Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost + Grace Art Camp Sunday + Welcome Back Sunday by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Amos 8:4-7
Psalm 113
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

 

The story goes like this.

There is a man who so much money and so much stuff that he finds it necessary to hire an employee to take care of everything that he owns. This employee – the text doesn’t give him a name, he is simply the manager – is in charge of the rich man’s houses and cars and airplanes and exotic cats and mutual funds. Like a lot of rich people across history, the rich man comes to trust his manager, to depend upon him: he relaxes, he stops monitoring the manager’s work closely. And like a lot of rich people across history, he ends up disappointed: the rich man doesn’t realise how far things have gone off the rails until a friend calls him up and says:

“You know your manager? You might want to check on his work.”

And so the manager ends up in the rich man’s office. There to face the charge that he is squandering the rich man’s property. Whether “squandering” means something as serious as embezzlement or whether it simply means that the manager has made several big mistakes, Luke doesn’t say. Either way, the rich man doesn’t like the number at the bottom of the ledger sheet. He says:

“You cannot be my manager any longer.”

Now, this is the point in the story when the rich man probably should stop and seek the advice of a Human Resources professional. Because what he says to his manager next is:

“You’re fired.

“Partway through next week.”

The manager leaves his boss’ office. If you have ever been fired or laid off, if you have ever gotten an “F” on a test, if you have ever gotten the letter that says, “Thank you for your application, but…,” if you looked into the eyes of someone whom you loved and saw that she or he didn’t love you in return, you will know what is going on in the manager’s mind and heart and gut right now. He is fighting off tears, the room feels like it is rolling under his feet, he is wondering if he is going to throw up.

“What am I going to do?” he says.

“What am I going to do? I am not strong enough to dig. And I am ashamed to beg.”

And so the manager comes up with a plan. On the way out the door, he’s going to cook the books. And in particular, he is going to cook the books in the way that makes him as many friends as possible, in a way that generates a stack of favours that he can call in over the coming years. He knows everyone who owes the rich man money or goods. He goes to see them all. And he proceeds to give them twenty and even fifty percent discounts on their bills.

Up until now, the story is straightforward enough, unremarkable enough. It’s the sort of thing that you might encounter on the radio or on TV or on your phone on any slow news day. Kickbacks are commonplace, in the Ancient Near East and today. This story is, in other words, a minor cautionary tale. It might be another sad example of humanity’s dishonesty, but it’s nothing special, right? Except that Jesus, who loves reversal, who loves making things topsy-turvy, who loves taking the common and making it strange and wonderful and holy, grabs the steering wheel and turns hard.

The story spins around so fast that it’s amazing that it doesn’t flip over.

Jesus tells us that:

The rich man commends his manager because the manager has acted shrewdly.

The end!

That really is where the story finishes. Jesus does share some moral instruction with us (“if you’re dishonest in a little, you’ll be dishonest in a lot” – which may or may not shed light onto the tale that he has just told), but the story itself is over with the rich man’s commendation to his manager. This tale, in other words, is cut from the same storytelling tradition as the final episode of The Sopranos, in which we are hanging out in a diner with Tony Soprano and his family and listening to Don’t Stop Believing when suddenly

the screen goes blank.

What just happened?

Today at Grace is a Sunday of transition, it is a doorway between two times in our life together. It is a time of beginning, when we say “welcome” or “welcome back,” when we say “let’s get started.” The choir has been back for a couple of Sundays, Youth Group resumed meeting on Friday, the quilters and the Benedictine group and the team that puts together the Friday meal and the auction are all ramping back up to full speed. And it is a time when we name and celebrate what was, when we say thanks, in particular, for Art Camp.

When I arrived at Grace in late August of 2015, Art Camp had just wrapped up for the year. It was like the day after the carnival: the tents were still up in the courtyard, but the children and the counselors and the musicians and the artist-instructors were all gone. And so Summer 2016 was my first Art Camp. It was a joy to witness the music, the holy rambunctiousness, the curiosity. Two things in particular caught my attention.

First, at Art Camp, everyone – everyone – is invited participate in the joyous work of creativity, to be part of responding to beauty and of calling new beauty into existence. Art Camp, therefore, is an antidote to our wider culture, a culture that increasingly reserves creating art to the professionals: don’t you dare sing unless you can command a million views on YouTube, don’t you dare paint unless your work is hanging in the Louvre, don’t you dare dance unless you are onstage with Beyoncé. But Art Camp will have none of that. Art Camp says: Go! Go craft something out of glass or clay or paper, no matter how halting or goofy you may feel, go make beauty. Are you an artist? Well, if you are creating art, Art Camp says the answer is Yes.

Second, Art Camp is about turning outward, it is about empathy. When a group of people from this parish got together some twenty years ago to plant the seed that would become Art Camp, part of the genius of the model they crafted was that each summer would focus on a given country or culture. Art Camp has visited Peru, Greece, India, and this year, Alaska. And importantly, Art Camp has visited these places not as a tourist or as a voyeur or as someone hoping to appropriate or reform the culture that he finds there – this is not Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden – but Art Camp has visited with a curiosity and reverence for the culture that it meets. One of the highlights of Art Camp 2016 was the weekly visit by a pair of Native Elders who shared some of their people’s wisdom, who told some of their people’s stories. It was a gift to hear those Elders. It was a gift to see the rapt wonder with which the children listened to them.

In a real sense, what we see in Art Camp is a foretaste of the Kingdom of God. Art Camp isn’t just a fun thing that happens to meet at Grace and that could meet equally well at Lloyd Center. No. Art Camp is one of our core ministries, it is one of the reasons that Grace Memorial exists. Grace’s longtime rector Stephen Schneider says that the purpose of Grace Institute, the parent organisation of Art Camp, is to carry out this parish’s mission, but in secular language, in the language of the neighbourhood. And there is no question that Art Camp meets that goal. Even though the language and the symbols that it employs are often different that the ones that we use here on Sunday mornings, Art Camp is proclaiming the Gospel. It is inviting everyone to join with the creator in the work of divine artistry. It is inviting everyone to join with the creator in turning outward in empathy.

So.

Let’s track back to the beginning of the Gospel reading. And let’s notice who the audience is for Jesus’ strange and wonderful story about the manager who cooks the books. Over the past few weeks, we have heard Jesus talk to wealthy Pharisees, we have heard him talk to tax collectors and sinners, we have heard him talk to the crowd. But today he talks to the disciples, a group of people who predominantly or perhaps even entirely come out of generational poverty. These folks work in fishing and in carpentry, they have subsistence-level jobs, they own nothing but their clothes and a few tools. And if they know anything about debt, about one person having to pay something back to another, it is because they themselves are in debt, not because anyone owes something to them.

I want to suggest that the disciples’ economic status profoundly shapes how they hear this story. They do not identify with the rich man. Nor do they identify with the manager and his upper middle class job and upper middle class assumptions (“I am too weak to dig” are words these folks have never spoken – manual labour isn’t something that they can choose to opt out of). The people with whom they identify in this story are the ones who owe stuff to the rich man – the debtors are their people. Hearing this story through the disciples’ lens of poverty is a huge clue to where Jesus is going with it. Because when you strip the story down to its core, when you ask the question: in one sentence, what happens in Jesus’ story? The answer is this: the manager forgives debts. Or maybe even simpler than that: the manager forgives.

This choice to forgive is why the rich man (whom we may guess that Jesus intends as a stand-in for God) is so pleased with the manager, it’s why he commends him. Amazingly – and this just might be really good news for me and for you – God doesn’t care that the manager’s motivations were thoroughly selfish. God just cares that he has forgiven. It’s okay if you forgive because it makes you feel good, it’s okay if you forgive because you think you will get kickbacks for doing so, it’s okay if you forgive for no reason at all. Just forgive.

What God knows, and what you and I know, is that forgiveness changes something, it shifts something big. It changes not just the ones who are forgiven, but also the one who forgives. As immoral as the manager’s reasons for forgiving may be, he is made larger and more loving and more whole and more alive by his actions. It doesn’t matter that he did the right thing for the wrong reasons. It just matters that he did the right thing.

If you want to be an artist, then start making art. If you want to be the sort of person who forgives, them start forgiving.

And so this story, of all stories, is an Art Camp story. It is a story about participating in the holy work of creativity, of building beauty, of nurturing forgiveness. It is a story about empathy – even accidental or reluctant empathy, God can and will work with that – about turning outwards in reverent curiosity. It is a story about a manager who, like the artist-teachers and students and counselors at Art Camp, is surprised to find that, even though he’s not a lamp, every he goes, he is aglow with joy, with wonder, with the Kingdom of God.