19 September 2010

Being faithful in a very little as a steward of the mysteries of God

The Unjust Steward, by the Kazakhstan Artist, Nelly Bube (Bubay)

Patrick Comerford

The Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity (Sunday 19 September 2010)

Church of Ireland Theological Institute:
11.30: Community Eucharist. Jeremiah 8: 18 - 9: 1; Psalm 79: 1-9; I Timothy 2: 1-7; Luke 16: 1-13

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen

As a student here, you are going to hear a variety of preachers at the Community Eucharist, on Sunday mornings or on Wednesday evenings. During the next few months, you may hear staff members, Diocesan Directors of Ordinands (DDOs), the Archbishop of Dublin and the Bishop of Harare.

But, we do not offer star billings to draw the crowds. Instead, there are two purposes and intents in preaching at the Community Eucharist:

1, The first is like the usual Sunday sermon in your home parish: we are a gathered community, gathered around word and sacrament, a full expression of the Church. So this is a normal Sunday sermon, trying to meet some if not most of the expectations of a normal Sunday sermon in your home parish: reflecting on the readings, teaching, building up collective and individual faith … all the things we learn when it comes to exegesis, homiletics and hermeneutics.

2, Secondly, we hope preaching here should at times try to model good preaching, how we hope you might preach in ordained ministry.

So, let me say that if anyone here is preaching at a Harvest Thanksgiving in coming weeks, I hope you do not have to chose one verse from this morning’s Old Testament reading: “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved” (Jeremiah 8: 20).

Nor do I hope any staff member at the beginning of a future academic year, before a new intake of ordinands, should chose to preach on the first verse in our psalm: “O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance; they have profaned your holy temple…” (Psalm 79: 1).

As I was praying and thinking about this morning’s sermon, I found myself praying and thinking about the dishonest manager, better known as the Unjust Steward. But this is probably not a choice parable for your first Sunday here; he is not someone to hold up as a role model for ministry or discipleship.

Last week in the Lectionary (Luke 15: 1-10), we had the Good Shepherd. Ah, there’s a popular model for pastoral ministry. Many people look forward to “Good Shepherd Sunday,” most churches have stained glass windows with the Good Shepherd, some of you even know the Church of the Good Shepherd in Monkstown, Belfast, where the Revd Arlene Moore is the priest-in-charge.

But nobody knows this Sunday as “Unjust Steward Sunday” … I don’t know any parish with a stained glass window of the Unjust Steward, and none that would like to be called “the Church of the Unjust Steward.”

In this economy, this parable could easily sound like a manifesto for NAMA, the National Assets Management Agency, which is buying properties from indebted bankers and speculators at knock-down, discount prices, so they can get back to business, but at the expense of the taxpayers. But, at face value, this story is in danger of portraying approval by Jesus for deceit. What a difficult parable for rectors and curates this morning. And, at first reading, this is not a good story as you face into community living, finding your place in a new community, worried perhaps about how you are going to get along with everyone else here.

Sarah Dylan Breuer, author of the celebrated American blog Sarah Laughed (www.sarahlaughed.net), says most commentators agree this story is about how the shrewd steward acts decisively, and that Jesus is describing the “in-breaking of the Kingdom of God, call[ing] upon us all to act decisively.” But is Jesus really commending a crook who acted decisively?

Take the master, who is confronted with a fait accompli. Who does he represent? The master in this parable, in the original Greek, is actually called the Lord (ὁ κύριός, ho kyrios, see verses 3, 5 and 8; see also verse 13): it is the Lord who is praised (verse 8), and it is in the Lord’s name that unexpected forgiveness is extended.

So, am I supposed to be like the unjust steward? It’s interesting that the Greek word Saint Luke uses here for the steward, οἰκονόμος (oikonómos), the one responsible for the household, is used later when Saint Paul says those in ministry are “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries”; that as “stewards” we must be found trustworthy (I Corinthians 4: 1-2; c.f. I Peter 4: 10); that “a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless” (Titus 1: 7).

So, let’s look further. Let’s ask: what is it that the shrewd steward or unjust manager does?

Well, the shrewd steward forgives debt. So, this passage is less about clever trading but all about forgiveness. And, as Sarah Dylan Breuer points out, forgiveness is an overarching theme throughout the Gospels. How often should I forgive? As Saint Luke reminds us in his next chapter, even if someone offends seven times a day, I should be willing to forgive them seven times (Luke 17: 1-4). Seven … the perfect number … I should be willing to forgive perfectly.

Forgiveness is so important to discipleship that what the steward does cannot be dismissed, despite his shrewd dealing, his agility as a three-card trickster dressed up as a cunning estate agent – and, in case you think I’m biased, I said “cunning estate agent,” not “all estate agents” … I started training as a chartered surveyor and estate manager but never stayed the course. I was far happier to set my sights on becoming a steward of the mysteries of God.

If this story is all about forgiveness, then despite the cunning reasons the shrewd steward may have for forgiving, despite the fact that he had no right to forgive, he forgives. And it is this, perhaps, that redeems him in the eyes of the Lord.

What are the implications for us as Christians if Sarah Dylan Breuer is correct? Well, then we must forgive, even if forgiveness helps us, even if we have no right to forgive, even if it does not benefit us at all. We must forgive with grand irresponsibility.

But there is another difficult point in this Gospel story. Verses 10-11 say: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”

Being faithful with what is given to me is also a familiar Gospel theme: it is found in the parable of the talents. But being faithful with dishonest wealth is a puzzling concept, even if it speaks to the present economic dilemmas in Ireland. Is it still possible to manage goods in ways that are appropriate to, that witness to, that are signs of the Kingdom of God?

If I am responsible for the small things in life, then hopefully I can be responsible for the large things. Very few of us are asked to do huge things, such as win a by-election, finish a masterpiece, solve the banking crisis, score a winning try or goal. But we are asked to do a multitude of small things – within our family, our friends, our neighbours, our fellow students, in this community.

And: “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.” Yet, it is often most difficult to forgive the small things.

I heard a comedian tell of a young man, up from the provinces, starting work in a menial clerical post, living in a cramped, one-room flat in Rathmines. In the room above is another man in similar circumstances, working late shifts as a labourer.

Each night, just as he goes to sleep, the office worker is woken by his neighbour as he opens the front door, clumps-clumps up the stairs, plods into his room above, sits on his bed, and throws his two big boots on the floor above our poor, weary and demented friend, one-by-one.

Each night, our sad insurance clerk waits for same routine, knowing that he can’t get to sleep until at least he hears both boots being thumped on the floor above.

One day, being a Christian, the more timid office worker approaches his neighbour, explains the problem, and asks could he come in quietly, and take his shoes off gently.

Surprisingly, his neighbour is sympathetic, understanding. The next night, he turns the key quietly, tip toes upstairs, sits down quietly, takes off both shoes in one go and places them together, gently, on the floor above.

Meanwhile, his friend is lying in bed, waiting anxiously. He can’t get any shut eye. He’s heard his neighbour come in, go up, sit down, and has heard the one muffled thud on the floor … Only one … he waits … he tosses … he waits … he turns … And finally, he can wait no more. He screams out: “Would you throw down the other darn shoe and let’s all go to sleep!”

Learning to forgive the very little slights and offences is often so difficult when we live closely to one another: the muffled sounds next door when someone is up late finishing an essay; the early riser heading out for a morning jog who unintentionally wakes us; the unexpected slurps at the table; the accent that irritates me because, subconsciously, it reminds me of a particular neighbour or family member.

Sometimes, if truth is told, it is easier to forgive when it comes to the big things. Yet we ask God this morning: “Remember not our past sins; let your compassion be swift to meet us …” (Psalm 79: 8).

God, as the Lord, reaps his own rewards. But as stewards of the mysteries of God, Saint Paul urges us in this morning’s Epistle reading to make supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings for everyone (I Timothy 2: 1).

Our spiritual relationship with God is reflected in our social and economic relationship with others. If we can be entrusted with the small things, are ready to forgive the small things, then we can be entrusted with the biggest of all …. We can be stewards of the mysteries of God.

Perhaps, like the shrewd steward, we need to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.

And so, may all we think, say and do, be to the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen


O Lord,
Hear the prayers of your people who call upon you;
and grant that they may both perceive and know
what things they ought to do,
and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of mercy,
through our sharing in this holy sacrament
you make us one body in Christ.
Fashion us in his likeness here on earth,
that we may share his glorious company in heaven,
where he lives and reigns now and for ever.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist on Sunday 19 September 2010

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