There’s a Geico commercial series that I’ve been absolutely loving lately.
Like the one that’s been airing recently where a ship has been taken over by pirates. The captain, with a parrot on his shoulder, and his crew back the captain of the ship that they have taken over towards a wall.
“Let’s feed him to the sharks!” the captain croons as the crew nods in agreement.
“Braaack! Let’s feed him to the sharks!” the captain’s parrot echoes.
“And take all of his gold!” the captain continues, to the crew’s approval.
“Braack! And take all of his gold!” the parrot echoes.
“Braack! And hide it from the crew!” the parrot continues. The crew turns on the captain, and he begins to look uncomfortable.
“Braaack! They’re all morons anyway!” the crew then angrily begins to surround the captain.
“Braaack! And they smell bad too!”
The captain then tries to get out of this tough spot by saying, “No! I smell bad!”
The Geico voiceover helpfully supplies, “If you’re a parrot, you repeat things. It’s what you do.”
The whole commercial series is about identity — sometimes, we do things because of who or what we are.
And if you’re the Son of God, you tell mysterious and sometimes confusing parables.
It’s what you do.
This parable we read together confounds even the best interpreters. What you have is Jesus praising a guy who might have been a little dishonest — or was he?
What you’ve got is a manager of a rich man’s wealth who’s accused, at the very beginning of the parable, of “squandering his master’s property.” I think it’s important that we be clear about this: he’s not accused of stealing, exactly. He’s accused of being wasteful and irresponsible. And so, knowing that he’s probably about to be canned, he sits down with the folks that owe his master money and he negotiates with each of them to lower their debts. This way, his master gets paid back at least something, and the manager makes a few friends in business for the future. And Jesus praises him for being smart and creative.
So let’s talk seriously since we’re in an election year: did this guy turn in his tax records?
On the first read, this parable is really confusing, but of course, it’s one of Jesus’s parables. If you’re Jesus, after all, you tell confusing parables. It’s what you do.
The parable is confusing because it seems like this guy is being really dishonest. He’s negotiating with the folks that owe his master money so that they end up paying the master less than they actually owe.
Jesus tells the story like this: “So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’”
And this happens another time, and we half expect when the property owner comes on the scene that he’ll have his manager thrown in jail, but he doesn’t. As Jesus puts it, “…his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”
The dishonest guy gets commended?
If you’re Jesus, you commend the sinners. It’s what you… do?
In our clergy group this week as we discussed this text, one of the pastors who worked in sales for many years suggested that it’s possible, even probable, that the manager gets commended because usually, what something is sold for is actually pretty far over retail, and so maybe what the manager is doing is just getting back the bare minimum that is owed to his master, which of course is far preferable to the master getting nothing.
But I think that the point is this: the manager wasn’t effective. He was accused of squandering property, which, as anyone who’s ever undergone a review knows, might have been true, or it might not have been. But the point is that the manager finds himself up a creek.
And he has two choices. He can cut his losses, go somewhere else, and start again, or he can get creative, forge new relationships, and find a way to springboard himself into the next thing, which I believe is what he does.
And now you’re about to hear me get about as frank about the state of Christianity in America as I’ve ever gotten in a sermon. But I love you and I trust you and I hope that you trust me enough to hear this.
Everywhere, you can hear the funeral dirge of the Church in America. People are ready to bury us. Heck, some days, I am too. I get tired of not seeing my peers in church in the numbers that they were when previous generations were young. And I get so exhausted by the weight of the institution and my worries about how long that institution could viably last.
In short, the Church in the United States of America, like the manager, has found itself up a creek. We’re seen as closed minded and judgmental and rigid and we’ve done a terrible job at public relations, and that has largely contributed to my generation wanting nothing to do with it. And that actually makes me weep on a lot more nights than I want to tell you about.
We’re up a creek, and we, as the universal Church, are being accused of squandering what’s been passed down to us by previous generations. We haven’t kept up with the times. We’ve poured time and resources into things that, for one reason or another, just haven’t panned out.
And who knows whose fault it is. Some of us are pouring untold time and resources into trying to turn this ship around while others can find little to do but complain. And there are some really understandable reasons that we shouldn’t panic: for one thing, we’re just not having as many children as we used to, and we’re busier than ever, which was going to eventually result in a drop in numbers, and that’s really no one’s fault.
But whether it’s you, me, or no one to blame, here we are, and it’s hard to deny that we’re in a bit of a bind. We’re not unlike the dishonest manager — accused of all sorts of things with this sense of impending doom, that things can’t continue the way they’ve been going.
And so, like him, we have a couple of choices.
We can cut our losses, give up, and get out. Each of us has this choice. We can decide that this is no longer worth our time and give up on it, or.
Or we can do what the manager does and we can get wicked creative. We can sit down with people that we’ve previously been dealing with and find new ways of doing things. We can forge new relationships for the future so that no matter what happens, there will be a way forward for us. Because if I didn’t believe there was a way forward, I wouldn’t be standing here.
We’re dealing with a lot right now. We’re dealing with a lot within our community, from anxiety about the future to some of our beloved people being sick or otherwise not well. We worry about ourselves and we worry about each other and what we’ve got to keep confidence in is the fact that each and every one of us is honestly doing the best that we know how.
We’re also dealing with a lot individually. I know how hard each of you tries to commit yourselves to this church, and I see how much love you show each other, and it inspires me to be a better human being.
And so I think that there’s more for us here than the familiar line of “You cannot serve both God and money.” Most of us know that pretty well, and I see how well you know it by how generous you are with not only your money but with your time and with your love.
Things around here may be hard, but I want you to know how much you inspire me. I don’t tell you individually enough. But you give and you do so much for a small church, and you love one another and you get creative and you find ways of doing the impossible all the time. While some churches collapse into fear over keeping their doors open, you continue to get creative, forge new relationships, and find God in new ways and in new places.
Because when you’re a part of the Church of Jesus Christ, you don’t fear death because you know that resurrection is not just a theoretical concept but a promise. And that makes us not only creative, it makes us brave.
When you’re Our Savior’s people, you keep sticking your neck out and getting creative and trusting in God’s promise and loving one another. And because God keeps showing up, you keep showing up too.
It’s what you do. Amen.