Sermon preached by Canon Lesley McCormack at St Michaels & All Angels on 18th September 2016
Amos 8:4-7; Luke 16:1-13
There is a wonderful scene in C.S. Lewis’s novel “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” where Lucy, the youngest of the children to go through the back of the wardrobe and enter the magical world of Narnia, meets Mr. Beaver. In this magical world of talking animals and evil queens, Lucy feels a mixture of wonder and fear after hearing about Aslan, the Great Lion and king of Narnia. Lucy inquires of Mr. Beaver, “is he quite safe?” to which Mr. Beaver replies with air of indignation “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe! But he’s good.”
Rather like Lucy who wants to know that the ruler of her mystical world of Narnia is safe, we want our God and our faith to be safe and comforting, preferably making no great demands on our time or our treasures. But that is not the Kingdom of God – God’s Kingdom is not safe in terms on worldly values and norms but it is good. For God’s kingdom shakes everything up, turns expectations and values upside down and re-creates extending His kingdom in the most expansive and glorious way!
And if we are in any doubt, listen to Luke’s story this morning, and we quickly realise that Jesus is far from safe, always good and transforms the values and expectations of the world with the values and goodness of God’s Kingdom, a Kingdom that will always surprise us with the boundless transforming love and mercy of God.
Jesus has been travelling around Galilee with his disciples – preaching and teaching about God’s Kingdom and what it means to be builders of that Kingdom. He has been revealing this Kingdom to those with eyes to see in raising the dead, healing the sick, welcoming sinners and embracing the people who are lost, lonely and unloved, the downtrodden and those whom so many in society regard as outcast, unworthy.
And in doing all of this, Jesus has ruffled some feathers, not least those of the pious religious leaders for whom adherence to the strict laws laid down in the Torah was all important. The laws governed every aspect of individual and community life, and adherence to these laws demonstrated faithfulness to God. The laws helped them to feel that they could contain God, make him safe. God, though, isn’t safe, but is always good. And the manner in which that same Law was interpreted left so many of God’s people feeling alone, unloved and unworthy to approach Him.
So feathers were ruffled because what Jesus was saying posed a direct challenge to the authority of the scribes and Pharisees; the religious scholars and leaders became increasingly irritated by his choice of dining companions and the relationships he developed with people from every walk of life, many of whom were regarded as unsavoury or unscrupulous characters. Their fear of this ‘threat’ would ultimately lead Jesus to the cross, but for now, he answers their criticisms through story-telling, Parables.
This morning’s parable follows immediately after those three parables that David referred to last Sunday, parables about lost-ness.
The first is the parable of the lost sheep. A shepherd is looking after his flock of 100 sheep and one wanders off. He leaves the 99 and searches high and low until he finds the one that is lost. And when he does so, he rejoices! Shepherding was a familiar way of life to Jesus listeners, and still is in many places across our world today; listeners then and now would know only too well that any shepherd worth his or her salt would never leave the flock to search for one sheep. But this shepherd does, leading those with ears to hear to recognise that God’s Kingdom is different and his way contrary to the ways of the world; God is not safe, but is always good and comes looking even when we wander away.
A woman had ten silver coins but one disappears so she lights a lamp and turns her house upside down and inside out until she finds it. And when she does, she throws a party, costing far more than the coin was worth. The norms of this world might say put the coin in a secure place or invest it; but the Kingdom of God finds reason to rejoice and to celebrate! God is not safe, but always good!
And then there is the story that comes immediately before this morning’s parable – the story of the lost son. The younger of the two sons does not acquit himself well. He demands his inheritance while his father is still very much alive, continues to make some selfish choices, offending nearly everyone and only comes to his senses when he realises that something must change if he is to survive. It is out of this self-interest rather than a sense of sorrow and repentance that he returns home. Still some way off, his father sees him and throwing dignity to the wind, runs towards him, embraces him and throws a party to celebrate the return of the son he presumed was dead. The older brother, devout and faithful, didn’t want a bar of it but, his father says: “This son of mine that was dead is now alive, the one who was lost is found”. God’s Kingdom tips the understanding of this world upside down; the world would seek to punish but in God’s kingdom, the younger son discovers the amazing grace and forgiveness that have been waiting for him the whole time – God is not safe, but is always good and forgives even when we cannot.
In this morning’s parable, the dishonest manager is in an equally bad situation and for the same reason – he has acted entirely selfishly, misappropriating company funds, without concern for how his actions will affect others. When his employer begins to work this out and threatens to fire him, the manager once more acts out of complete self interest and begins wheeling and dealing with his employer’s debtors, reduces his portion of their commission and cuts their interest rates. And, one imagines, he does this so that he can call in some favours when he loses his job! But his actions have transformed a terrible situation into one that not only benefits him but others also – and he has gone some way to building relationships with the vendors rather than simply collecting bills and commission. We don’t know whether he actually holds on to his job; we are only told that his employer commends him for his shrewdness. God is not safe, but is always good, full of surprises and turns our world upside down with his overflowing gift of amazing grace.
According to Luke, the parable is addressed to disciples; this would probably have included those with whom Jesus was sharing meals – the tax collectors and sinners – those whom he had said would be welcomed into the Kingdom of heaven and who had chosen to follow him. Here Jesus makes clear that their reception called from them a response and that they were to ‘make friends’ by right use right use of ‘dishonest wealth’, using it in the service of the poor.
This morning we come face to face with God who takes our norms, our expectations, and our preconceived ideas and turns them on their heads. Jesus invited his hearers to see, to understand and know an outrageously generous God who lavishes that generosity and grace on each and every one of us. And such generosity we are reminded calls forth a response from us – that we are equally generous – generous in love, generous in compassion, generous in forgiveness, generous in justice.
In telling these remarkable stories, Jesus sets out to shock – to shock us out of our self-centred complacency, to rethink and re-envision what our world could become if we were to fully embrace the values of His Father’s Kingdom and live according to those values.
We proclaim a God who is always ready to overturn our understandings and widen our imaginations, a God who will take risks for the building of his Kingdom, a God who is not safe, but good.
God insistently and consistently points towards the good, and the good does not always feel safe. There is a comfort about staying safe, in the still waters of what we know; but still waters ultimately stagnate, and a stagnant pond or river ultimately dies. Waters need to move in order that the oxygen of life can fuel them.
Several years ago now, St. Michael’s recognised that to stay safe with what they were risked losing what they had; and so you took a risk, stepped out into deep waters and re-imagined what it was that God was calling you to be and to do. And look what has happened, how this community has grown – in faith, in commitment, in passion and in energy. And there are more risks yet if we are willing to embrace the shocking nature of God’s Kingdom, and allow him to lead us in to places we never dreamed or imagined that we would go. But we do it, confident that God is always with us, loving us, forgiving us when we make mistakes and get it wrong, energising us and inspiring us!
Living and walking with God is not safe, but it is always good! Amen