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By Rev. Joan Kessler

Luke 16:1-13

While I was convalescing last week, I had lots of time to think and reflect on the ministry we share together, as well as the bigger picture of what it means to be Church in a world where nothing is the same. For me it’s a bit like being caught in a wilderness place, a strange land. The ways we used to be church together are changing.

Last week, I read an interesting article that asked the question: “Is the era of the program church ending?”. Written back in 2016, long before the arrival of the pandemic, it noted that congregational programs were not being widely attended. It cited the reality that working families and retirees are busy with commitments to a variety of causes, with family responsibilities topping the list. We want families to be healthy and happy and that takes considerable time and effort and does not leave much time to participate in the ongoing life of the church.

As I read this article, I couldn’t help but contemplate the lay of the land we find ourselves as church as we continue to come out the other side of COVID. I believe, and conversations with some of you recently have confirmed for me, that when we were locked down in the early months of the pandemic, we began to see the value of our time in a different light. The other side of COVID, I believe, is about choice… it’s not a lack of commitment, but it is about choosing how we will spend our time, what we value most and where energy and resources will be devoted. We seem to be happiest when we have a project to work on together that has a timeline. Take yesterday’s Fall Fair as an example. We long to connect with our wider community. And I am very proud of our work to this end because we are a community of faith that is putting ourselves out there into the wider context. But it means we begin to use a different metric to measure the effectiveness of our mission. The consultant of the article I read concluded with his prediction that the focus of the 21st century church should not be on generating programs but about deepening faith and spirituality, building community, and hands-on mission work.

So, what would happen if we just stopped counting how many came out to church on Sunday and turned our attention in a different direction? What would we notice? What markers would we use to measure the impact of our work?

Our reading for today turns the tables on the conventional way of doing things. The parable of the shrewd manager is much like other parables of Luke’s gospel in that they involve instances of loss. The lost coin, the lost son, the lost sheep, and now this morning, the lost job. The people at the centre of these teaching moments all seem to occupy the fringes of their society and yet Jesus has a way of moving them into the centre, of affirming their worth and their value and holding them up as an example of how to live. The manager in this story is about to be fired. And out of his desperation, he comes up with a plan to redeem himself. He calls in two debtors he was to collect from and reduces the amounts that they owed, effectively shortchanging his boss. But instead of being furious with his employee, the Owner is pleased with his shrewdness and self-preservation and the care he extended to these neighbours. Everyone goes away happy in this parable… the manager, the debtors, and the Owner.

At face value, this story is about an unscrupulous employee who gets away with some bad accounting. And we could ask, what of any use is this story and the example it upholds? Churches don’t behave like this. What kind of an example is this for us? This story is not about cooking the books to get what you want. Rather it is about generosity, debt reduction, and shrewd practices that allow an opportunity to be seized for the benefit of the greater good.

Jesus offers an explanation of this parable with some confusing concepts of dishonest wealth and true riches. I don’t know what to make of Jesus’ summary of this tale other than we are called to use what we have to the greatest benefit, and it is okay if we are part of this greater good – to be streetwise, to look for angles that will benefit, to survive by our wits. These are true riches; they can’t be stored up in a bank account or left in a box for some rainy day but are to be shared broadly and generously.

My hope is for the Church of the future to conduct itself just like this shrewd manager, turning over the tables on what we have historically been relegated to do. We survive by the generosity of others. But what if this isn’t the point Jesus is making in this parable? What if we took the outward action and became like philanthropists – and I must draw to your attention to the reality that our Thrift Store models this practice every year by sharing a percentage of the year’s sales in the wider community to other organizations doing good work. Because this parable begs the question of who might need our money more than we do?

I see how we have changed, and I don’t think this is just a local observation, but how we do ministry is changing. One of you pointed out to me that what we do these days is becoming more focused outside of the church building than what takes place inside. Sunday is and I believe continues to be the focal point of our life together, the axis upon which we spin, that of being intentional about deepening our faith, our spiritual practices, and our connection with one another through creating sacred spaces and opportunity for belonging.

We are becoming more intentional about getting to know our neighbors. We have the long-serving presence of the Thrift Store that provides needed items and countless treasures at affordable prices, so important as we brace ourselves for a looming economic recession. The Community Fridge has brought countless numbers of people onto our property that probably never gave us a second thought before but now they know something about us, that food security is important to us. The new Community Coffee initiative that we began in early September has been wonderful, not because scores of community members are beating a path to our door but because of the conversations we are having with those who choose to sit with us and share their stories. The other week, we met a woman, an artist, who is living in her car at the moment. She just shared with us who she was and what was important to her, and we listened.

There is such a need to socially connect and feel validated and be seen. We can do this work. They may never come again. They might not show up on Sunday. It is not about seeking converts; it is about relationships and all kinds of places we see one another, largely out back at the Thrift Store. It has become a true hub of this work, our mission opportunity. Just giving away coffee and conversation and not worrying about the cost. Because it is all benefit from this vantage point.

We know the social problems are immense. We recognize that no one solution solves the myriad of challenges we face like access to affordable housing. But a culture of generosity can go a long way to help. Small acts of kindness add up to make a noticeable difference. And this stretches us often beyond our comfort zones. The pandemic saw our community become shrewd. When COVID sent us all home we had to quickly pivot to a new way of being in community. The crisis revealed the need for virtual services, online book studies, phone calls to check-in with everyone on a regular basis, shopping and running errands, stocking up on face masks and hand sanitizer. We were guided by our priorities to remain in community together.

The mission of the post-COVID church looks in another direction; it will need to become shrewder and proactive and outwardly generous. We don’t live on fresh air; we still need to pay our bills and our meet our financial commitments. We are called to give, not take; to forgive rather than nurture grudges; to be kind rather than calculating. Givers give. This is the point of our parable today. Giving like there is no tomorrow… as if our very survival depended upon it.

May it be so and Amen.

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