Unsettling Accounts

1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

Sermon

Good morning. Today we celebrate the sacrament of baptism for Cameron Cavaliere. This is a joyous event in the life of the Cavaliere family and it is an especially joyous occasion in the life of this congregation. This is the fifth baptism we’ve celebrated this year, and there are more baptisms to come.


So, you would think I’d pick a really happy piece of scripture for my sermon today. Instead, the Lectionary served up one of Jesus’ most challenging parables. In this parable, if we assume that Jesus is the rich man in the story, then it seems like Jesus is commending the dishonest manager for stealing. Right?


It sounds like Jesus is saying to the manager, “Listen, I’ve heard reports that you’re stealing from me, you’re skimming from my accounts. Go, now, and collect everything I’m owed.” And then the dishonest manager goes to all of the rich man’s debtors and rewrites their accounts, so that they owe less, and then the dishonest manager can collect the reduced debts.

Is Jesus—I mean, the rich man—upset with this? No! He congratulates the dishonest manager for getting some of his property back. He commends the manager for his shrewdness. I find this story to be unsettling. If any of you can tell me how to make a happy sermon out of this, and then link it to baptism, please step into this pulpit.


Anyone? Jessica? This could be your last chance to preach here for a while. Want to take over? No?


Then let’s switch to the reading from 1 Timothy. That’s all about prayer, right? That should be an easy one for a happy sermon. But there are some problems with the Letter to Timothy, too. The Lectionary stops with verse 7, but if we continue with the rest of this chapter, we hear something different:


I desire, then, that in every place the men should pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument; 9 also that the women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes, 10 but with good works, as is proper for women who profess reverence for God. 11 Let a woman[b] learn in silence with full submission. 12 I permit no woman[c] to teach or to have authority over a man;[d] she is to keep silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14 and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15 Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.


I find this part of the story to be deeply unsettling for a number of reasons. First, it doesn’t fit with my picture of Jesus, who demonstrated that everyone had value. Yet in this text, it seems that women are of lesser value. Certainly, it says that women should neither teach nor have authority over men.


The idea that women don’t belong in leadership is contradicted by much of the rest of the New Testament. The Book of Acts, as well as some of Paul’s other letters, mention a woman named Prisca or Priscilla. She was an early missionary, a teacher, a leader, and quite possibly an elder in the early church. The Book of Acts also mentions that Timothy was taught by his mother, Lois, and his grandmother, Eunice. Finally, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (3:28). That’s a radical message of equality.


What do we make of these contradictions within scripture? What do we do with such a challenging parable from Jesus?


Remember, Jesus calls us to follow him. He never said that would be easy. So, we have to start by taking a hard look at any piece of scripture that seems to get in the way of following Jesus. And when we look at this chapter in 1 Timothy, it seems that the author of this letter is putting up some stumbling blocks for the women who want to follow Jesus. This is one of the reasons why I don’t think that Paul actually wrote this letter.


The instructions about how women should dress have a very real function—this isn’t about hemlines or neck lines or high heels. The early church included people who were very rich and very poor. Some of the poor people might well have been slaves to the rich. Yet they all worshiped together. Clothing was a way of showing wealth in the ancient world, just as it is now. The call for modesty in dress is about preserving the harmony of the congregation—it shows that the rich women are no more valuable than the poor women.


The radical inclusivity of the early Christian community was very much at odds with the rest of the world. And maybe it was a little too challenging for some of the early church leaders, particularly the men who might lose their positions of authority if those early Christian communities completely lived into Paul’s assertion that in Christ there is no male nor female.


If this letter was, as I believe, written by someone other than the Apostle Paul, then it shows that the power of the outside world can even intrude on scripture. It shows the early church trying to conform with the ways of the world, the earthly power structure, rather than the radical equality that Jesus taught and Paul preached. I believe that this is the point of the parable of the dishonest manager, too.


In our world today, we don’t communicate in person to the extent that we used to. Instead, we communicate electronically—emails, text messages, and postings on social media. This leaves a lot of room for miscommunication. We can’t always tell when someone is joking or being sarcastic, or even gently teasing. We lose the nuances of facial expressions and tone of voice, which are important parts of the message.


I mention this because I think Jesus is using a great deal of sarcasm in verse 9 when he says: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” If we take this statement at face value, it sounds like Jesus is telling us to buy our friends, to share our dishonest wealth generously with our earthly friends, who will reciprocate our generosity. But we know that only Jesus can welcome us into an eternal home. Only Jesus can mediate between us and God the Father. We can’t earn or buy our way into Heaven. No way, no how. It is only through God’s grace that we are forgiven and saved.


We know this, yet we continue to pursue money and wealth. Even though Jesus tells us that we cannot serve both God and wealth. We are sinners. Always and forever. That’s not a happy story. It’s a call to repentance.


But pastor, can’t we have a nice, happy sermon to go with a baptism?


Easy stories and happy sermons don’t prepare us for life in a challenging world. What prepares us and equips us for this is God’s love. The sacraments of communion and baptism are visible reminders of God’s love for all of humanity: Jew and Gentile, slave and free, men and women. The sacraments are visible reminders that we are all included in God’s covenants.


Here’s the truth: We are forgiven. This basin, this jug, filled with the waters of baptism, they are visible reminders of God’s grace. They are a reminder that in Christ, our sins are washed away. Even the sins of people we don’t like. All may be forgiven.


We are all too attached to the things of this world. We all place too much faith in money. We all try to worship God and wealth, even though we know we cannot. So, we try to pretend that we don’t worship money. We try to pretend that our wealth doesn’t divide us from one another.


We cling to lots of our earthly identities: nationality and race. Religion and denominations. Power and status. These are things of the world. They distract us from our true identity in Christ. Separation and division are sins. Only in repentance are we forgiven and saved. In the sacrament of baptism, we all renew our vows and we return to the covenant. That is the grace and truth and joy of God’s love and our identity in Christ. That’s how we make our way in a difficult and challenging world. Thanks be to God. Amen.


Benediction

Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that Christ calls and appoints us to service. Quiet your hearts and your minds as you listen for the movement of the Spirit, and be open to action. Then go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Share the love and peace and joy of our Lord with your children and with the world! In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!


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First Presbyterian Church of Freehold

732-462-0234

fpcsecretary2@gmail.com

118 West Main Street

Freehold, NJ 07728

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