The Four-Letter Words of Christian Faith

When I was seven years old, my sister and I came home from first grade and we had learned new things.  We always had dinner as a family and there was always pleasant conversation. Mallory and I announced proudly that we now knew both the F words. Now, this put my parents on the horns of a dilemma because on the one hand, you’ve got to know what the two F words are, right? But on the other hand, they didn’t want to encourage this kind of thing.  I think they must’ve thought about it, but eventually they gave in and they said, “Okay, just this once. Never again. What is the F word? And Mallory said, “Fake!” Well, now,  this puts into question what the other F word is. So they asked me, “What is the other F word?” And I announced, proudly, “Phony!” 

We vilify certain words and a lot of them deserve to be vilified. I think in this morning’s Gospel reading, my best guess would be that the four letter word, at least on my first reading, is the R word RICH. This week, I listening to a talk by historian Walter Isaacson, and hw told a story about Benjamin Franklin. He said that Franklin in Philadelphia systematically gave money to every house of worship that opened in the city, no matter what, whether it was his faith or not, and when he died, every minister, including the rabbi, showed up at his funeral and they all did the services together in thanksgiving for this man who had shared his wealth with him. You might argue that he was trying to ensure his way into heaven by whatever means, but I would like to read it as the very first ecumenical gathering here in the United States. 

That being said, I think that rich is not necessarily a four letter word. I think the real four letter word in this Gospel, even though the word isn’t written out is NICE. Jesus is telling us, don’t be nice. You’re going to get trampled. I know that sounds radical, but nice is about being polite. It’s about saying the right thing. It’s about making people comfortable. It’s about making the status quo go along smoothly. You understand what I mean I say that being a Christian is not about being nice? This morning’s Gospel is a confusing one. You’ve got this dishonest man serving this rich man. He is then told that he’s being fired because he has done a poor job, he’s done something underhanded. He’s squandered his master’s fortune, he’s going to be dismissed. And so he goes out and he does another dishonest thing seemingly. 

I did some study and there are actually three different theories about what this reading actually meant. The first reading of it is that in Deuteronomy it says that you shall not commit usury. And so that when he took down the amount of his things, he was actually following the biblical imperative and taking away the money that was ill-gotten, because it would have been come from interest and that sort of thing. Because it was considered a sin to charge interest, then he was actually doing something righteous. But that doesn’t make sense in the math of the reading. He gave the first person 50% off. That’s very high interest. Even 20% is pretty high. So I don’t know about that. 

The second reading is that the man in the story was actually giving back his percentage. You know, as the manager  who does the work, he gets a certain percentage. Again, I think that they’re trying to take the easy way out.  I’ve never gotten 50% of any product I’ve helped make, so that doesn’t make sense to me. 

The third reading is that he was being shrewd and he realized he was going to  be tossed out on his ear and he was going to be relying on the kindness of the community. And so he leveraged the influence he had and did what he could to win his way into these people’s homes. Now, that makes sense, but then you have to struggle with the fact that Jesus is saying there’s this bad guy who did bad things and he was considered bad. And then, he did more bad things and that made him good. We always say two wrongs don’t make right. Here’s what I think. 

I think that in parables we tend to kind of align ourselves with one character or another. And in this parable there’s no one that you feel readily willing to align yourself because the master is rich and imperious. Or you could be the dishonest manager.  We’d all like to think that we are better than that. The thing we have to realize is in parables is that we are everybody. We’re the person who made a mistake, who did something bad. We are the person that is rich. I mean we’re living here in the middle of California so de facto, if you’re in this building, you’re rich by some standard. 

So what do we make of this? I’m going to tell you another parable that came a rabbinical source. I think it of outlines it a little more clearly than this story. There was a king who sentenced a man to death for stealing. Now, this man was very shrewd and he said, “I know an amazing secret and if you’ll only let me pass it on, I mean you can hang me, but I really don’t want to go to my grave with this secret. So if we can gather tomorrow, I’ll tell you the secret.” Well, of course, you know, they had to find out what the secret was. So the next day they all gathered the whole court and the king and the thief said, “My father taught me how to plant a pomegranate seed and overnight have it flower and give fruit. The secret is that it only works if the seed is planted by a completely righteous man.“

So he says to the governor, “I’m a thief. I cannot plant the seed. You plant it.” And the governor remembered a couple of things that maybe he wasn’t quite so honest about. So he said, “No, no, I think the treasurer ought to plant the seed.” And the treasurer remembered that he had maybe, maybe he’d fudged the figures a little bit now and again to make things add up. And so he said, “No, no, I think the king should plant the seed.” Now the king remembered that his father had had this necklace and he had taken it and never given it back, and his father never knew where it was. Let’s be clear: taking someone else’s stuff and not telling them that you’ve taken it, that’s stealing. 

So he said, “No, no, I, I’m not going to plant the seed.” And the thief said, “All of you powerful and influential people and not one of you can plant the seed. And yet I am being hanged, for, when I was starving, stealing the food to keep myself alive.” While the king was so impressed with this, he pardoned him. 

We’re not being called to be dishonest. We’re not being called to celebrate our mistakes or to knowingly deceive people or anything else. We’re being counseled to have our wits about us, to be clever in what we’re doing. I went last night and heard Malcolm Gladwell speak. He’s written a new book called Talking to Strangers. He was talking about his book in terms of the reality that as human beings, we are wired to trust each other and so we routinely get duped periodically. 

He was talking about that we have this myth around people taking advantage of us: 

  1. that those people are really smart (the evil genius)
  2. that it doesn’t happen very often 
  3. And that it’s usually one time isolated incident.

And then he talked about Bernie Madoff and a bunch of other people who were not geniuses at all, but fooled a bunch people on a grand scale over a long length of time. They were just playing on the fact that we tend to trust people. Then he told a story about a guy who didn’t trust anybody and that guy was alone and broken and scared. SoMalcolm Gladwell said was that we have to trust people but gather data until the data proves to us that someone isn’t trustworthy. It’s really worth the risk. We have to be shrewd. 

Now, what does this look like in real life? Being shrewd as a Christian, what does that look like? A woman named Rosanne Haggerty is President and Chief Executive Officer of Community Solutions, a services and support organization that provides social services to families.   On a podcast called Solveable, she was talking about how our attitudes around homelessness have evolved. Originally with homelessness, we thought that homeless people need to be made to earn their keep and earn their housing and then you give them the housing and everything’s better. What we found out is that people who are living on the streets, terrified and without appropriate accommodations, don’t work their way into homes. It just doesn’t happen. It’s too hard. So then we evolved our thinking to talk about housing first. In this model, if you give someone housing, they can potentially learn to be more regular in taking needed medications and they can potentially get and hold a job.  They could could, potentially overcome substance abuse. So having housing first addresses the brokenness and then people do better. 

But we didn’t stop there. Then there was a bunch of study being done and when we turned our eyes toward the question of how do we sell this to the people, how do we make people understand why this is important? We found out in studies is that supporting and allowing people to be homeless costs society more in money, in dollars and cents than giving them a place to live. People who are homeless get sick more often and they go to the ER because they don’t have health insurance and so on and so on. They go to soup kitchens, they have food stamps, all of these things. And if you take that amount of money and you put it toward housing, you have a bunch of money left over. 

This is one of the pieces, one of the strands of our Gospel, which is being shrewd about our wealth means applying it in ways that change things. I was in Utah a number of years ago and I saw this bank of the old fashioned parking meters that you put quarters in. There was a sign underneath that said “Don’t give your spare change to panhandlers. Put it in the parking meters and we will use it for programs housing first to address homelessness and make a difference.” They were saying be shrewd about how you apply your wealth, apply it to make a difference. 

The final step, this woman said, was to apply technology data. We’re really good at collecting data and communities that collect data should actually look at it, find out that their homeless problem is different than the homeless problem of other communities. So San Carlos’ homeless problem versus Fresno’s homeless problem might be totally different. It might be for instance, that you have a lot of military veterans, which means you have a big pot of federal money that you can channel into homelessness, not costing a lot of money to the community. If you have a problem with homeless that’s associated with to mental illness, you can channel your attention into creating programs that address mental illness. We have to be shrewd. We have to be smart about what we’re doing. 

Fred Craddock, who is a theologian, preacher, writer, had a great quote that I want to share with you. “Most of us will not this week will not christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation or be burned at the stake. More likely the week will present no more a chance than to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a story, go to choir practice, and  feed the neighbor’s cat. Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful in much.” 

So, in much, be shrewd. Be shrewd in small things. Be shrewd in seeing how you can make a difference. Be shrewd in demanding that the way we try to make a difference actually does make a difference. When we do that, we can adopt a lot of really great four letter words. We can adopt words like kind where we love people, where we care for people in a way, that is intelligent and addresses their whole self. That’s sometimes is hard to hear and sometimes it’s hard to say and it’s almost always really hard to do, but it values the whole person the way God created them and tries to gain for them what God wants them to have. 

Another four letter word, bold.  As Christians, we’re not going to shrink back. We need to be bold in telling the truth. We need to be bold in spotting the problem, naming the problem, throwing resources at the problem, encouraging people who have power to deal with the problem. We have to be bold. 

The  other four letter that we can claim is just. There’s another four letter F word that I absolutely despise: fair.  I don’t want it to be fair in our world. I want it to be just, I want there to be a world where people are engaged in making things happen and not in a way that evenly distributed, but in a way that tips the scales toward the people who have no help, toward the people who never ever had a chance. That would be just, it wouldn’t fair. 

When we embrace these four letter words, when we embrace being kind, being bold, being just, then, then we finally come to my final four letter word, the L word, love. 

Preached by the Rev. Hailey McKeefry Delmas on Sunday, September 22, 2019 at the Episcopal Church of the Epiphany in San Carlos, CA.

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