Ephesians 4:1-6 I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
I am a better pastor because of my relationship with local pastors. When I was trying to decide whether to stay or leave Messiah a few years ago, I had lunch with Pastor Dave DiYanni. Dave founded his church on Palmer, formerly Faith Chapel almost forty years ago. He knows about staying a long time at one church. When Messiah was calling our first associate pastor, Pastor Jeff Greenway at Reynoldsburg United Methodist found time to meet with me to talk about leading other pastors. Jeff has like a hundred and ten pastors on his staff, he knows something about this. I hope other pastors in Reynoldsburg would say the same thing. Pastor Aaron DeLong from Simple Church, took me to lunch to pick my brain about church budgets and encouraging his members to be generous givers. I talked to him about transparency and being ministry focused not money focused.
I am 100% on board with Paul’s teaching today. Paul argues that a life that is worth living strives to maintain a unity of the Spirit in the Church. Think how radical that statement is. More than doing good works or sharing the gospel, simply striving to stay in community with our brothers and sisters in Christ is the most important thing we can do. Unity is not flashy community Thanksgiving worship services, with pastors jockeying to have key roles for them or their church. Unity is Christians of all stripes building a friendship based on love and mutual respect.
Paul’s passion for unity was likely because the Ephesus church was breaking in two. Followers of Jesus who were Jewish and followers of Jesus who had never been Jewish were not getting along. This is understandable. They were raised differently, with different ideas of what is honorable and dishonorable, different visions of who God is and might be, different diets even and definitely different ideas on how to worship God. It was always going to be a hard fit, but Paul was clear, unity was worth the fight.
For us to get along with people we don’t agree with on the most passionate of subjects, religion, we need a strategy. Paul suggests humility and gentleness. Humility is our ability to be open to being wrong. What a quaint notion, right? Humility requires that we take into account the limits of our own experience, our own knowledge, even our own sinfulness, when making decisions about what we believe. Humility in faith takes seriously that God is so awesome and other, that any single idea of who God is and what exactly God wants will never be the only story, the complete story. Humility allows me to see my neighbor with different beliefs and different practices as a unique gift of the same Spirit brought to enrich my life.
Gentleness is the Christian practice of being loving towards those we might not agree. A spirit of gentleness allows us to take a step back, count to ten, and concentrate on the beauty within the brokenness of the child of God before us. A spirit of gentleness keeps our hands in our pockets rather than balling them into fists and striking because being friends is more important than being right. A spirit of gentleness sees the person in disagreement as someone we need to work harder to love. A Spirit of gentleness is God’s grace filled love covering us in our anxiousness when we get in conflict. With humility and gentleness God’s Spirit can bring us unity in the Church.
Paul is arguing for unity though in the church not uniformity. Each of us is given different gifts of the Spirit. We come from different backgrounds and experiences. These varying gifts mean we will never be uniform. Like siblings from the same parent, we look a lot like, share some mannerisms and ways of thinking, but man we can be really different.
This was true in Ephesus between Jews and Gentiles. It is true in Reynoldsburg between Lutherans and Pentecostals. We are never going to be uniform. Lutherans want beautiful music in their worship, but we are uncomfortable when anyone looks like they are enjoying it too much. Pentecostals think it is challenging God’s Spirit to hold them back in worship. Great! It is not so great when we sniff that Pentecostals are crazy holy rollers or they judge that we aren’t really worshipping because we refuse to smile. We can unite by celebrating that the same Spirit leads us to very different ways of worship! And maybe, even learning a thing or two about worship from each other.
A life worth living is one that strives for a unity of the Spirit. Try it on. See how it fits. Pastor Dion is doing great ministry at Reynoldsburg Church of Christ. I know this because I have been in his church, heard a recording of his preaching, listened to his concerns about his congregation as he has listened to mine, asked him to pray for me and he has asked me to pray for him, admired his ministry to the greater community around issues of addictions, race and food insecurity. We don’t agree on fundamental things about the Bible, baptism, worship and church leadership. Not unimportant things, both of us would say. Yet, none of those disagreements lead us from friendship, with humility and gentleness bearing with one another in love.
We are not sure how the crisis between Jews and Gentiles living as one church was resolved. From 2000 years of Christian experience, we can lift up several possibilities. Maybe, they had a huge final fight and Ephesus ended with a second Christian Church that insisted on singing in worship Turkish folk songs with words changed to be about Jesus, instead of those old stuffy Psalms. Maybe, they stayed together uneasily, with fires that sprung up occasionally, and consistent bickering over whether worship is feeling too Jewish or too Gentileish. Maybe, they embraced Paul’s call to maturity in Christ and saw unity as not only a good gift for their congregation, but a good gift for God’s creation. I don’t know.
I do know Paul is right. One Spirit unifies us. We are the body of Christ. God’s Spirit gives us unique and wonderful gifts. Paul’s hope for his beloved church in Ephesus is God’s hope for us. What binds us together is what we share, God’s Spirit, God’s love in this world. Striving for unity with my Christian brothers and sisters has definitely made my life more worthwhile. Amen
I am definitely not a trained therapist, counselor or psychologist, but in seminary I had to take classes to familiarize myself with current thought from these social sciences. One thing that made sense to me was that for nearly all of us, our parents have the greatest influence on who we become. The claim of the defiant sixteen year old to her mom, I am never going to become like you, is usually false. She will become like her mom. At 28, my wife Paige told me you are just like your dad, and I said no way. Yes…way. We can run, but we can’t hide. In a lot of ways, we are our parents.
The other day, I was emptying the dishwasher and I realized that someone had put the drinking glasses on the wrong shelf. I have a cupboard with most of my drinking glasses. I keep the small plastic cups for my grandchildren on the first shelf, the large oversized cups for water on the second shelf and the actual glass drinking glasses that I prefer on the top shelf. Whoever had emptied the dishwasher last must have lost their mind, because plastic was mixed with glass, small glasses were on the top shelf, the large cups were mixed in with the small cups wasting space. What were they thinking? I mean you want the kids cups on the bottom shelf, duh…I ended up taking out every cup from the cupboard and rearranging them correctly. When I was done, I smiled. I had become my parents.
Jesus encouraged us to call God, papa, father. For Israel, God had chosen them to be God’s people, God’s family here on earth. God expects us to mature into people that reflect His character, just as we mature into people that reflect the character of our mothers and fathers. God is complicated. God’s character can’t be summarized easily, but there is one outstanding characteristic of God. God is a God that demands justice.
Justice is almost a loaded word anymore. When I was a kid in the late sixties and early seventies, we used to play cops and robbers and bring bad guys to justice. We were influenced by comic books and old westerns when we used this word. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me in my privileged suburban neighborhood, people of color were fighting for justice but not against bandits like Jesse James or John Dillinger. Their fight was with their government that was keeping them from voting, living where they wanted or attending schools that would help their children thrive.
Luther Seminary professor, Rolf Jacobsen defines justice as the way we order society so that the most life can thrive. God longs for all of us to live well. To do this, we need systems that give people the opportunity to thrive. Those systems include laws that protect us from people breaking into our house, or dumping chemicals in our rivers. Those systems include FBI agents, police and even Old West sheriffs like those me and my friends pretended to be, to protect people preyed upon by bandits and bad actors. Justice in our communities is not guaranteed by the enforcers of law, because often it is the laws themselves that keep people from experiencing justice. Therefore, we need prophets with the character of God to help us see where justice is denied and hear the cries of those abused.
The prophet Amos was not a wealthy or powerful religious leader. He was not in the official, temple sanctioned prophet’s guild, which was a thing when he lived in the 8th century BCE. He was just a farmer and herdsman who powerfully reflected the character of God. Just as my heart skipped a beat when I saw that helter skelter cupboard, the heart of Amos burst with compassion at the plight of the poor in Israel. He prophesied to Israel in their wealthiest and most successful time. People were getting rich but they were doing so at the expense of the poor. The richest and most powerful people in Israel were not reflecting the character of God. They were fine with their life thriving at the expense of others who were floundering.
Amos was bold. The rich are selling what they say is an ephah wheat, about a bushel, but in actuality it is just a little less and they know it. People with the character of God would never do this. They are weighing out the silver that the poor pay for their wheat, with a scale that always works in their favor. People with the character of God would never do this. They enslave a poor person because he owes them money for a leather sandal. People with the character of God would never do this. The rich and powerful honor the Sabbath day, claiming they are God’s people. Yet, their hearts grieve that their workers deserve is keeping them from making even more money. Their heart is not God’s heart.
Amos is preaching a word that the rich and powerful of his day did not want to hear. The people in charge of the world he lived in did not reflect the character of the God they claimed to worship. Amos knew this because their hearts did not ache with his heart at the plight of the poor. They were only concerned with making their lives better. They had been richly blessed, but they were using those rich blessings to harm and not bless God’s world.
God loves us and wants each of us, everyone of us, the poor, the powerless as well as the rich and the powerful, to live well. For our world to become how God hopes for it to be, it will take people with the character of God to make it so. Amos is hard on the wealthy, because they can affect change in Israel. The powerless can’t change the laws. The poor can’t simply move to a better neighborhood to raise their kids or buy more food to fill their empty kitchen cupboards. We ask the most of people with the most because they can do the most to change our world to reflect the character of God the most.
People of God, allow the character of God offered to you in baptism to transform you. Let your heart ache with God’s heart for those who cannot live as God hoped. God wants what is best for everyone, regardless of their skin color, bank accounts, language skills, party affiliation, size of their home, or status in their community. As God’s people, we must have the courage of Amos and speak God’s truth, standing up to the powerful and saying no to injustice. Don’t just shrug and say what can I do. Demand that laws be enforced for the sake of justice and that laws be changed so that justice can be found. We have a voice, let that voice be God’s voice.
Simply by living with our parents over a lifetime, we share their heart, now. Baptized into the family of God, living life with God, among God’s people, reading God’s story, tasting God’s love in worship, we share God’s heart now. Listen to that heart. With God, long for a world where people’s lives are made better. Like Amos be mad when injustice is accepted. Amen
Let’s look at this parable from Jesus more closely. There is a rich man who is an absentee landowner, common in Jesus time. He has left his property in the complete and legal care of a manager. The manager is accused of squandering the property. Squandering is an interesting charge, I suppose it means the manager is wasting the wealth of the landowner. In the parable right before this one about the prodigal son the bad son was said to have squandered his early inheritance in a foreign land on wine, women and song. That son, like this manager, had not used the wealth entrusted to them as intended.
The boss calls the manager before him, and without asking for any defense or explanation, simply tells him to pack all his accounting books and get out. The land owner could have been harsher and thrown him in prison, but he’s not really a bad guy, just impatient at times. The manager is realistic about his predicament, his soft life of management has not prepared him for hard labor or begging. Neither is the sort of lifestyle he would enjoy. Interesting that he says the exact same words when he is leaving his bosses office as the bad son says when he finds himself wrestling for pea pods in a pig sty, “What will I do?” Both men faced with certain death, have to figure out what to do to survive.
The manager decides to feather his unemployment nest by gaining favor with his boss’s creditors. These guys owe his boss a lot, so much that it is reasonable to think that neither his boss nor the manager ever thought they were going to see a red cent. The first one owes the equivalent of 900 gallons of olive oil. This is a huge debt that is hard to imagine a peasant in the time of Jesus repaying. Not to worry, the manager announces. We are cutting the debt in half, today only, but you have to act quickly. And you, the other bum in the corner, what do you owe? One hundred sacks of wheat. Not to worry, this is your luck day, let’s make it eighty, but you have to act quickly. I’m thinking the two deadbeat creditors are ecstatic at their good fortune.
Because the manager is the legal representative of the estate owner, all of this kosher. Of course, the owner, a powerful man, could explain the situation to the deadbeats and tell them the deal is no good, but that would have made him look bad in the community. What does the manager get for all of this? He has two creditors that owe him one big favor, and as soon as those unemployment checks stop, he is surely planning on collecting.
How does all of this end? Unbelievably with the land owner chuckling and commending the shrewd manager. Here he thought the guy was an idiot and he finds out he has crafty like a fox. His dishonest actions, because there really is no other way to describe them, have won him the respect of the landowner who was about to throw him out just a day ago. In a time of crisis, he acted shrewdly and that is exactly the kind of guy this landowner wants on his team.
Parables pack a punch because they have a surprise ending. The Good Samaritan parable’s punch was that anyone who had ever met a Samaritan knew there was no such thing as a good one. The punch of the prodigal son parable was that the son who comes in for criticism is the hardworking son who never leaves the farm, nor squanders any of dear old dad’s money. The punch of the story of laborers in the field is that it is unfair to pay a guy who works hard for ten hours the same amount as a guy who only works for two hours. Parables are meant for us to scratch our heads and say, huh?
Yet, this one seems to bother many really smart, religious people. St. Augustine himself is supposed to have commented that he couldn’t believe this parable came from the lips of our Lord. When you read writings on this parable you find many creative ways for people to explain it, with speculative details added that help the parable make “sense”. One writer wondered if Luke had simply misheard this one and we will never know the “right” way our Lord told it.
I am sticking with Mark Twain. He said “It’s not the parts of the Scripture that I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts that I do understand.” We understand this parable. We are meant to identify with the scoundrel, the manager that is identified as dishonest by Jesus himself. There is no sugar coating what this guy did or explaining it away by facts or speculations that are simply not in the story that Jesus told. The manager starts out as a bad guy worthy of being fired for wasting the land owner’s possessions. He ends up a bad guy who is rewarded for giving away the land owner’s possessions.
Surely, Jesus did not mean to tell his listeners to be dishonest. Yes, I think that is exactly what Jesus is telling his listeners, at least when it comes to the landowners possessions. Surely, we are not called to be shrewd, such a crude word, whoever heard of a shrewd saint? Yes, we are called to be shrewd. Surely, we are not called to be self serving like this scheming manager? When our lives are on the line, this is exactly what we are called to be.
The point is that God doesn’t run this world by the business practices that we can all learn about at the OSU Fisher College of Business. God is not looking to turn a profit on this store. God doesn’t care what those two guys owed anymore than he cares what you owe, because all of them, us, owe far more then we can repay. God simply wants those deadbeats, people like us, brought back into relationship. I imagine before the dishonest manager’s fire sale, these two were avoiding phone calls from the estate owner like the plague. Now, they are dropping by to say hi to the landowner again. Exactly, what he wanted.
We are to use the gifts God gives us the way God intended to them be used and not squander those gifts. When we squander the gifts God gives us, it leads to our death. Squandering gifts leads to eating pea pods with pigs in pig sty’s. Squandering gifts leads to getting sacked with no way to make a living. Squandering gifts leads to finding ourselves in hell begging for a glass of ice water as the rich man in the very next parable that Jesus tells.
How do we squander our gifts from God? The same way we squander anything, when we don’t use them for what they are intended. God gives us gifts so that we will draw others into relationship with God. With God’s gifts, the father threw for his deadbeat son a party when he came home. With God’s gifts, the dishonest manager drew two dead beats back into relationship with the landowner. With God’s gifts, the rich man could have saved the poor man named Lazarus that was begging at his door everyday. With God’s gifts, Jesus cleared the debt that all of us owe, and invited us to His table for a feast.
With your gifts of wealth, you can make the plight of the hungry better, or the ministry of this church stronger. With your gifts of teaching, you can help our kids know about God’s love, or mentor inner city kid’s downtown. With your gifts of painting, you can make this house of worship an inviting place for new comers to visit, or life in a low income apartment bearable. With your gift of cooking, you can feed the homeless at Faith Mission with us monthly, or a meal for our Octoberfest celebration on Sunday, October 21. Or, you could use your wealth to buy a boat, your teaching to make a living, your painting to make your home beautiful, your cooking to get on the reality show, Hell’s Kitchen. All of these are good, acceptable ways to use your gifts. It seems only fair that you should get something out of what is yours. However, it is not all that God intended. You are squandering them because you aren’t also giving them away.
It’s called grace, amazing grace that is given so freely and abundantly, that we don’t need to keep track of who got what when, but to celebrate that there is more then enough to go around, why bother to keep track of what anyone owes. God isn’t looking for a few good MBA graduates, bean counters carefully meting God’s gifts. God is looking for a few dishonest managers, willing to give away the store to the lost, the least, the scoundrels of this world so many more will join us in the Kingdom. This parable isn’t proof that even Jesus has an off day because Jesus was dead on with this one. Amen