Christ Lutheran Community Church
September 22, 2019 Worship Sermon - "Blood Money"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Amos 8:4-7; Psalm 113; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13
Those of you who have attended Christ Lutheran Church for a few years might remember Lenny Duncan, who did his field work here while he was in seminary. Lenny is now the pastor of a church in Brooklyn, New York, and the author of a book called “Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the United States.” The book is worth reading and covers a broad range of very challenging issues around race and religion. One of the issues Lenny wrestles with is reparations: how does our society go about compensating the descendants of slaves for the wealth that was stolen from their ancestors. A suggestion Lenny makes is that churches that were built using slave labor should share their resources with churches whose members include the descendants of slaves.
It’s a suggestion worth considering, but if you think all the churches north of the Mason Dixon line are off the hook, you might be interested in hearing the story of the DeWolfe family. The Dewolfe family was one of the most prominent families in American history. At one point, the patriarch of the family, James DeWolfe, was the second richest man in the United States and a U. S. senator.
The DeWolfes were especially enthusiastic benefactors of the Episcopal Church. Through the centuries, this pious family produced three Episcopal bishops, a presiding bishop, dozens of priests, and countless lay leaders. They invested millions of dollars into Episcopal congregations here in the Northeast. They were the kind of people most pastors hope would wander into their congregation’s front door and stay.
Oh, and they were slave traders… the biggest slave traders in U. S. history. Their enterprise was headquartered, not in Mississippi or Georgia, but in Bristol, Rhode Island. Between 1769 and 1820, three generations of DeWolfes amassed a tremendous fortune in human trafficking. Some of that fortune ended up in the buildings and endowments of Episcopal churches from here in Philadelphia all the way up to Boston. Some of it is still floating around in these congregations.
Well, thank God we’re Lutherans! Nothing like that has ever happened in our denomination! Well!? I’m not so sure. I can’t say for sure where the money to build this church came from. It would be nice to think that it was all sparkling clean, free of any connection to any activity that caused pain or injustice. But I doubt it. I know that a lot of the early wealth here in Delaware county came from textiles mills that spun the cotton that was picked by slaves in the south.
I’m airing all this dirty ecclesiastical laundry because I’m trying to get a handle on the term that Jesus uses in our Gospel reading, “dishonest wealth.” “Make friends for yourself with dishonest wealth.” What is Jesus saying?
First off, I don’t think that Jesus is saying that money itself is bad. Money is just a unit of measure… like a pound or a quart. As every economics 101 student learns, it facilitates trade so that a farmer who produces wheat can obtain the services of a doctor who removes appendices, even if that doctor doesn’t need any wheat. Money makes it possible for us to do business, to have a diverse marketplace of products and services, and that’s not bad. That’s good.
But all money is tainted. As the saying goes, behind every fortune, there is a scandal. Now that is not immediately evident. Say I make an honest living: I’m a roofer; I perform a valuable service that benefits the community. What could be wrong with that? Well, if the roofing products are made of petroleum, there are a lot of things that could be wrong with that, including the negative impact of petroleum products on our environment and the wars that have been fought to keep the petroleum flowing. And if my customers pay me with money that they received from investments in tobacco companies or weapons manufacturers, that money, that money certainly has some pain and violence associated with it. If you trace it back far enough, there’s some blood behind every dollar bill.
This is a very challenging notion. If you agree with what I have said so far, you might be feeling somewhat uncomfortable. I know I’m uncomfortable talking about this. The money in my wallet is no purer than anyone else’s.
So, if you agree that all money is tainted, what do you do? Jesus offers an intriguing response: use it to make friends. Since there’s no way to bleach the blood and the guilt out of money, use it to make friends.
To give us an illustration of what he means, Jesus tells a story. This is one of the most beguiling and wonderful of all of Jesus’ parables. To fully understand it, you have to know the context in which Jesus was telling it. All kinds of shady characters were coming to Jesus and Jesus was making friends with them. It was scandalous. Some of these shady characters were tax collectors. Talk about blood money: the whole Roman system of tax collection was one of legalized extortion that had its most oppressive impact on the poor. By welcoming these tax collectors, was Jesus giving tacit approval to the work they were doing? The Pharisees complained loudly about this, and I probably would too.
So Jesus tried to explain to his followers why making friends with shady characters might not be such a bad idea. He told them a story. There was a man in charge of managing his boss’s finances, but he was squandering them. Jesus doesn’t tell us how he was squandering them: maybe he was skimming of a little for himself; maybe he was flying first class when he was only allowed to fly coach; maybe he was just making really bad investments. In any event, he gets canned. His boss tells him to turn over the books.
The man doesn’t know what to do. There’s a recession going on and the job prospects are few and far between. But then he has a great idea. He goes into Quickbooks, to Accounts Receivable, and he changes that amount that is owed to his employer by each of his debtors. He does this so that after he is fired, he will be able to go back to these debtors and cash in on the favor he has done for them. Maybe they’ll give him a job; maybe they’ll let him stay in their summer home. He can expect them to do something nice in exchange for cooking the books in their favor.
What’s really strange is that the rich man commends the dishonest manager. Why? Is Jesus condoning corrupt behavior? It’s very important to note that the manager is not commended for being dishonest. Jesus is not telling us that corruption is good. That would run contrary to everything that Jesus says throughout the gospels. Cheating, and corruption, and dishonesty are wrong!
But the manager is commended for his shrewdness… for his priorities… for using his power to make friends. Because friends – relationships – are what it’s all about. Jesus tells us again and again, relationships are more important than things. Come back next week, and you’ll hear Jesus saying this even more forcefully.
What should churches be doing with the blood money that we have sitting in our bank accounts and endowments? We should be using it to make friends, so that when we are called to account for our actions we will have that network of relationships to support us. It’s a provocative concept… something we might have to chew on for a while before we can swallow it.
But while you’re chewing, there’s one more thing to consider. Isn’t it strange how serene the rich man was when he discovered that the manager had given away half his wealth? You would expect a little screaming at the very least. But we don’t hear any of that. The rich man seems just fine with the fact that the manager has canceled these debts. That’s odd!
Unless... maybe the rich man had intended to cancel the debts all along. Maybe he had no intention of requiring the debtors to pay back the amount that was owed. Maybe the rich man was this very generous, forgiving person and the manager, in reducing the debts, had only expedited what the rich man had intended to do from the very beginning.
If that’s so, the rich man seems an awful lot like God. God forgives us all our debts. And God commends us when we forgive the debts of others. Our sins have been forgiven. We are free. Having been forgiven so much, we can be generous in forgiving each other so that all of us may be welcomed by God into our eternal home… Jesus Christ, our Lord.
Christ Lutheran Community Church