time in which Amos lived was one of relative peace and prosperity in Israel.  Neighboring empires weren’t strong enough to invade, and things seemed to be going well.  But a lot of that prosperity came directly at the expense of the poor.  We can hear Amos’ outrage: The wealthy are “trampling on the needy” and “bringing ruin to the poor.”  These abuses are not accidental.  The merchants are deliberately defrauding those with whom they do business.  They’re manipulating the scales and measures so that the poor always come out on the bad end of the bargaining.  Basically, the wealthy are selling smaller amounts of grain for far more than they’re actually worth, lining their own pockets while others struggle and starve.  Amos is clear that God despises this behavior.

The business people don’t even want to observe the sabbath, even though the sabbath is a central practice of Jewish law.  It annoys them to have to suspend their wheeling and dealing even for a day.  So it comes as no surprise that they also want to ignore the Jewish laws about ethical business practices – the mandates we hear in other parts of the Torah to use honest weights and measures and to maintain honest balances (Leviticus 19:36; see also Deuteronomy 25:13-16).

Amos is calling the people back to a faithful observance of Jewish law, which reflects the will of God.  Everyone, God says, deserves a sabbath rest – from the wealthiest landowner to the poorest worker in the field.  Everyone deserves to be treated fairly rather than being exploited for someone else’s profit.  One of the most consistent refrains in the Torah is care for the poor and welcome for the foreigner. Because the Israelites know what it means to struggle as strangers in a strange land, they are obligated to make sure that others don’t suffer in the way they have.

Let’s be clear.  Being a business person in not wrong.  Being wealthy is not wrong.  But building wealth by exploiting others is wrong.  Ignoring the needs of others when we have the capacity to help is wrong.  What the dishonest manager in our gospel does is manipulative, to be sure.  But it ultimately helps out the people who owe a lot of money, even if it helps himself too.

I wonder sometimes if we might be more shrewd about the profound challenges that face us in our country and in our world.  We all know our immigration system is broken – deeply broken.  Leaders of both parties have failed to reform that system.  If we want a system with biblical foundations, those of us who call ourselves Christian hope to build a safe and sustainable way to provide welcome to those who are fleeing unimaginable dangers in their home countries.  I don’t say this as a political statement.  I say it as a theological statement – it’s one of the most fundamental truths throughout the Bible: love your neighbor, welcome the stranger.

What we saw this week, where asylum seekers were flown from Texas to Massachusetts with promises of housing and work – only to find that they had been lied to – it broke my heart.  These folks had already been threatened by drug cartels, had watched many of their fellow travelers die in the muck and mud of the journey, had been robbed and abused.  And then, after being processed in Texas and given times for their immigration hearings, they were lured on to a plane with assurances that they would receive what they need. They soon discovered that they had been deceived.  In the immediate crisis, it was church people who gave them shelter.  I’m willing to bet that those church people represented a variety of political beliefs, but they shared a belief in the Savior who teaches us the greatest commandment – love God and love neighbor.

I hear the voice of Amos imploring us not to trample on the needy.  I hear the voice of Jesus reminding us that he gave himself as a ransom for all – all of us, rich and poor, those with power and those without it, long-time citizens and new arrivals.  All of us.

For all the confusion about that shrewd manager, Jesus makes things fairly simple in the end: How we live does reflect what we value.  Our faith is embodied in the choices we make, day in and day out.  Think about where you are invested, Jesus is saying.  Not your stock portfolio, but your heart.  Think about how you can give your heart and your treasure to the places that need them the most.  Build relationships that matter, not to your bottom line but to your capacity to love and be loved.  Build communities and countries based on that love and compassion, and soon you find yourself in a world where everyone can thrive.

Maybe it’s not so confusing after all.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ



September 11, 2022

I’m going to ask you to do something strange this morning.  I want you to imagine your own funeral.  At the end of a Lutheran funeral, we offer words of commendation.  It’s our way of saying that we trust God to receive our loved one into eternal life.  We name the person, so as I read the prayer, I’ll use my name, but try to think about this prayer with your name in it.

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant Christa. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light.  Amen.

It’s a beautiful prayer, one of my favorites.  But I often wonder what people who are unaccustomed to Lutheran funerals think about the fact that we stand up in the middle of church and call the deceased a sinner.  There’s a social convention of not speaking ill of the dead, and to some it seems (at best) indelicate and (at worst) horrifying to call somebody a sinner at their own funeral.

It’s one of the things I love about our theology.  The truth-telling.  How we say out loud that we need God’s forgiveness.  And we say out loud that God’s arms are always open to us.

How was it to imagine yourself as the one being called a sheep, a lamb, a sinner?  How was it to say those words from Psalm 51 earlier: “Wash me through and through from my wickedness…Against you – against you, God – I have sinned and done what is evil in your sight.”  Ouch.

Or when we start the service with confession, do you squirm during that time of silent reflection?  Are you glad when it’s over, or do you think, “I definitely need more time.”

This sermon is not about shaming us.  If anything, it’s about breaking through our shame.  We are human.  And part of the human condition is that we do things that hurt ourselves and others.  We also fail to take steps that could help.  We’re also capable of so much good – and we do those good things too.

I don’t want anyone standing up at my funeral and pretending I was perfect.  Say instead that I was loved.  That I tried my best to love others.  And that I was certainly a sinner of God’s own redeeming – a sheep who kept getting lost again and again.

We sometimes act as if being lost is a one-time occurrence.  In a few minutes we’ll sing that wonderful hymn “Amazing Grace.”  We’ll sing, “I once was lost, but now am found.”  As if that’s it:  I was lost that one time.  God found me.  End of story.

But in reality, we keep getting ourselves lost again and again.  We are caught in the grips of addictions and grudges that we can’t seem to shake.  We know that there are relationships we need to work on, but we keep turning away from that work because we know it will be hard.  We can be careless with other people’s lives and with their feelings.  We all have our own ways of getting lost.

We’ve heard these biblical stories about a lost sheep and a lost coin so many times that it’s easy to forget why Jesus tells them in the first place.  Jesus shares these stories because the religious leaders are grumbling.  They don’t like how often Jesus is spending time with sinners.  He’s [gasp] eating with those sinners!

What’s interesting to me about that complaint is that the religious leaders don’t seem to consider themselves sinners at all.  Sinners are those “other people.”   Not us.  Them.

So Jesus tells them two stories.  One is about a shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in the wilderness to go find the one that’s wandered off.  And the other is about a woman who turns her house upside down to find a silver coin that’s gone missing.

Notice that both stories describe the delight in finding what has been lost.  Listen to all the joy.  The shepherd rejoices when he is able to put that lost sheep on his shoulders.  And he doesn’t rejoice alone.  He invites his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him.  It’s a block party!  The same with the woman.  She summons her friends and neighbors too, inviting them to share her joy at finding the coin.

Jesus reminds those religious leaders that God rejoices when the lost are found…when sinners repent…when people find the courage to turn in a new direction or have the difficult conversation or begin the work of healing or make amends to those they have hurt.

I love what we heard in 1 Timothy: The speaker says that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – “of whom I am the foremost.”  And there is gratitude for that salvation: “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord…the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

That grace overflows for each of us, even when we feel undeserving.  That’s the very definition of grace: it’s not about deserving.  It’s about being found, again and again.

Somewhere in this building is a set of keys that I lost before the pandemic.  I know I used the keys to get into the building.  I could not find them when it was time to go home.  I looked everywhere I could think to look, and then I looked some more.  I thought, “They’ll turn up.”  But they didn’t.  That’s the fear of getting lost – that we’ll never get found. For my birthday this year my sister Claire gave me one of those Airtags with a keychain. I’ve got that tag synched with my phone so that when I lose my keys – which will inevitably happen – I just open the app that tells me where they are.

That’s not a bad contemporary image for baptism.  When we’re baptized, we’re marked with the cross of Christ forever.  It’s like God’s version of an Airtag, promising us that there’s nowhere we can wander that God can’t find us.  Getting lost will never be a permanent condition.  We will be found, again and again, and each time we are, God rejoices.

So let’s do another version of that prayer of commendation.  Let us pray:

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend all these your servants, who are still very much alive and will inevitably wander away from your flock at some point this week. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, these sheep of your own fold, these lambs of your own flock, these sinners of your own redeeming. Come and find us when we wander, pick us up, and bring us back home so that we might find comfort and joy with the rest of the flock.  And so that we can welcome others home when they have wandered too.  Amen.

S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ

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