The readings on which this sermon is based can be found at:

s192g13  Sunday 25  22/9/2013   St John's Hororata

'And how much do you owe?'  Luke 16.7

When disaster strikes, and people are hard pressed, the issues of justice and charity arise.  

In New Zealand we are so blessed to have an Earthquake Commission - it is the 'Shaky Isles' after all.  (Yes, I do realise how many people are still struggling dealing with them.)   So: 'You automatically have EQCover for your home and land (..) if you have a current private insurance policy for your home that includes fire insurance (and most do).'   And: 'You automatically have EQCover for your contents if you have a current private insurance policy for your contents that includes fire insurance (and most do).' (1)  So those who were properly insured before the earthquakes were covered by EQC whereas those who were't insured, were not.   We can all see a justice in this, for if everyone was covered by EQC, why would anyone ever take out insurance?

When business owners are called to act charitably they often think, well who has ever been charitable to them?   If I've built up my business by scrimping, saving and dint of hard work, why shouldn't others do the same?     So someone wrote on 'Facebook', obviously echoing the thoughts of many others: 'You lost me at "fairly sharing profits".   As a small business owner who works very hard for profits, I feel no need to "share" them with those who choose not to work...  I pay my fair share of taxes and then some, but I will not be a part of the concept of "From those who have to those who have not".'   And there is a real issue of justice here.

But in doing so we are only doing unto others as has already been done to us.   This is, sadly, so often the case with child molesters.   Of course this means that the world as we know it will only continue on as before.   And Jesus himself said: 'you always have the poor with you'.  (2)

But before we get too het up about how society doesn't act charitably, I point out how often the church's proclamation is about how much people owe God.   The Cross of Jesus is often used as central to this message - if God does this - just think how much you owe God in return - you miserable sinner!    Central to most christian devotion is the Lord's prayer, including the petition: 'forgive us our debts'. (3)   Jesus' parable of the unforgiving debtor reinforces this perception: 'For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.   When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.'  (4)

But proclaiming how much everyone owes God is actually the precise opposite of acting charitably.   Instead of accepting people and giving them the benefit of the doubt, this is to charge others, all others without exception and without particular justification, with being in God's debt.  Is this what God wants - to have as many disciples as possible - through threats, bribery or emotional blackmail?   Needless to say I don't see Jesus ever using these sorts of methods to get disciples.   Indeed he actively discourages people from following him.

And before we think that the whole edifice of Christianity is about to fall down, we may recall that Jesus said to the religious leaders who were complaining: 'if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless.' (5)   Last week I spoke about the 'ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance' and the 99 being those who live charitably in the world and the 1 being the worshipper of God who needs to repent and join Jesus who mixed with tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners.  It makes me wonder if it is precisely these, the tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners, who Jesus considers guiltless!!!   I have had cause to notice how angry some good Anglicans get when I have let my hair grow long!

This manager hauled up before the Lord was charged with squandering the Lord's property, yet the manager is commended for dealing 'fast and loose' with the manager's property where other people benefit.  

I wonder what we consider God's property that we might squander for others.   Are they not forgiveness, food, dignity, and community?   Each and every person deserves forgiveness, food, dignity and community, without feeling they need to do something to deserve them, or that they owe God, the church or the community for these things.   Indeed the gospel imperative is surely that we are called to provide these things where they are lacking, not to be the agents for the rationing of these to straight Anglicans alone.

At this particular time the world is agonising over the issue of Syria and the dilemma that the United States and President Barak Obama find themselves in, in responding to what clearly was a massacre of civilian men, women and children with long banned chemical weapons - whoever were the perpetrators of this atrocity.   I heard a rationale by an American diplomat visiting New Zealand.   He focussed on the general nature of a chemical weapon attack in contrast to a sniper's bullet, or I suppose a drone attack.   But this made me think of the church ban on effective contraception for those who would hear and obey - the millions in third-world countries - and the resultant poverty, illness and premature death.   Talk about indiscriminate 'collateral damage'!   What do these millions of poor owe God???   I am so glad I am not confronted with the Syrian dilemma but at least the President knows the dilemma.   I am glad I am not blind to the church's dilemma, like the church seems to be.

The God I worship does not need to use threats, bribery or emotional blackmail to get followers.    A 'god' that needs to use these methods is no god and not worth worshipping.   And nor does God have any need to determine when and with whom people share their mutual intimate affections. 

We live in a world where we are made to feel inadequate, sadly as much by the church as by society in general.   My attention was drawn to an article about jobs that people do, jobs that those who do them feel entirely unnecessary.   (6)  And often the lowest paid jobs are those where people actually do make a difference, like nurses, teachers, and farmers.   When these sorts of people go on strike the resultant anxiety is huge.   How could such indispensable people go on strike?   As this article pointed out, if executives, bureaucrats (and I would add, clergy) went on strike, who would notice?

Of course, the dishonest manager is commended - for making friends.   The master is not interested in being re-payed and the parable of the man owing 10,000 talents tells us precisely this, for he is forgiven the whole debt.  The end of the parable where the unforgiving manager is indeed thrown into prison was because he didn't forgive others, not that he didn't repay his master.

God forgives any amount owing, whether we feel it is deserved or not, whether the debt is imposed externally or internally - so that we forgive others around us.   No-one should lead lives feeling that they are indebted to others, to society or to God.   That is not living life in all its fullness.

God wants each and every person to live life in all its fullness and life in all its fullness cannot be done alone, unless of course we are simultaneously a nurse, a teacher, a farmer; when we come to think about it, the list is really endless!   And others don't owe us just as much as we don't owe others.   It is all predicated, not on owing, but on co-operation, mutuality, and respect - all of which are a good substitute for love, which is often romanticised.

And my final point is that for all we might co-operate and respect others, until the church co-operates and respects those who do not share their faith, all our personal efforts will be quite useless.

(2) Matthew 26.11
(3) NIV of Matt 6.12
(4) Matt 18:23-25
(5) Matt 12.7