18 Pentecost Proper 20: Amos 8:4-7; Ps 113; I Tim 2:1-7; Lk 16:1-13
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, September 18, 2016
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
About ten days ago, I got to go on a police ride-a-long. The police divide the city into four quadrants”North, South, East, and West”I chose to ride with the North precinct. Hoping for a nice, quiet shift I requested a Wednesday afternoon from 2pm-11pm and thankfully, it was. Though quiet, it was a good ride, interesting and eye-opening. I had never been to most of the places or neighborhoods we drove through. For the three years, I’ve been here, northern Montgomery ended about Madison Avenue”there has never been much call for me to go any further.
The northern territory roughly is everything north of the interstate from the police station to Eastern Boulevard”though we weren’t allowed to go in Krispy Kreme. We stuck mostly to poorer neighborhoods, riding through some of the worst parts of Montgomery.
Late in the afternoon, but before dark, we did a walk and talk. Chief Finley wants every officer on patrol to do at least one 15-20 minute walk in a neighborhood and talk to some of the people in the community”a good practice for obvious reasons. A couple of the officers radioed one another and decided to meet up at a neighborhood called Newtown. The only thing I knew about Newtown was that a horse roamed about there and was never tied up. Sure enough, when we pulled into the community center parking lot, the horse was peacefully grazing in the open behind its owner’s house.
The neighborhood presented a serene scene, not picturesque in the least, but the grass and yards were not terribly overgrown, though not well-kept. The houses, though shabby, were not dilapidated. It was obviously a poor neighborhood, but there was a nice church across from where we parked to go for our walk.
As soon as I got out of the car, Officer Pendley, the one I was assigned too, pointed out a black granite, unassuming memorial. It was a marker for a policeman who had been killed in the line of duty. The officer had pulled a man over in a routine traffic stop, but did not know the man was wanted and had warrants out for his arrest. As the officer approached the vehicle, the man in the car shot and killed the policeman and fled the scene. He was later caught.
After telling me the story, Officer Pendley showed me a band he wore on his wrist. It was black with a thin blue line inset in the center. It had the initials MPD for Montgomery Police Department and the words, We Never Walk Alone. When I asked Officer Pendley about what those words meant to him, he told me that, for him, he never walked or patrolled the streets alone. His comrades, both fallen and alive were always with him. The band was not simply a reminder of those who had fallen in the line of duty, but a source of comfort and pride. Officer Pendley believes in what he does to serve the citizens of Montgomery. He wanted to join the force for as long as he could remember and entered the academy at the age of 19. His grandfather had been a policeman in Montgomery and his admiration and respect for his grandfather had inspired Officer Pendley to become a policeman.
We never talked religion on that shift, though he wasn’t opposed to my saying grace over dinner that night, but for Officer Pendley, the words we never walk alone seemed to reflect a faith rooted in people and relationship more than God when he was on patrol.
I asked Chief Finley about the band and those words. His response alluded to community and family. He didn’t get into much more detail than that, but his basic feeling was that the words we never walk alone meant that we are all in this together”policeman, their families, and the community. He believes there has been a real shift in policing since the events of 9/11 and that has, in his opinion, brought a greater sense of humility into the police culture, at least of the older more experienced police generation.
Chief Finley and Officer Pendley have slightly different takes on the words we never walk alone but they are both rooted in the recognition that relationships have a power and primacy in our life and society that foster courage and strength.
Jesus is never more clear about the primacy of relationships, of people, than he is in this morning’s enigmatic parable of the dishonest steward. This weird parable told by Jesus to his disciples in the presence of tax-collectors and sinners, Pharisees and scribes, and anyone else who happens to be milling about, has been questioned and puzzled over probably since its original telling 2000 years ago.
I think we get so caught up in the incomprehensibility of this story, we miss the point”no boss is going to congratulate an employee for cheating him, especially after he has just given that employee his two weeks notice. Yet, that is exactly what happens in the story we read today.
A landowner discovers his manager has been squandering his property and bilking his tenants. The thought is that this manager is more concerned with money and his own needs and desires to get ahead than he is with managing his master’s property”so he has cheated those who work the land and cheated his master as well. We understand why the land owner would fire this guy”he’s been cutting corners to get ahead and cheating others to his own benefit.
So when he gets his two-week notice, his first thoughts are about his own future well-being. And this is the part we get all caught up in”this guy is too weak to make a living at manual labor and to ashamed to beg. So he devises a plan. Now most people who have only been concerned with their own material prosperity would probably have called in the accounts and hidden away the extra stores of olive oil and grain to sell as they needed money. But not this guy, he calls in the accounts and then reduces what is owed. Instead of cooking the books in his favor, he cooks the books in favor of his master’s debtors. Regardless of who this action favors, the bottom line is that the dishonest manager had cooked the books and cheated his master out of what is owed to him.
And this is the shrewdness for which Jesus is commending this guy”at least, this shrewd behavior is what we get caught up in. But I think there is something more going on here.
The manager’s shrewdness in not a testimony to cheating his master out of what he is owed, or even a nod to his resourcefulness in turning enemies to friends”because that is what this guy has done, those who had once been cheated by him and harbored resentment to him have now been reconciled through this somewhat distasteful behavior. (But what person is not going to take the reduced offer?) I think Jesus is commending the shift in value that this dishonest manager demonstrates.
Whereas wealth was once his sole focus and gain, now it is relationships, I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes. Sure the motivation is selfish, but I think Jesus is less concerned with the dishonest manager’s motivation and more concerned with the fact that this guy is now treating people well because he wants to be in relationship with them. Had the manager simply tried to accrue goods or wealth in a resourceful manner after being fired, Jesus would never have commended him. The commendation is that instead of acquiring money, the manager worked to acquire friends.
Now that the manager realizes his very survival is at stake, he digs deep into his pocket of resources and doesn’t pull out his wallet, but his rolodex”his list of relationships that can help him through tough times until he can get back on his feet. That is what the master is commending. That is what Chief Finley and Officer Pendley understand. No one walks alone. From the wealthiest person to the poorest, wealth can only get us so far”to survive in this world and especially to thrive, we need other people.
The people listening to Jesus tell that story that day had treated other people poorly”maybe not the disciples, though don’t forget Judas was among them”but the tax collectors and sinners, scribes and Pharisees were not known for their warm and fuzzy treatment of others.
Jesus reminds them and us that relationships are not simply important but righteous and they should be our number one priority. We are called to do whatever we can to nourish and grow the relationships in our lives”not just with friends and family, but with co-workers and clients, customers and strangers. While we are here on earth, our goal is not how much money and possession we can acquire, but how many people will welcome us into their homes and how many people we invite in. That’s why Chief Finley has his officers walk a neighborhood and talk to people in their community every day. That’s why Officer Pendley walks a neighborhood where a fellow comrade in blue was shot and killed. Relationships matter. Its not just the police who never walk alone, its all of us. We never walk alone. Amen.