Luke 16:1-13 

What kind of crazy parable is this that Jesus tells us today? Part of confusion stems from the fact that it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense or sound very much like something Jesus would say.  Eminent Biblical scholars have written thousands of pages trying to explain it, so if you’re confused you’re not alone.  There are things we know and things we don’t know.  We know that the manager is losing money for his boss.  But we don’t know if he is stealing the money or if he is simply incompetent.  We know that the manager reduces the tenants’ bills, but we don’t know if he does that by eliminating his commission or by stealing from the land owner.   We know that the land owner commends the manager for his shrewdness, but we don’t know quiet what that means.  And Jesus’ advice to make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth doesn’t sound like anything Jesus would say.  If we want to comprehend this parable we have to understand that this is not a Sunday school lesson.  Rather this is a parable about how to act in desperate times, and it has a lesson for us at Christ Church.
 The parable of the dishonest manager reminds me of another Christ Church; in this case Christ Church, Joliet, Illinois.  Christ Church, Joliet, is the family parish for my mother’s family in much the same way that Christ Church New Brighton is the family parish for some of you.  My uncle, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all vestrymen.  My parents were married at that church, my aunt and uncle were married at that church, and my grandfather was buried from that church.  My father was ordained to the diconate there, and I stood in the same place and officiated at my cousin’s wedding and, a year or so later, baptized her first baby.  I think you get the picture.  Christ Church has a glorious history.  It was founded by Philander Chase, the first bishop of Illinois, and worships in a beautiful old church built out of the limestone that is indigenous to that area and filled with Tiffany windows.  At one point Christ Church was a powerhouse in the diocese with a men and boys choir, countless social activities, and full churches every Sunday.  Sounds familiar doesn’t it?
 But Joliet is a failing rust-belt town.  When my parents were growing up in the 1930s and 1940s, the town was the site of heavy industry.  During the 1940s it seemed that the plants worked around the clock to support the war effort and supplies and finished products were sneaked up and down the river by night.  All of that heavy industry is gone now and parts of Joliet are deeply impoverished.  The town more and more has become a commuter suburb of Chicago, which is about 40 miles to the north.  Christ Church is located in the middle of a failed downtown and, as is so common, by the 1990s the parish was barely hanging on.  And then –hallelujah — salvation arrived in the form of riverboat gambling.  The gambling boat moored on the Des Plaines River right across the street from Christ Church.  Christ Church shrewdly repaved and re-striped it parking lot; put in a guardhouse and a gate; and made money hand over fist off those riverboat gamblers.  It is the best example I know of Jesus’ words: “’Make friends for yourself by means of dishonest wealth.’”
 Jesus’ parable is a kind of analogy that moves from the lesser to the greater.  The master commends the manager not because he is dishonest but because he is clever.  He has a certain practicality in dealing with the affairs of this world.  Jesus says that his followers should be just as clever in dealing with the affairs of the world to come.  We know how to be shrewd with the things of this world – things like money and property – and Jesus urges us to be just as shrewd with the things that belong to God.
 Christ Church, Joliet, built their parking lot and knew how to be shrewd in the things of this world, but, sadly, they were not so shrewd with the things that pertained to God.  That parking lot gave them some breathing space, but they blew it.  They refused to think about their ministries in new ways.  They refused to reach out to new members.  And they refused new leadership.  Rather than be as clever about the Gospel as they were about the parking lot, they insisted on doing things the same old way and they died.  The congregation dwindled down to almost nothing; the diocese was closed the church; the building was sold to a nightclub; and a few months later it was completely destroyed in an arson fire.
 I think the story of Christ Church, Joliet, has a message for Christ Church New Brighton.  Last Sunday we started our new young adult ministry, Living Water, or, I should say, we tried to start our new young adult ministry.  I say tried to start because no one came.  But I’m not discouraged; I’m really not.  We’re going to tweak the program and try some different things such as an earlier start time; combining the meal with the study; and reminding people that Compline is a fifteen minute service so they won’t be stuck at church all night.  And if that doesn’t work we’ll try something else.  And if that doesn’t work we’ll try something else.  This is what the Women of Christ Church are doing as they redefine and refocus their mission for a new day.  The point is we’re going to keep on trying until we figure out ways to share the Gospel and connect with people in our community.  Our parish is very clever in the way we raise funds and take care of our property.  And, make no mistake, this is a very good thing.  Now we need to be just as clever and hard working about the ways we worship, evangelize, educate, reach out to the community, and offer pastoral care.
 Our Gospel lesson this morning is about how to act in desperate times.  The manager knows that his lord is coming to visit, and he acts shrewdly to prepare for his arrival.   We know that our Lord is coming to visit.  In fact, he visits us every day in the faces of the poor, the residents of our neighborhood, and our fellow parishioners.  We need to act shrewdly to welcome them and to share the Gospel in a way that will resonate in their hearts.  It’s time for us to forget our pious Sunday school lessons and act more like the dishonest steward. Amen.

Notes: 

1. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991), 244.
2. Johnson, 244.
3. Johnson, 247.

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