Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
1st Reading: Amos 8:4-7
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7
Welcome to one of the most confusing Gospel readings in the whole Bible! What are we going to learn from this one? Thankfully, I have a whole week to study these things and help untangle them. This is where I am at.
We’ve got people. We create situations of isolation and alienation. We argue. We are selfish. We are greedy. We can’t get along. It is in the Old Testament reading: we disregard each other, we take advantage of people, we cheat people, we are greedy. We can read that and say, “That’s not me.” But that wouldn’t be being honest with ourselves. We like to buy our groceries cheap. Therefore the farm workers aren’t going to be paid well and their working conditions aren’t going to be good. Sometimes people who work in grocery stores or department stores don’t get paid well because we don’t want to pay a higher price. We saw what happened when that garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh. That day, I looked in my closet and wondered whether something I owned was made in that place, handled by one of those people who now lay beneath a sheet or still lost in the rubble. We can say, “That’s not me,” only because we are so removed from where our food and clothing comes from that we don’t know who suffers because of what we have and what we consume.
In the reading from 1 Timothy, there is a situation of isolation and alienation. People are separated from each other by a lack of a quiet and peaceable life and by social status and rank, like Kings are removed from the people.
In the Gospel, the manager is isolated and separated. He’s not one of the merchants who purchase the olive oil and wheat on credit. He’s got a manager’s position, so he has power over them and helps to set prices that determine whether they can do business or not. He’s not like the rich man—the rich man needs him to keep him rich. He’s all alone in his middle management position. Now he’s fired. He’s in big trouble and he sees it is only going to get worse. He has no marketable skills. He has no friends. He has no safety net. He is completely alone and if he doesn’t act fast, he will die
We, too, find ourselves isolated and afraid. We don’t know our neighbors. We often live far from family and friends. We sit in front of our computers and televisions instead of building relationships. We feel alone and there is no one we can talk to about it because we don’t have close enough friends to bear our hearts to and find some connection and comfort. We even sometimes feel distant from God and alone in our troubles.
The good news for this morning is that we aren’t alone. God hears our prayers and feels the ache of our hearts. God is right there with us in our suffering. This isn’t the way it is supposed to be and something can be done about it. God desires everyone to be saved from this place of isolation and embraced in the warmth of God’s love, and as one of my study commentaries said, “Doesn’t God get what God wants?”
God is a safety net. God will be there for us no matter what. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. God will never leave us or forsake us. “There is one God, one mediator between God and humankind, Christ Jesus, himself human, who gave himself as a ransom for all.” We all belong to God.
However, that doesn’t mean we won’t have trouble in our lives. God gives us the opportunity to be a safety net for each other. That’s where prayer comes in. Prayer is meant to be a first step in building a safety net. To pray is to communicate with God. And it is to turn our hearts and attention toward those who need it. When someone offers a prayer, here, in church, our ears prick up. We look for the connections with our own lives. We might jot down a name. We begin to feel compassion for that person like God does. Sometimes that is enough. Usually, we ask later and follow up with how the situation is going with the person who prayed. We might offer our own experience and offer support. Sometimes we get to help with physical assistance, material donations, or money. Sometimes we get to offer moral support and encouragement.
My cousin Curtis was recently in a terrible accident. Even though I was on vacation, it was a comfort to me to know that you were all praying. It wasn’t just a comfort to me, but to my mom who called the prayer request in, and to Curtis’ wife, siblings, mom, and dad. They were feeling so alone, but it lifted their spirits and helped them get out of bed every day, knowing they really weren’t alone.
When I got back from vacation, many of you asked me about him and how he was doing. It was good to tell his story, even though it was one of despair and pain. My cousin was driving drunk. But because of him, all my aunts and uncles have been having talks with all the cousins and maybe history will not have to repeat itself in our family that seems to carry the alcoholic gene.
Now my cousin, who was considered brain dead and a hopeless case, has awakened from his coma. He talks and understands and remembers some. He is blind. He has been released to a rehab center for months and maybe years of physical therapy. I am sure some days he feels alone, but he is a newlywed and has two beautiful young children to live for. I hope that prayer will continue to buoy his spirits. And when I see him next time, it won’t be like the last 5 years when we’ve seen each other—we’ll have something to talk about. I know more of his story and I can share a part of mine, that our community of faith prayed for him and uttered his name with compassion and care in our hearts.
Prayer is communication with God. It is a refusal to accept what our minds and culture and situation try to tell us everyday, which is this, “You are alone.” We are acting with faith that we are not alone and that we have God who listens. We are reaching out to find out and inevitably God is there and people are there who care and willing to help. To pray is to make an initial attempt at contact. Prayer asks, “Is anybody there?”
In the first reading, the rich trample on the needy, pretend like they are the only ones that matter and cheat others to increase their wealth. But sooner or later they are going to be made aware that their wealth cannot befriend them or bring them comfort in their time of need. We all need to be building relationships with others around us to have a fulfilling life.
In 1 Timothy, we are urged to pray for everyone—not just believers, not just in our circle of friends, not just those in our social class or political party. We are asked to reach out in every direction. We might just make a connection that we weren’t expecting. We might find compassion in our hearts for a leader that seems like an idiot, but might actually have something to offer that we might have missed.
In the Parable of the Shrewd Manager, in desperation the manager reaches out to those around him. The 50% and 20% he writes off their bill was probably his cut. He forgoes his profit in order to invest in what really is going to carry him through. His money will run out, but friends offer a more lasting and secure safety net. Maybe through them he can get a new job or a recommendation.
When we reach out in prayer, we have to admit to ourselves that we are in need. We can’t fulfill our own every need. We reach out for connection because we can’t do it all ourselves. We need each other. That is what Christian community is about. Today we welcome Tyana and Patricio and Khalea and Grace and Julia. We are saying to them, we need you. We are not all we could be without you. We need you to teach us what it means to see through your eyes and experiences. We need you to teach us about your lives and your places where connections and safety nets could be stronger. We need to hear your stories. They are saying to us, we need you, King of Kings, to help us raise our kids in the faith, to help our family remember how important it is to be active in the community in partnership with so many others.
Maybe it seems silly in a world where we are supposed to be so independent. But rather than independent we feel alone, and faith community is a place that challenges that and says, “Let’s work together.” Baptism is a sacrament in which God says, “Let’s work together.” In Holy Communion, God says to us and we say to God, “Let’s work together.” And it doesn’t stop here. We reach out beyond our walls, because even as a church we can’t do it ourselves, nor should we and we say to God’s community in our neighborhood, “Let’s work together.” “Let’s work together” to feed hungry people. “Let’s work together,” to care for the earth. “Let’s work together,” to make sure people have enough to live on. “Let’s work together,” to find resources for people in our community in need. “Let’s work together.”