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Giving It All

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“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone….”  1 Timothy 2.1

Today’s texts: Luke 16.1-13 and 1 Timothy 2.1-7

By the Rev. J. Manny Santiago

Rev. Manny Santiago
Rev. Manny Santiago

Parables, generally speaking, are not my thing. The imagery utilized on Jesus’ parables is often quite far from our daily lives. For instance, Jesus uses a lot of shepherds in his parable. But, unless you have lived in New Zealand or Ireland, it is very likely that you don’t know many shepherds.

I much more prefer the easy passages of Scripture, like the book of Revelation, which is my favorite to preach from. I can preach from it every single Sunday if a church would let me! (Honestly, it is the most beautiful, insightful, liberating book of the whole Bible…)

Today, however, the Lectionary invites us to reflect on one of Jesus’ most difficult parables. When Pastor Phil invited me to preach, I went to the lectionary, read the passages for the week, and somehow thought to myself: “yeah, you can come up with something from this…” My God, was I wrong!

I have struggled with this passage for weeks now! So much so that I did what any respected theologian would do when in such a situation: I posted my request for help on Facebook in the hopes that other people would have already reflected on this passage and would be willing to just hand me their sermons!

But, alas, none of my friends work for The Crossing and even with all the great insight I got from them, none could write a sermon that would tie both what the passage says and the ministry that you support at The Crossing. So, here I am, still praying to God that the Spirit might open my heart and my mind and my ears to find a good word to share with you… (Spirit, if you are listening, you can do that at any time!)

Jokes aside, there are certain things I would like to share with you this morning. And yes, they do have to do with both the student ministry you support and the gospel message from Luke.

Let me start by sharing with you the summary of this parable that theologian Thomas G. Long shared in a sermon a while back:

“The parable of the ‘Unjust Manager’ is an all-too-familiar story of corporate crime. The CEO of a corporation discovers that a trusted manager has been negligent, dishonest, and cooking the books. He calls him on the carpet. ‘What is this I hear about you squandering and pilfering our resources. Get out of here! You’re fired! Clean out your desk; turn in your Blackberry.’

“The man now is in a full-scale crisis. ‘What am I going to do?’ he cries. ‘I’ve lost my job and I have no other useful skills. I am too weak for manual labor, too proud to be a beggar.’ He thinks, he frets, he worries, he ponders, he schemes, and then—a light bulb turns on, a brilliant idea comes to him! He runs as fast as he can to each and every one of the company’s clients and reduces their accounts payable. ‘How much do you owe us? You’ve been a good customer; cut it in half. How much do you owe? Discount it thirty percent as a personal consideration from me.’ In other words, he ingratiates himself to every customer, scratching each and every back so that, when he is tossed out, they will scratch his. He feathers his nest so that when his pink slip is in force, they will take care of him, give him something to do and a place to live. That’s the story about ministry that Jesus told his disciples. What did Jesus want them to get out of that!”[1]

As you know, I am the Executive Director of The Crossing Campus Ministry. After having read Long’s description of the parable, I was able to identify a little bit better with it. This is not to say that I am the unjust manager of the story! At least I hope I’m not! But I could understand the parable a little bit better after having placed it in the context of corporate administration. Every day, those of us who work in managerial and executive positions face the hard realities of the job. If the work is with non-profits, these realities are even harder. But if you add to that the religious aspect of jobs like mine, you can say that desperation can – and sometimes does – reach exponential levels.

The manager that Jesus presents in the parable is acting out of desperation. Let us think about the possibility that the manager is actually interested in the wellbeing of the business. What he does to present good numbers to the master is because he didn’t want the master to think that the business was failing. Obviously, this is not the best way of doing it. But let us give this man the benefit of the doubt.

Once again I want to make reference to Thomas G. Long’s interpretation of this passage. Long writes: “I think what Jesus wanted them—and us—to get out of this story can be found in the two insights Jesus names at the end of the parable: First there is a very challenging word in this parable. Jesus says, ‘I wish the children of light, I wish the people of God, I wish the ministers of the church were as shrewd for the gospel as the wheeler-dealers out there in the world are shrewd for themselves.’ In other words, there are people out there in the culture who get up every morning scheming for a buck, focusing every ounce of energy on feathering their nests, working in overdrive to save themselves and to scramble to the top of the heap. ‘I wish God’s people,’ Jesus says, ‘would be just as focused and energetic for the beloved community.’”[2]

Jesus is not inviting us to imitate the shrewd actions of the manager, but to have the same passion for the gospel as the manager had for his job!

Every day, I experience both the passion of the manager and his desperation. I see how the very little resources that we have in our campus ministry are doing a wonderful thing with the lives of the students that approach us. I see how there are many partners – denominations, local churches, individuals, pastors, lay leaders, etc. – who keep this ministry in prayer, who offer their support through volunteer time and financial commitments. On the other hand, I also experience every day the challenge of having to explain that the return in investment with this type of work is not as clear-cut as our corporate minds would like it to be.

Sure, I can tell you all about the numbers. I can share with you that the majority of our students – 25% – come from the Roman Catholic tradition or that 20% identify as non-religious, agnostics or atheists. I can tell you that 12% are congregational (including your denomination, the UCC, but also other congregational denominations), or that only 2% are Baptists and 11% are United Methodists. I can share with you that about 10% are Reformed and Presbyterian and other 2% is either Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh. The other 16%? They identify as conservative or non-denominational Evangelicals… Yup, the do feel attracted to The Crossing and have made a home with us!

Moreover, I can also share with you the nitty-gritty of the financial situation. I can tell you that this year our Board had to pass a deficit budget because our denominational support has come down. (Just reflecting the reality of our mainline denominations.) I can share that your UCC Conference supports us at the rate of 8%, and that your local congregations give about 2% to our budget. I can tell you that the American Baptist denomination’s contribution to our budget comprises 30% of it; or that the United Methodist Conference offers us about 9%. Sadly, I can also share with you that this year we had to cut our program budget in half, as we were already informed that denominational support will continue to go down.

With a situation like this, you can see why a manager would try to find ways to sweeten the situation and paint a better picture to his or her master. Again, it is also hard to make a case for support when people want to see actual young bodies coming into their sanctuaries on a Sunday morning. The most important thing, we are told, are the returns on investments.

But there is another way of looking at it. I want to take in the excitement and the passion that Long argues that Jesus wants us to get out of this parable.

You know what I want to focus on?

I want to focus on the young transgender man who comes into the sanctuary a bit nervous, not knowing how he is to be welcomed in this church. But once in, a minister – a minister! – recognizes the pendant he is wearing with the transgender pride flag and invites him to join others on Tuesday evenings for a support group for LGBTQ students of faith.

I rather find excitement in the story of the young Hindu student who had never participated of a Christian ritual before. When she visits for the first time, she hears the words of invitation: “This table is open for YOU!” She walks down the aisle and reaches out; she looks at me at the eye and asks, “what do I do?” I tell her to reach out and take as much bread as she wants, because this right here is Jesus’ own body. She is welcome into Jesus’ own body, the Church.

I want to find encouragement in the witness of the recently converted student who comes by because he has been yearning for a church where he could ask the hard questions without fear to be shunned. I want to focus on the hope that it is to hear how a student is able to reconcile with God because for years she’s heard that her father’s Sikhism cannot be mixed with her mother’s Christian faith, but now this community is encouraging her to explore both faiths and find strength in them.

I want to hear more about stories like the one from the young, conservative Republican student who feels at home with The Crossing because we support her passion for working with homeless people, especially homeless students, and do not belittle her because of her political leanings.

I find encouragement in stories like the recent graduate who send us an email from her native Malaysia, whence she has returned, and asks us if there is any possibility of connecting her with a progressive Christian church there!

I will find hope in the continue telling the story of how our students took a sacred walk on the last Sunday of a couple of semesters ago, to join other protestors on campus to march in silence as they raised the voices of the many black youth who have succumbed to police brutality and white supremacy.

Yes! Yes, I will be passionate about this ministry, just like Jesus asked us to be. Yes! I will be faithful in very little because I know that God’s grace and God’s love are larger and more abundant than the needs we might encounter.

This is why I wanted to share with you also, the words from the Apostle Paul, who urges Timothy to pray incessantly, to pray, to pray, to pray… I too “urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone…”

As Paul writes, “This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Remember that “save” in the context of the gospel, is should always be understood as “healed.”

God desires that all be healed…
Healed of loneliness because of your sexual orientation;
healed of violence because of your race or ethnicity;
healed of being ignored because of your political affiliation;
healed of being left out because you don’t practice the “right” faith tradition;
healed of being alone and without a community during some of the most important years of a person’s life, their college years.

This is what The Crossing is. This is what we do. We work, in collaboration with you, to provide a space for young people to heal. Sure, perhaps you might not see the returns in investment. Sure, perhaps it would be frustrating not to see other young people come into the doors of our sanctuaries every Sunday morning.

But keep in mind that your sanctuary is just a physical location that cannot contain the church. You are with us at The Crossing every Sunday, as you pray with us, as you volunteer with us, as you partner with us with your finances, as you recognize that we are your ministry on campus.

I can assure you that this manager will both do the right thing and be always passionate about the work. I will give it all; I hope you join me in giving it all too. I only have but one request. In the words of Pope Francis: “pray for me.” Amen.

[1] Long, Thomas G. (2007). Making Friends. Journal for Preachers (Pentecost 2007), 52-57.

[2] Op. cit.