Pentecost 15 & Baptism – John Conway, Provost – 22nd September 2019

Amos 8.4-7; Luke 16.1-13

Today is a good day. In a short while we will baptise Euan, a member of this congregation. He will declare his faith – a faith that he has explored and tested in conversation and prayer over this past year. He will, in the waters of baptism, like all Christians, enter the waters of Christ’s death, to be raised into Christ’s resurrection life. Today is a good day.

And Andy, our Chaplain, leads us in worship today as a priest amongst us. After spending his deacon year getting to know you and this Cathedral, sharing something of himself in preaching and conversation and care; after that year, on Thursday he was ordained priest, to gather us in worship and renew that resurrection life of Christ within us. Today is a good day.

Both Euan and Andy embody for us today a vocation, a lived out response to the call of God. Euan embodies and expresses the vocation of us all, the vocation of every human being, responding to the gift of life. That gift, of human life and breath, today in Euan’s baptism takes shape: the shape of Christ’s death and resurrection. That shape, that knows of suffering and death – that does not shy away from that, but through that knows of hope and new life – that shape is the most profound and engaged way to be human. Euan today expresses, commits himself to, the vocation of us all. And Andy, within that human vocation, embodies for us today the priestly vocation of gathering us around Christ, that Christ may be known in us. Andy, in bringing us to Christ, enables that wonderful exchange that our Eucharistic Prayer celebrates: In Christ, your Son, our life and yours are brought together in a wonderful exchange. He made his home among us that we might for ever dwell in you.

Today is a good day.

As the preacher I might have hoped, on this good day, for readings that celebrated those vocations, that lifted our hearts in prayer and praise. But just as we arrive at the deep hope of new life, only when tread the paths of suffering, so we need to do a bit of wrestling with our readings to arrive at good news. For this is how Jesus teaches; his parables work by overturning expectations, delivering a shock in the tail. They make you work. Often, because we are so familiar with these parables, it can be hard to recover that sense of shock that would have been there for the first hearers of these tales. But that is not so with this morning’s parable – the parable of the dishonest manager – the shock, I suggest, remains.

The parable introduces us to the dishonest manager of a rich man. His dodgy dealings are found out, and he is asked to give an account of himself. Rather than this being the moment of truth however, his craftiness continues – he devises a new scheme, and – you might say, squandering his master’s property further, he establishes the relationships that will see him through his sacking. And then the twist and the shock: rather than condemning his manager for such continued dishonesty, out of the blue the master commends his dishonest steward. And we then get a series of cryptic sayings of Jesus around the themes of friendship and money:

I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 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? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’

It’s a difficult parable to makes sense of; what are we being shocked into thinking? First, it’s worth putting it in context. Follows immediately after the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Last week we heard the parables of the lost sheep and lost coin – and Paul drew out their connections to the Prodigal Son; but surprisingly the connections to this week’s parable are there too: both the prodigal son and the manager are described as squandering their property. Both of them conduct an internal dialogue with themselves to work out how to restore themselves to a home. And both receive surprising, greater mercy than they, or we, believe they deserve.

That connection alters the whole feel of this parable for me. Part of the shock is that we are being asked to identify with this dishonest steward, his sharp dealings and dishonesty. In the parable of the Prodigal Son we are used to the idea that we might see ourselves in the role of the older brother, and find that identification difficult. Identifying with the dishonest steward takes us a step further. But Jesus’ point is that this man finds a way to bring forgiveness into his relationships – it might be for dubious motives (although is the longing for a home, a place where one is welcomed, that dubious a motive?). But that forgiving practice is what earns him the surprising commendation of his master. For Jesus’ hearers – the poor, those who would have identified with the debtors in the story – the remission of debts is no small thing. The sums being written off are huge. For them the steward’s practice might be sharp, but exceedingly welcome. And the usual order of things is overturned when suddenly the rich master commends such behaviour! The one who was thought to be only interested in his estate, the power and money it could generate, is suddenly found to commend the establishing of relationships. Relationships are suddenly given priority over money.

And so the parable invites us into a world where that is what God is like: not an absentee master, preserving the status quo and hierarchical order, but one who delights in the practice of forgiveness.

The sayings that follow ram home the point – that we are all called to make that similar journey – the journey of the prodigal son and the dishonest steward. From squandering uselessly what we possess, to recognising that what we most long for is a home, a community, friendship, where the practice of compassionate forgiveness is paramount. And that home and that practice place money and possessions in their proper place. Not as a competing claim on our allegiance, but a means to serve our fundamental allegiance to God, the God who is love, who is the practice of compassionate forgiveness, our true home. For you cannot serve God and wealth. Our wealth, what we have been given in trust, is there to be used, just like that dishonest steward, for the building up of a home, a world, where all may live.

It is that home that Euan, I hope, has begun to find here. That journey, in compassionate forgiveness, that he promises in baptism, with all of us, for the sake of all, to make. Today is a good day. Amen.

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