Sermon: Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity
Sunday 18 September 2016
The Very Reverend David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
Baptism of Harry Luke 16.1-13
I allocated some time on Friday morning to write this address and immediately before that I had called a breakfast meeting to develop a new group called the Leicester Cathedral Commercial Group. This is a small group of about half a dozen of some of the new leading business people in the city. It is not a Fundraising Group but rather our attempt to try and make connection with the growing commercial community to see how they can help us grow our mission and to see if we have anything to offer them. There was plenty of money in the meeting. It was a very stimulating conversation over a bacon buttie. I returned to my desk to prepare this address to read ‘You cannot serve God and wealth’. God’s eternal sense of humour!
If you ever have been guilty of thinking that the teaching of Jesus, especially in the parables is straightforward then this is the one parable to make you think again. In churches we have stained glass windows depicting many parables – the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Good Shepherd and the Woman looking for a Lost Coin but I can’t ever remember seeing the image of a rich man engaged in falsifying a bill as an exemplar of Godly living. Yet this is the focus of our gospel today.
As for many who work today as white collar workers, in the story, we find a man who is a manager. He presumably gets up, goes through his normal morning routines and goes to work like a commuter on the tube or anyone in the morning rush hour heading for Junction 21. He works for a wealthy man and he is trusted. But after some time word gets to his boss that things are not entirely so straightforward. Long before the Committee on Standards in Public Life there has still been a calling to account for actions unseen as well as seen. So the manager is faced with his past but more importantly he has the opportunity to consider his future. So he goes to the debtors and works out deals for them softening the way for his future beyond his current employer. It is a bit uncomfortable but he is described as being shrewd.
So what do we do when the veneer cracks and we become exposed in ways which reveal that we are less than squeaky clean and perfect? It is interesting that many struggle so much with this parable because this man gets commended in this parable – the text isn’t clear but it may even be Jesus who is commending him! We are all a mix of commendable and less commendable behaviours and so we might expect to be pleased that such people get commendation but instead a kind of moral purity can surface – none of us would ever think of let alone do such a thing. I suspect it allows us to hold Jesus at a distance away from the endless grey of decision making.
When the church historically has spoken about sin, we are trying to reckon with this dynamics. This language sits behind many of the words of a baptism service. Indeed when I have prepared new parents for baptism I have sometimes noticed their struggles with the word sin in relational to their beautiful bundle of new life – surely they are pure and innocent. I would imagine that baby Harry is already discovering he has a will which is not always in agreement with his mum and dad and so is learning to assert himself, but he will not do so appropriately if he doesn’t also make mistakes. And he is born into a family, a community, a nation, a world which although is full of blessing, it is far from perfect, it is also full of sin. However, I find this gospel hopeful that despite all this, all the mix of broken glory that there are still things to be learnt; that still growth can happen and real steps be taken which lead to a real future which can even look ahead as far as eternity.
I think in some ways this is a parable about hope and a parable about accountability. It poses for us the questions as to whether or not we can have sufficient imagination or ingenuity to adapt to changing circumstances and to act in such ways as might positively shape the future. It is about faithfulness in the face of uncertainty.
The manager rather than shutting down or running away when he is found out does something. His actions are not perfect but he does something that attempts to address his responsibility – he tries to get some return for his rich boss and in doing so he has a go at building some way for a future to emerge in that community, with those he will continue to do business with. This is not a blue print for professional ethics – I certainly could not read that from this parable. But instead it is a story to evoke response in us in the light of facing our manifold failures and being made properly accountable for them in hope that we might grow?
Harry’s baptism today into the life of Christ and into the community of faith is an invitation to explore what it is to be faithful in small things and to do that amidst the compromises and tugs of real life. Especially, he is invited to act as a good steward of all that he has been given since we know that for all of us life is now but it is passing away. Birth, life and death are all part of a single trajectory. Yet the parable suggests that, in the economy of heaven, even the small things of temporal life shape eternity. Perfection belongs to God at the beginning and at the end, but we can seek its aroma within the mess in the middle.
I like the story from the Zen Buddhist tradition which tells of Hakuin. The daughter of a wealthy fisherman in a neighbouring village became pregnant and blamed it on him. The villagers stormed around and hurled abuse at him, accusing him of being the father. Hakuin just said ‘Is that so?’ And he took in the child and cared for it. Eighteen months later, the young woman confessed that Hakuin was not after all the father, and the villagers came around to apologise to him for having destroyed his reputation, and again he said ‘is that so?’ We have decisions to be made all along the way.
In baptism we are given the deep freedom of being a child of God which enables us to be truly free and imaginative in our response to this conflicted world. Like Jesus that may mean much misunderstanding as he lost his reputation by hanging around with the wrong people, or insisting that someone had a future when all that others could see was death. Reputation ultimately matters much less than working out the steps of faithfulness in the small things. Change has always been the human context. Perfection is beyond our grasp. Yet stewardship of what we have before us is entirely within our reach, a rooted hope for Harry and for us all.
The Very Revd David Monteith