Sermon by Criterion’s Rev. Phyllis Anderson at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Trenton, New Jersey. September 22, 2019.
If you read this Gospel lesson too fast, you could come away with the impression that money is bad and business people are crooks. Even worse it might seem to say that it’s ok to be a crook, even commendable. That would miss Jesus’ point by a country mile – or better yet, by a city block.
Jesus doesn’t make it easy for us to get the point. He tells a complicated story about a manager who is clearly dishonest. He cheats and connives to secure his own future — and he does so very cleverly. We know such people exist. Some of us here have come out on the short end of the stick at the hands of financial wheelers dealers like this. As a country we are still recovering from complicated, high risk business dealings that shook the economy in 2008.
Of course, there have always been cheaters. In the story they are called the “children of this age.” The Bible is full of admonitions against cheaters and crooks and those who get rich at the expense of the poor. But that is not really what THIS story is ABOUT. Jesus tells many stories about sinners who repent and are forgiven. But this is not one of those stories either. Here the cooked manager stays crooked and he gets away with his scam. He remains a “child of this age”.
This story is directed not to the children of this age, but to the children of the light! That is, the children of God. That is, to us – to you and me. This is a lesson for those of us who love God and want to do God’s will. It is a challenge for people like us who have been blessed, who have worked hard, who have resources to manage – great or small. To us, Jesus says, manage those resources well! Make the most of them! Use them to do good. Be smart and creative, sophisticated and shrewd with money to advance God’s kingdom. Be at least as clever as the miserable scoundrel in this story.
With this story, Jesus encourages us to bring the values of our faith to the market-place where we work and where we conduct our own business affairs. While business can be corrupt, I read this story as promoting the potential of business for good. Business is one more place where the Children of God should be active – and very smart. This story is a celebration of honest, effective, creative business owners and their employees, who work hard to serve people, grow the economy, and make their communities flourish.
I would like to take it a step further. I think Jesus is telling us that Christians should be wise, shrewd stewards not only in the workplace, but also in our churches. We should manage the church’s money in ways that maximize the good that we do. What money? you might say. Sure, money is scarce. I get it. Even so, this congregation is an economic being. You receive contributions and you write grants. You pay salaries. You own property. Collectively, the members of Christian congregations and institutions in this corner of the world control enormous wealth. How can those of us in the church, the Children of God, be at least as clever as the dishonest manager in making that money work for good?
You are doing lot of good already. I would not be surprised to hear that you are tired. You have spent yourselves for this congregation and for this community. You put on an ambitious summer program in addition to your after-school program. You give out hundreds of back packs for back-to-school children. You teach English to newcomers. You grow food on your land and share it with the community. You help those who have been in prison find their way back into the community. You transformed old Bethany church into Bethany Home for young adults. And that is just the beginning. Some of this you do with partners, like Nassau Presbyterian church up the road in Princeton.
I’m inviting you to consider one more way to bring change to this community. . . this time using the power of finance, the power of lending, by making small loans that you can direct according to your values as Children of God. I’ve been in conversation with your pastor and other leaders here and at Nassau in Princeton about a program called 1K Churches. It begins with Bible study and small-group exploration of the connection between faith and the economy. It’s about discovering “God’s economy”. . . finance working according to God’s rules.
After the Bible study, you put what you have discovered into action by making a small loan — $500 to $5000 — to a small business right here in your own community: a business that is making life better here – by selling fresh, healthy food, by creating good jobs for returning citizens, by recycling plastic – whatever it is that you value as Children of God. And you develop a relationship with that neighbor that goes beyond the money. I know there is a movement here in Trenton now to encourage entrepreneurs in your neighborhood – in Chambersburg, along Hamilton Avenue. I’ve heard there might interest at Nassau Presbyterian in Princeton to partner with you on this.
When the loan is repaid, you have your capital back to invest again in another small business, to connect with another neighbor. In the process your congregation grows more conscious of its economic impact. You take responsibility for being a player in the local economy. You may build on this experience to imagine even more shrewd, more clever, more audacious ways to use finance for good in your community. . . for affordable housing or food security. Who knows what good you yet might do?
I speak to you today as a volunteer for Criterion Institute, which has designed this program for congregations big and small, rich and poor. There is no fee to participate. We provide the Bible study and detailed guides for implementing your loan without any cost to you. We have staff — like me –available for support and guidance.
Criterion is not a church; it’s a non-profit, activist think-tank. Our mission is to empower more and more people to use finance for good. We do this in partnership with governments, churches, foundations and private donors. We’ve just begun working with UNICEF to address Gender Based Violence globally — through finance. Audacious!
Why not Westminster? What is the audacious change you want to see here in your community? Criterion is inviting you to partner with us in showing what can happen when ordinary people use finance wisely, shrewdly, creatively to create positive social change. We can help. Criterion would like to walk with you and learn from you. This may be your next great venture — and ours.