“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly…” Luke 16:8
It was September 1996, when I attended my first meeting with the Phoenixville Area Clergy Association. Father Jack Newns of St. Ann’s and Pastor Mindy McKonly at First Methodist were also new in town. One of us asked, “What’s Phoenixville like?” Father John Wiltz of St. Mary’s immediately replied, “scrappy” and then added a couple tales about his dealings with Borough Council to justify his response. Listening to him “scrappy” seemed like an accurate adjective for Phoenixville. It still does. Now scrappy can mean ornery, cantankerous and just plain difficult. But it also means to take a scrap here, a scrap there, and to put them together to make something. A scrappy person doesn’t give up, but pulls together every possible resource because he, she, is determined to survive.
Just like the manager in today’s Gospel. He’s been caught with his hand in the cookie-jar. He’s taken advantage of his position padding expenses here, skimming funds there and his boss has gotten wind of it. He fires him and demands an audit of the books. What’s the guy going to do? He takes an assessment of his talents and abilities. He determines he can’t be a laborer and won’t be a beggar. So, he does a favor here, another there, writing off bills, discounting what’s owed, so he has some favors to call in when he needs them. We expect that when his boss finds out he’ll be in even bigger trouble. He got caught with his hands in the cookie jar and now he’s engaging in fraud. Surely, the boss will press charges. He’ll be tossed into jail, exactly what he deserves. So, what’s going on when instead of calling the cops, the boss commends him, calling him shrewd? Is he crazy? And not only that, why does Jesus tell this story? Why does he hold the dishonest manager up as an example?
The whole thing makes everyone uncomfortable. Pastors squirm in their pulpits. Sunday School teachers search for the moral of the story. Matthew, Mark and John conveniently forget to include it in their Gospels, while Luke offers four different interpretations of the parable. 1. Children of light need to act more shrewdly. 2. Make friends with others by “dishonest wealth.” 3. If you can’t be trusted with “dishonest wealth” who will trust you with true riches. 4.You cannot serve two masters. All wise sayings, but none satisfactory deal with the heart of the story.
One of the rules of Bible study is that if a text doesn’t make sense, put it in context. What happened before? What follows? Just before this story, Jesus tells three stories in which the lost are found – a sheep, a coin and a son. Each story ends with a fabulous party and rejoicing – singing, dancing, feasting. We love these stories because who hasn’t been lost at one time or another? But what happens when the party is over? What about the next day? When then? Perhaps that’s why Jesus tells this story of a man who acts shrewdly, who’s scrappy, who takes up the bits and pieces of his life, puts them together who to make something, who in the face of adversity, albeit self-inflicted adversity, acts.
I remember when one of my friends was going through a rough time. After sitting quietly together, she said, “I just have to trust that God has a reason for this.” I couldn’t help myself. None of what she was going through was God-inflicted and some of it was down-right evil. I responded, “I think God wants you to use your reason, courage and strength, everything you have, to get through this time. God will be with you.” She’d been sold some really bad theology that turned God into a monster, who did terrible things that she had to find a reason for. What kind of God is that? Such thinking is fatalism, not faith. It incapacitates instead of giving strength and courage. It is the opposite of faith. It perpetuates fear while feeding frustration.
Could it be that Jesus tells this story of the scrappy manager because he realizes the danger of being caught in endless cycles of getting lost and being found, of never getting on with life? That doesn’t mean we won’t keep screwing up. We’ll always need forgiveness and grace. But when the party is over and the next day dawns, God wants us to put the pieces together and live. Jesus dies for us, with us, saving us from sin and death. Jesus goes to hell and back, finds us, carries us home, gives us new life. Jesus tells us to love as we have been loved. He wants us to be scrappy. Take a piece of scrap here, put it with a piece of scrap there and get on living.
In 2004, eight years after that pastors’ meeting, some folks got together, and imagined a rising Phoenix instead of a dying one. They took scrapes, old used wooden pallets and built a huge bird on the ashes of the old steel company. With clay they shaped Phoenix chicks, placing them inside the bird. There were drummers and dancers with torches with fire. While 150 people or so gathered around, including a bunch from St. John’s, the bird was set on fire and consumed by flames. Scrapes of a worn-out town reclaimed, renewed and resurrection. Last December over 20,000 joined in the Firebird celebration, hoping for renewal and rebirth, for our scrappy town and their scrappy selves.
A scrap here, a scrap there. God takes them and makes of them the church. God does this over and over again, reclaiming, renewing and resurrecting us. Today when we install Jen Wentworth as our Director of Children, Youth and Family Ministries, God is giving us another scrape. Jen knows all about putting pieces together. While she bears an English last name, she is Pennsylvania Dutch through and through. Her great-grandmother Grammy Spieth was a quilter, an expert in piecing scrapes of cloth together, making warm quilts, transforming the old into the new. Grammy Spieth’s quilt patterns and creativity have been passed down to Jen. Her family is deeply rooted in the church. Their lively faith and steadfast commitment have been passed down to Jen. Her studies and experience make her an outstanding educator. Jen has the skills and desire to help us to live, grow and share God’s love together and in the world. We’re blessed.
Now this doesn’t mean she won’t get lost – and that we won’t too. Life can be overwhelming. Yet through the cross of Christ, no matter how lost we get, God finds us and all heaven rejoices. And when the party’s over and a new day has dawned, it’s time for the Church, for us, to get scrappy. Amen.