Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 25, 2015
Leviticus 27:30-32, Luke 16:1-9
She was that employee. She was that employee that everyone knew and trusted. Nacina was the Walmart employee that everyone would turn to if there was some sort of issue. She worked with the police to solve thefts in the store. She was the employee who made sure that people with difficult return issues were dealt with kindly and fairly. She was trusted so much that she was given a prime place in their cash department. So it was a shock to the employees and to the police officers that knew her when she was arrested for theft…and not just theft of a few dollars but theft of almost a quarter of a million dollars. It began with taking fifty dollars to cover the cost of her medications. When she noticed that no one seemed to notice, she began to take more. Eventually in one day she took more than $8,000. As one officer told a reporter, most people would not try and take that much money in a month, but in one day?” Though she has not been convicted, the DA said that there is little doubt that she will be and that her sentence will range from a minimum of five years up to ninety-nine. In a sense it is the old saying that if you do the crime then you will do the time. All of which raises the question…what is going on in Jesus’ head as he tells the story we read this morning?
I ask that because by all accounts it would appear as if the manager in Jesus story commits the same kind of crime, but instead of doing time is complimented by both his boss and Jesus. Let’s review the story. A wealthy man has someone managing his money and property. For some reason it comes to the owners knowledge that his manager is cheating him. The owner asks for the books. The manager realizes that the jig is up. He also realizes as he puts it that he is not strong enough to dig and ashamed to beg. What to do? The answer is that he can cheat his master even more, make some friends and hope that one of them will employ him after he is dismissed. This is exactly what he does. He has his masters debtors change their accounts payable invoices to reflect less than they owe. Now, if this was the first story, the man would go to prison and have to repay his master. Instead though, his master who has now been cheated twice, commends the man for his shrewdness. So what in the world is going on here? Why doesn’t the master have the manager jailed?
The answer to these questions can be found in taking a quick time trip back to the first century and hearing the story in context. Let’s begin by pointing out that both characters in this morality play are scoundrels. Those listening to Jesus know that the master is a scoundrel because it is the only way he could have become wealthy enough to have a manager. In First Century Judea most landowners were small farmers who struggled to make a living and feed their families. Often they would need a loan for seed or other expenses. According to Jewish law, no interest could be charged on those loans. However, the way lenders got around this was to demand repayment in goods rather than cash; and the cost of the goods was as much as 100 % higher than the amount borrowed. When the farmers were unable to pay, the lender confiscated their land, which is how they became rich enough to have managers over their extended properties.
What this means then is that when the manager approaches the people who owe his master money and tells them to cut their bills, he is actually asking them to do what his master should have done, and that is to return only the amount borrowed. This is why the master then commends him, because the master as one scoundrel realizes that he has been had by an even better scoundrel, and that he, the master can do nothing about it.
This however raise a second question and that is why would Jesus even use this kind of scoundrel laden parable? The answer is twofold and lies in Jesus contention that “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” What Jesus implies first by this is that those who are shrewd know the power of money and what that power can accomplish. They know that money spread into the right hands wins friends and influences people. They know that money is a powerful tool to get one’s way in the world. In this election season we have to look no further for a modern day illustration of this than the Super PACS that are spending money like they can print it. The people who give to these PACS are not giving out of some great sense of altruism. They are giving because they want something and know that their gifts will win them friends in high places. They expect something in return for their dollars; access, legislation and other favors. I am not saying that this is the way it ought to, or not to be. All I am saying is that we live in a world very much like Jesus’ where money talks, and talks loudly. The children of this age are shrewd in dealing with their own.
What Jesus implies secondly by this is that the children of light, meaning the children of God ought to understand the power of money as well. They ought to understand how money can be a force for good; for the re-creation of the world. Remember that Jesus had nothing against money. He did not want his followers to be poor beggars roaming the world. He did not think that there was any great advantage to being poor. Instead what Jesus wanted people to see was that the money they had been given by God had and has the power to win friends and influence people…meaning the people who have little; meaning the poor; meaning the dispossessed. I say this because Jesus told stories about when you throw a party don’t invite those who can repay you, but those who cannot. In the beatitudes he reminds us that the blessed are the poor, meaning that they have a special place in God’s heart. And if we do so, it will be them who will be our friends waiting to welcome us into “the eternal homes”.
Doug was walking down the isle of his local grocery store. It was where he normally shopped and so he was paying little attention to his surroundings. Suddenly he heard the sound of someone running rapidly toward him. He turned, looked and was suddenly engulfed in this immense hug from a man he did not know and could swear he had never seen before. All the man could say was, “Thank you. Thank you.” Finally when Doug removed himself from the embrace he politely asked the man who he was and why he was thanking him. The man told Doug this story. He had been homeless. And one of the reasons he was homeless was that his vision was so poor that he could not read a job application or a instructions given to him by an employer. Then one day he heard about a free eye-clinic for the homeless. He went and there were people there who treated him with respect and helped him get a pair of glasses. One of the first people he could then see well was Doug, who was there as a volunteer (and unbeknownst to this man, one of the financial supporters of the program). The man finished his story by telling Doug how the glasses helped him get a job and now he was no longer homeless. Doug had made a friend that will welcome him into the eternal home?
You and I have that same kind of opportunity if we are willing to see our money as a powerful force for good; a force for good through this church as well as through hundreds of other organizations that impact the lives of those like the man who hugged Doug. My challenge to you on this day then, is as you prepare to bring forward your pledge card, see it as a way of using your money for the good…to change lives for the better.
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 18, 2015
Genesis 1:28-31, Luke 12:13-21
It was April 22, 1889. Spread out across the prairie were more than 50,000 people. They were on horseback. They were in horse drawn carriages and wagons. And they were all waiting for one thing…the boom of a canon. Then at high noon, the boom was heard and they were off and galloping. What were they there for? They were there for land. It was the great Oklahoma Land Rush. At stake were more than one million acres of some of the best land ever stolen from the Native Americans. As they flew across the prairie they found people who had gotten there sooner, and if so they moved on. Within half a day both Oklahoma City and Guthrie went from non-existent places to towns of ten thousand people where folks staked their lots. Thousands of others claimed their 160 acres in order to begin farming and ranching. And why would they go to such lengths? They would do so because land mattered.
In some ways it is probably hard for us to imagine how important land was. But what we need to remember was that land was life. To have land meant you could feed your family. It meant you had something permanent. It meant that you were a somebody. Without land you were no more than a hired hand, a peasant, a drifter. And so since the dawn of time people sought land. Land was the cause of human migration; of imperial conquest or immigration. Most of my ancestors came to this country looking for land. In the Old World land was controlled by the very few. Everyone else was simply human machines to be used by those with land. So they came from England, Germany and Scotland. And it is this desire for land; this desire not to become a landless peasant, that is at the heart of our story this morning.
When the man comes to Jesus and asks him to adjudicate his case with his brother, he is not being greedy…which is how this is often cast in commentaries and sermons. What he is is desperate. He is desperate because the only inheritance worth dividing; the only inheritance worth dividing that someone coming to listen to Jesus would have, is land. And realize that this man, if he is cheated out of his inheritance, has no way to provide for his family and nothing to give his children. He will become one of those landless workers that crowded the squares of every Judean town desperately looking to be hired in hopes of earning a days’ wage. Realizing that, we might expect Jesus to have a compassionate response. We might expect Jesus to go and find the older brother and say something like, “Hey dude, look…remember what you learned in Kindergarten, that you are to share. So buck up buddy and give your brother his share.” But he doesn’t. Instead Jesus offers up this bizarre story about a successful farmer, who does all the right things and then God kills him. No offense, but this hardly makes sense…unless Jesus wanted people to think of an alternative investment strategy.
If there was one thing that Jesus understood, it was the human condition. He understood clearly what motivated and drove human beings. What this meant was that he understood that human beings invested land and things with eternal value. He knew that human beings lived with that deep dread of death. They knew that life was fleeting and that one day they would die. And in the face of that reality, they desperately looked for something to invest in that would fool them into believing that they could somehow cheat God. Like a person hanging on with their fingertips hoping not to slip, people believed that if they had land, wealth or power they were safe. This is what is at the heart of the story of the farmer. He worked hard. The land produced. He built bigger barns to expand his inventory. He did all of the things a wise businessman would do. Yet the point of Jesus’ story is that all of that personal success; all of that investing in himself…and by the way that was what he was doing, investing in himself. Notice all of the times the personal pronouns are used….would not stop death from coming. In the end he would lose it all and having nothing to show for it. Then in the closing line Jesus brings the story home. “So it is with those who store up treasure for themselves but are not rich toward God.” That last half of that line lays out Jesus’ alternative investment strategy; that if we want to invest in something that lasts, we invest in those things that matter to God.
So what is it that matters to God? What is it that lasts? The only thing that lasts is the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of God is people and the world in which they live. What matters to God are people. This is the heart of Jesus message from beginning to end. Jesus comes and offers us a glimpse of this Kingdom in his preaching, his teaching, his healing and his feeding. Jesus has compassion for the hungry, the outcast and the broken. Jesus reminds people that they are those who are beloved by God because they are God’s good creation. The creation itself matters to God as well because it is God’s good creation. In Genesis when God declares that creation is very good, he is speaking not only of human beings but of the earth itself. This is the accusation that Jesus levels in his story about the farmer. He invested in himself and not in others, not in God’s creation. He did not leave his fields to be gleaned by the poor. He did not share what he had…which by the way, I would like to point out means, that in my opinion, this entire story is not a criticism of the man who asks Jesus to intervene, but of his brother who will not share the inheritance. It is the unseen brother who is the farmer…who is investing in only himself and not in his family.
The question then becomes for us, how is our investing going? How much are we investing in ourselves and how much are we investing in the Kingdom. About nine years ago my former congregation celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. For that anniversary we produced a video in which we interviewed both new and long term members. For me the most meaningful moment in all of those interviews was when a new member began talking about the missions that our church had undertaken. We had helped to plant churches in Mexico, China, Russia and Belarus. We had helped to found the homeless shelter in San Antonio. We had been instrumental in the creation of a free eye-care non-profit that worked with the homeless and poor in San Antonio and Mexico. We had built two churches and a school in Kenya. We were involved in Foster Care work and the list goes on and on. But in the interview this member said, “You know, that if Covenant were to go out of business today there would be little bits of Covenant all over the world.” And she was right. There would be because as a church family we had invested in the Kingdom of God; we had invested in what lasts.
And that is what we are doing here at First Church. We are investing in the Kingdom of God. Though you heard about keeping the lights on, the reality is that the lights are only kept on so that we can continue to invest in people. We invest in the more than 1,000 clients at FAR whose lives are enriched by what they do. We invest in the clients at Samaritan Counseling Center which is seeing more and more Medicaid clients who cannot afford to cover the cost of their visits. We invest in the homeless when we host SOS. We invest in children when we work at Alcott and Ruth Ellis. We invest in our children and youth who are shaped by the stories from scripture. We invest in people as we worship together and have our lives regularly aligned with the love and grace of God. You and I invest in the Kingdom of God through all that happens in this place.
My challenge then is for you to prayerfully consider your asset allocation; to ask if you are allocating enough to the Kingdom of God through this church even as you take care of your own needs. Here then is my question for the week; How am I investing what I have in the Kingdom of God such that lives are changed for the better?
Rev. Dr. John Judson
October 11, 2015
Deuteronomy 16:13-17, Luke 10:30-37
I was having a weekly breakfast with one of our members one morning at the Avenue down on Woodward. Usually when we meet there are few people close to us. But on this particular morning in the booth behind me were two men I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have noticed except the voice of one of the men began to dramatically increase in volume and anger. “Who the “fill-in-the-blank” do these robin hood people think that they are stealing my money and giving it to the poor. They have no right to that. It’s my money and they have no right to it.” I did my best to then tune out the words so I could pay attention to the person I was with, and so I couldn’t tell you exactly what he said, but I can tell you how he said it, and it was in a voice filled with resentment and vitriol. As I walked past him on my way out of the restaurant my imaginary inclination, meaning those things I imagine myself doing but will never do, was to slide in next to him and tell him all of the reasons that it is good for some robin hood someplace to be helping the poor. After all I am a pastor and that is what we pastors are supposed to do.
As the day went on though I began to think more deeply about it. And I too asked myself, who are those robin hoods who take our money? What right do they have to take the money we work or worked so hard for? Having been here for a little over six years I have come to appreciate the work ethic you all share. You fly all over the world to take care of business. You are constantly away from families and friends. You work long hours to insure that the company, or your company remains solvent. You often work at jobs you do not like or that stress you to the max. For those of you in the auto industry, you have weathered the trials that it has brought. So who was I to lecture that man sitting the booth behind me? For all I know he had sacrificed his health, his home and his family to gain whatever wealth he had. And besides, how many of us really like paying our taxes? How many of us can say with certainty that we agree with everything that the government does with our taxes? Those thoughts led me to change what my imaginary self would have said to the man in the booth behind me.
I would have asked him this question, “What do you do with the rest of it?” For that is the question, because we all pay taxes but we also all have something left over. And so this is where our story begins to overlap with the Biblical story. Many of you probably know the story Luke tells but I want to be sure that we are all on board, so here we go. And for full disclosure, there was no real Good Samaritan; this is a story Jesus tells, yet as he tells it, people understand the entire context in which it was told. So once upon a time there was a Jewish small business man who was on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho. He was attacked, beaten, robbed and left for dead. Several good Jewish religious leaders walked by and none of them did anything. Finally a Samaritan came by and cared for the man. This is unusual because Samaritans and Jews were enemies. Traditionally the moral of the story is that all people, including our enemies, are our neighbors and so we are to be nice to everyone. The end. What I want to do this morning is to offer a different take on this story. I want us to see this is a broader context that reminds us that, as with so many other stories, this story is about money. I say that because money takes central stage in the story.
Let’s return to the Samaritan. Everyone listening to Jesus would have understood who he was. First, he was a small business man. There would have been no other reason for him to have a donkey and to be travelling the very dangerous road on which the story takes place. As a small business man, Jesus’ audience would have also known that he was heavily taxed by the Romans. They would have taxed what he bought, what he sold and on what he transported from town to town. What this means is that he is not a wealthy man, but was instead someone who worked hard, took risks and so truly earned his money. Second, as a small business man, time was money. He needed to get to his destination to sell his goods and make a profit. Third, they would have understood that his goods for sale were his wine and oil. Finally, they would have understood that Jews and Samaritans were bitter enemies. What happens when the Samaritan sees the beaten man is remarkable. The Samaritan stops and tends to him. He tends to him by giving up some of this inventory of wine and oil with which to treat the man’s wounds. Then he takes some of his own clothing, tears it and uses it as bandages. Next he proceeds to carry the man on this own donkey to a local inn…remember time is money. The Samaritan is wasting his time and risking his business. Once at the inn the Samaritan makes a generous payment to the inn for the welfare of the stranger. Finally the Samaritan does the most amazing thing of all. He issues a promissory note for the care of a man he does not know. He will pay all expenses. This is what the Samaritan does with “the rest” of what he has.
For Jesus then, loving neighbor was not simply about being nice to someone whom we might consider to be our enemy. It was about demonstrating this neighborliness with loving actions and cold, hard cash. It was about doing something. This, Jesus says, is what God followers are to do with “the rest.” It is this realization that allows us as a Jesus community to do giving things. I know this because of you it is possible for FAR to see over 1100 clients every year. I know this because you give more than 2000 tutoring hours and more than 2,400 meals a year to families at Alcott Elementary School in Pontiac. I know this because through the Ruth Ellis Center we are helping to feed LGBT youth who have been kicked out of their homes. I know this because people are volunteering to build a school and a church in Kenya. I know this because of our mission trips to Mexico. I know this because you volunteer with our All Abilities Inclusion Ministry. I know this because you provide for a satellite office for the Samaritan Counseling Center. I know this because you support the vision that God has given us to be Everybody’s Church.
All of us have “the rest.” All of us have something that we can offer to God and neighbor as a way of living the call to love given to us by Jesus. The challenge then is this, as you prepare to make your financial commitment to First Presbyterian Church, ask yourself what would God have me do with “the rest” of what I have to and through Everybody’s Church?