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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Unjust Steward, Or, Sandwiches Anyone?

We celebrated this past Sunday as Youth Sunday, with youth serving in various roles throughout worship services. One of our youth helped write a liturgical drama, embedded within the sermon, and the kids did an awesome job of helping us work with this difficult text. I've left some of the "stage directions" in to help readers visualize how it came together:

The Unjust Steward, Or, Sandwiches Anyone?
PASTOR KAREN: Before we begin the sermon, the youth actually have a quick announcement to make. Sorry I forgot you earlier, guys. You can go ahead now, while I run back to my office to grab something I forgot. It seems to be my day for forgetting things!
ELIZABETH:         Hi! I’m Elizabeth Criss, and I’d like to talk to you for just a moment on behalf of all the youth standing here, and a few who couldn’t make it this morning.
JEANETTE: Yeah – like it’s too early for some people to get out of bed – wish MY parents got THAT memo—
Students around Jeanette giggle and roll their eyes in agreement.
ELIZABETH: (Shooting a look of annoyance to Jeanette) Yes, as I was saying, I am representing the Grace Youth Group with an announcement about an upcoming fundraiser. We’ve been working hard making and trying to sell these sandwiches to support our trips to FreeRide and RoadTrip this year. We really need your support.
BEN: Yeah, so, we have some to sell today, we’re going to be taking orders, and making the sandwiches, and selling them from now until FreeRide.
ELIZABETH:  OR until they are all sold, so that we can all go.
(gestures with hands as if praying/pleading and mouths, “please, please!” – the rest of the youth mimic him/her)
BEN: So, if you have any questions, please contact Matthew or Christopher. Matthew and Chris are two of our senior youth, and Mr. Kevin has put them in charge of keeping track of this fundraiser.
Kevin has been standing off to the side. As he makes his way to the front-center, he gestures with his hands while saying,
KEVIN: Yes, so if you have any questions, about the sandwiches or the fundraiser itself, please call THEM and not ME.
JACK: But wait!........Jack looks all around.
I don’t see them. Where ARE Matthew and Chris? Since they’re in charge, THEY should be here too!
JEANETTE: Right! Like, WE all had to be here, and they’re in charge, so why aren’t THEY here?
All of the youth act like they are looking for Matthew and Chris and grumble
KEVIN: loudly Christopher! Matthew! Yelling  Christopher! Matthew!
Matthew and Chris enter from the sacristy door, shoving food into their mouths and eating quickly.
CHRIS: Mmph?
MATTHEW: Uh, yes?
NEVEN: Are you eating the sandwiches?
JACK: The sandwiches we’ve been working our fingers to the bone to make?
JEANETTE: I’ve been smelling like ham and turkey and pickles for weeks!
BEN: I dream – no, it’s more like a nightmare - that I’m drowning in huge pots of mustard and mayonnaise!
Other youth start grumbling. KEVIN tries shushing them.
NEVEN: You are supposed to be leading us!
JEANETTE: Yeah! But you haven’t given us any direction! You’ve just sat there eating sandwiches! Sandwiches WE all made!
JACK: What a waste!
Youth are ALL muttering, grumbling to themselves and each other, gesturing toward Chris and Matthew, start shoving each other, a couple sit down on the step of the chancel, head in hands.
Our Youth Managers are summoned by Mr. Kevin
KEVIN: (to the congregation) I’m sorry, um, please excuse us for a minute.
Kevin drags Chris and Matthew off to the pulpit side. As he talks to them, the other youth shush each other and very obviously try to listen in.
KEVIN: This is a warning. You guys need to take care of this, but I have to tell you that I am really, really disappointed in you. You get one more shot, or else.
MATTHEW: Or - else what?
KEVIN: Or else you are suspended from Youth Group for not doing your part!
The youth all gasp. Kevin shoots them “a look” then continues on.seniors are supposed to set the example for the younger members.
CHRIS and MATTHEW hang their heads.
KEVIN: If you don’t shape up, Chris, I’ll call the synod and there will be no going to FreeRide for you. Neither one of you will go on RoadTrip in January. And you will not go on any of our outing between now and then. This is serious. I – and they – are counting on you to do your job. Now do it, or you’re out!
KEVIN gives the youth one last look, looks pointedly at Matthew and Chris, then leaves via the pulpit side door.
CHRIS and MATTHEW begin to walk slowly toward the center while talking.
CHRIS: I told you that was a bad idea
MATTHEW: That’s not important! We need to find a way to get in the other kids’ good graces.
CHRIS: You mean, get them on our side so that maybe Kevin will see and stop being mad at us?
MATTHEW: Exactly! But I don’t know what we’ll do…
The youth begin to talk among themselves.
JEANETTE: I’m having a hard time selling all these sandwiches!
JACK: Yeah! Me too!
NEVEN: I still can’t believe we have to sell 10 sandwiches EACH.
CHRIS: I have an idea! Walks over to one of the youth.
CHRIS: Okay, how many sandwiches have you sold?
CHRIS: Okay, we’ll write down that you sold 5.
JEANETTE: Wow! Thanks!
CHRIS turns to JACK.
CHRIS: How many have YOU sold?
JACK: Uh, four.
MATTHEW: (to Chris) Okay, I get it –
MATTHEW: (to JACK)  We’ll write down you sold, (he hesitates, looks at Chris) – seven!
CHRIS nods approvingly, smiles.
MATTHEW and CHRIS go down the line quietly, continuing to do the same for each youth. As they go, youth who have already gotten a break compare notes with each other and high-five each other. This continues while KEVIN reenters the room with PASTOR KAREN behind him. They stand there for a moment while CHRIS and MATTHEW go on, unaware that KEVIN and the PASTOR are watching them.
KEVIN: Christopher! Matthew!
CHRIS and MATTHEW freeze for a moment. They slowly turn to face KEVIN while they say to each other,
CHRIS: Uh oh!
KEVIN: moving toward the boys Bad? Au contrair! Thank you! You’ve done exactly what I asked of you – you showed leadership and you handled this problem on your own.
CHRIS: Thanks? Oh! Um. You’re welcome!?
Youth receive relief from their indebtedness.
MATTHEW: It was all MY idea!
KEVIN: You have truly shown compassion for your fellow youth.
MATTHEW: We did?
CHRIS: Yeah, we know – that’s what we were going for.
JEANETTE: But for the right reasons? Or the wrong reasons?
Kids all start to talk amongst themselves, high-five each other, laugh and playfully shove one another.
PASTOR KAREN Bangs “gavel”.
KEVIN: Turning to look at Karen. Why do I suddenly feel like we’re on trial and you are the judge?
PASTOR: Just trying to restore a little order here. Okay, thank you, Youth of Grace – for, um, your announcement, this would be a good time for you to go back to your seats now.
KEVIN: But wait a minute. Jeanette asked a very good question. A lot of people might question why I might think that what Chris and Matthew did was a good thing.
PASTOR: And what would you say to them?
KEVIN: Well, you know, I got to thinking about it, and what just happened here reminded me a lot about the gospel lesson we just heard.
PASTOR: Really?
KEVIN: Yes, really.
PASTOR: Please, say more.
KEVIN: Well, in the gospel, the manager went through his accounts and he gave all of them a break on what they owed, right? I was reading about this lesson last week. The amounts these people owed were worth like one or two years’ wages for the average worker. One or two YEARS! So he really, REALLY did them a favor –
PASTOR: That’s true,
KEVIN: So when I saw Matthew and Christopher bargaining with the youth and letting them off the hook, I guess I just got carried away. Because it seemed like the same thing, and it felt like I was cast in the role of the rich man. In the story from the gospel, it seemed like he was pleased. And the kids were all stressing out and suddenly they seemed so relieved. So that was a good thing, right?
PASTOR: You’re right Kevin, It does seem a lot like our gospel, doesn’t it?
JEANETTE: Standing. But Pastor Karen, I’m confused.
PASTOR: Why is that, Jeanette?
JEANETTE: Because even though we kids were stressed out, and even though what Chris and Matt did helped us out and made us feel good, it really wasn’t fair when you think about it. And in the gospel, it really isn’t fair what the manager did. The people didn’t pay what they really owed. If you owe somebody something you’re supposed to pay them back in full. It seems to me like cheating. The manager cheated and Matthew and Chris cheated and we all benefitted. That’s not fair. But you’re saying something good happened here and it’s like the gospel. Can you help me out here?
PASTOR: Well, Jeanette, here’s one way to look at it. And remember, it really is just one way to look at it. Parables like this one are designed to make us think, and question, and continually look for parallels on how they might help us to understand how the kingdom of God works. They invite us to really think about how God’s justice looks different, sometimes, from justice the way the world sees it. And to be honest, my friends, this parable is one of the most difficult to try and work with.
But this is how I think we can make sense of it today. In the parable, the debtors owed amounts that were staggering, just like Kevin said. It was unlikely that they would ever be able to pay them off, no matter how hard they tried. Imagine having credit card debt in this day and age, and owing an amount equal or better than one or two years of your income - you would never be able to pay it off. If you’re lucky you might be able to pay the minimum payment due each month – if you’re lucky - but with interest rates growing your debt each month, you become hopeless of ever being able to retire the debt. After all, if you had that kind of money, you wouldn’t have the debt to begin with.
It’s the same way with sin. Sin is our debt, and we all know that no matter how hard we try, we just can’t stop sinning and we can’t pay off our debt. We can’t cancel the debt. We just keep adding to it.
But then Jesus comes along. Jesus does even more than the manager was able to do in this parable, he forgives our debt entirely – no, actually, the truth is that he pays it for us. Jesus pays our debt on the cross, and it is at the foot of the cross, when we come to understand the enormous cost of this gift, and the life-changing relief that it brings, that we begin to understand the truth about grace. Is it expected? No. Is it fair? No way! Does it look anything like the system of checks and balances, what we think of as just, or in any way resemble the way economy works in our world? Not on your life! But that’s how it is in the kingdom of God. God does the most unexpected, unreasonable, unfair thing in the universe, when God sent Jesus to set us free from the indebtedness of our sin.
When Jesus came to set us free, he turned the expectations of the world, especially those having to do with what is fair and what is not, upside down and inside out. Because God loves us enough not to play by our rules. That’s what we call grace. It comes to us freely. Grace comes to us unexpectedly, when we are in over our heads in sin, drowning with it in fact, with our debt multiplying daily, and God frees us from the debt we owe. When God does that our lives are changed and transformed in ways we never thought possible.
When I read the rich man’s response to what seems like the crazy dealings of the manager, I am reminded of God’s words regarding Jesus. “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.” I think that one way we can look at this parable and at what happened here today, is to compare the good news of this gospel with the reality of our lives – God’s grace means that no matter who you are, and no matter how hard you are struggling or how deeply you feel your failings, Jesus is always coming to you, standing there beside you, relieving the burden of your sin so that you might live fully into the kingdom of God. Freed from the enormous burden of our sin, we are able to share the good news of God’s grace and mercy with everyone you meet, even, and especially, with those who are deeply indebted to you.
KEVIN: You know, Pastor Karen that reminds me of the movie, Pay It Forward - you know, the one with Helen Hunt and Kevin Spacey? Well, in that movie somebody is given a great gift, with no expectation of paying the giver back. Instead they pay the kindness forward - they can gift other people in a chain of random gifts of kindness and I guess, using your word, grace.
PASTOR: Well said, Kevin. Well, I guess the youth had more to tell us about this morning than a simple fund raiser, whether they knew it or not! I think that they have helped us begin to think about God’s love and God’s sense of justice and how much bigger, more surprising, and liberating they really are. Today, I think we can begin by thanking God for paying our debt, for the gift of grace, and for freeing us so that we might “pay it forward” for the Kingdom of God.


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