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Pentecost 15 Proper 20C September 22, 2019

Jeremiah 8:18—9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

In our opening reading from the prophet Jeremiah, God’s people have reached a low point in their corporate life. Earlier in Jeremiah’s ministry, King Josiah had put into place reforms that brought a new life and breath into the society.  The king encouraged his people to return to sincere faith and worship and to follow the law faithfully.

But Josiah was killed in battle. His son Jehoiakim had become king, and all the progress had been unraveled. There was little justice in the land. The clergy were not preaching God’s truth. The rich were growing more and more wealthy, and the poor were barely surviving.  Jeremiah’s lament is also God’s lament for the people.

Our gospel for today raises more questions than answers. Why does the rich man believe the charges he hears against his manager? Why doesn’t the landowner investigate the charges? Why does he simply fire the steward on the basis of these charges without giving him a chance to explain? Most of all, why does the master praise the shrewdness of the manager he has fired? Is Jesus trying to tell us that we should be shrewd? That’s strange, because shrewdness isn’t listed among the great Christian virtues.

Scholars remind us that the rich man was very rich. R. Alan Culpepper notes that, though our translation mentions “a hundred jugs of olive oil; the actual measure was 100 baths of olive oil, which would equal nine hundred gallons. Culpepper says that in this parable we are dealing with “large commercial interests.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 308.) Other scholars point out that landowners were typically extremely wealthy while the tenant farmers who raised the crops had to pay exorbitant commissions to the landowners plus extremely high taxes to the Roman authorities.

In reducing the debts of the tenant farmers, the manager is in a sense leveling the financial playing field by increasing the income of the tenant farmers and decreasing the income of the already wealthy landowner. Sharon Ringe says that the original title of the manager in Greek is “manager of injustice,” and that in redistributing wealth the manager is doing justice.

 Ringe writes, “For the disciples, this provides a ‘management model’ for their own role as leaders….instead of urging upon them a lifestyle or even an ideal of poverty,…it challenges them to manage wealth in the direction of justice. In the process, they will be creating new communities and relationships that will allow their mission to go forward and that will support the enjoyment of abundant life by all people.” (Ringe, Westminster Bible Companion: Luke, p. 214.)

Herbert O’Driscoll also has a very interesting interpretation of this parable. He points out that in Galilee at the time of Jesus, there were many large estates often owned by absentee landlords and managed by stewards. He says that we humans are realizing that we haven’t been very good stewards of God’s creation. Like the manager, we are facing a crisis because of our poor stewardship of God’s creation. The worldwide climate strike emphasizes the immediacy of this crisis.

O’Driscoll points out that we, like the manager, are asking what we can do? Bill McKibben has an article in the current Time magazine in which he envisions looking back from the year 2050 and describes what we did to save the earth.

The manager in the parable asks the tenant farmers how much they owe the master. And they give their answers. O’Driscoll writes, “This is exactly the question being asked of all sorts of huge enterprises today. It is a very tough and unpopular question that no one wants to hear. But answers must be found. New attitudes have to be adopted, compromises made, profits reduced. The consequences are enormous.” (O’Driscoll, The Word among Us Year C, Vol, 3, p. 115. 

The point is that the manager acted quickly. True, he was acting in his own interest. But we, too, will be acting in our own interest as we take the actions necessary to create the just and loving shalom of God and to save our planet. It is not so much the shrewdness as the ability to take action that is being praised.

What actions is God calling us to take in order to be good stewards of our planet? What actions is God calling us to take in order to create a more just society?

There are two statements in this passage that we can easily imagine our Lord as saying. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.” We know that is true. Our faithfulness in small tasks prepares us for being faithful servants when the big decisions and the major tasks come along.

And finally, No one can serve two masters. We cannot serve God and wealth. Wealth is not in itself a bad thing. We are called to be wise stewards of the wealth entrusted to us. We are called to share the wealth and the gifts given to us by God. But God must always come first. If we let Mammon be our god, if we allow anything to take the place of God, we will not be following the way our Good Shepherd would lead us, and we pray that, if that happens, we will listen to the voice of God calling us back.

As Paul or his faithful disciple says, “For there is one God; there is also one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself a ransom for all.”

May our loving God help us to “love things heavenly,” to “hold fast to the things that shall endure,” and to act decisively to be responsible stewards of God’s creation and to help God to build God’s shalom of justice and peace.  Amen.

Pentecost 18 Proper 20C RCL September 18, 2016

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

As we think about our first reading today, we recall that Jeremiah was one of the major prophets of the Old Testament. His ministry began in 627 B.C.E. during the reign of one of the greatest kings of Judah, King Josiah. Judah had long been trying to defend itself against the Assyrian Empire. In 627 B.C.E., the year Jeremiah was called to his prophetic ministry, the king of Assyria died, and Assyria became much less of a threat to Judah.

Somewhere between 622 and 620 B.C.E., as their sense of freedom returned with the lessening power of the Assyrians, the people of Judah were rebuilding the temple which had been destroyed by the Assyrians, and they found in the ruins a scroll of the law in the Book of Deuteronomy. King Josiah began a time of reform, a time of renewal of faith, of renewed commitment to God’’s law—“love God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” Led by Josiah, the people rededicated themselves to life in community grounded on faith and love for God and each other.

In 609 B.C.E., King Josiah was killed in battle with the Egyptians.

It did not take long before his reforms were undone. Love of God and each other was a thing of the past. The rich got richer and the poor became poorer and poorer. The temple worship was not properly conducted. One scholar notes that the temple was the place you were supposed to be able to go and hear the truth. But the temple clergy no longer had the courage to tell the truth.

Meanwhile, the Babylonian Empire was gaining power. At the time of our reading, it was about to conquer Jerusalem. Jeremiah is in deep grief over this situation. The leaders are so corrupt and so faithless that they cannot remind the people that there is indeed a balm in Gilead that cures the sin-sick soul and that God is as close as their breath. The people think that God has abandoned them, when in fact they have drifted away from God.

Today’s gospel is one of many portions of Luke that deal with money and material goods and how to handle them in the kingdom of God. This parable is puzzling, to say the least, and scholars have many questions and disagreements about it.

Jesus has been talking to the Pharisees, but now he turns to the disciples. He tells them a parable. There is a rich man who has a manager.  Most scholars agree that the rich man is an absentee landlord who has hired a manager to collect payment from the farmers who are working the land.

Charges are brought that the manager is squandering the property of the rich man, and the rich man is going to fire the manager. We do not know exactly what the manager has been doing. We really do not know whether he has even done anything wrong. We simply do not have the details.

The manager thinks to himself. He is going to lose his job. He is too proud to beg, and he is not strong enough to do manual work, such as digging.

So he calls in the tenants. He asks the first one how much he owes. One hundred jugs of olive oil. He reduces it to fifty. Our translation reads “jugs,” but the actual measurement, one hundred baths, is an enormous amount of olive oil. R. Alan Culpepper, Dean of the School of Theology, Mercer University, Atlanta, Georgia, tells us that a bath is nine gallons, so this man owes nine hundred gallons of olive oil. He tells us that the second debtor owes one hundred kors of grain. Culpepper says that estimates of a kor range from six and a half to twelve bushels, but that the total is clearly substantial. He concludes that this landowner is dealing in “large commercial interests…and not in household quantities.” (Culpepper, New Interpreter’s Bible, p.308.)

To put it bluntly, the rich man is very, very rich.

Some scholars think that the manager is simply reducing the total amount owed by giving up his commission, but Culpepper’s view is that the manager is actually reducing the amount owed to the rich man.

Sharon Ringe, Professor of New Testament at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., agrees. She tells us that the original Greek translation of the manager’s title is “manager of injustice.” She points out that the economy of those times was an “economy of scarcity, where the quantity of wealth available is fixed. Some have more only if others have less.”  Ringe writes, “Any excessive accumulation in the hands of one (such as the “rich man”) is by definition evidence of injustice that must be redressed by that redistribution of wealth called “giving alms.” By reducing the amount owed by the (obviously poorer) debtors to the rich man, the manager is doing justice—a way of doing his job as “manager of injustice” that no longer aims at perpetuating and even adding to old inequities, but instead reflects the new ‘economy’ of which Jesus is the herald.”

Ringe continues, “For the disciples, this provides a ‘management model’ for their own role as leaders…. Instead of urging upon them a lifestyle or even an ideal of poverty, or advice to keep themselves pure from contamination by wealth, it challenges them to manage wealth in the direction of justice. In the process, they will be creating new communities and relationships that will allow their mission to go forward and that will support the enjoyment of abundant life by all people.”   (Ringe, Westminster Bible CompanionLuke, p. 214.)

Our Lord is calling us to help him create his shalom, which retired Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori describes as “a community where people are at peace with each other because each one has enough to eat, adequate shelter, medical care, and meaningful work. Shalom is a city where justice is the rule of the day.” (A Wing and a Prayer, p. 35.) Part of the work of bringing in God’s shalom is reducing the gap between the wealthy and the poor. That is what this “manager of injustice” is doing.  May we be faithful in all things, both large and small. May we love God and our neighbor.  Amen.