Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The Rev. Alanna Sullivan, Installation service 2021The Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan, Associate Minister and Directory of Operaction, the Memorial Church. File Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications.



By the Rev. Alanna C. Sullivan
Associate Minister and Director of Operation
The Memorial Church of Harvard University

(The following is a transcript of the service audio)

Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and redeemer. Amen.

So this past week we had our annual staff retreat. It's the time when we come together to set out our intentions for the year ahead. And Matt shared a particular hope that I wanted to share with you this morning. It is his hope that the Memorial Church will become a place, or is already a place, where we are not afraid to ask hard questions. Hard questions about others, hard questions about ourselves, and a theme for our year is Religious Responses to the Climate Crisis. And a question I anticipate that we will keep returning to is what do we do about a world becoming less habitable by the day?

As Calvon's prayers captured, we live in a world that is deluged by an ever increasing number of fires and floods, and droughts, costing the lives and livelihoods of millions. The recent water crisis in Jackson is just one example. One hundred-fifty-thousand residents have been left without drinking water for days, weeks at this point. Rainfall of historic proportions flooded Mississippi's Pearl River and a key pump at a local water treatment plant could not keep up. This caused a severe drop in the water pressure, and though the water pressure has been restored a boil water notice still remains in effect. Historic flooding and record droughts are already stressing water systems across this country. Threats to infrastructure posed by climate change intensify and experts warn that what happened in Jackson might just be the beginning.

So who is responsible for what is happening in Jackson? Is it the treatment plant? Is it the city? Is it the state? Those are important questions, but perhaps just as important is how does our nation's history of segregation and redlining lead to deteriorating infrastructures in Black and other minoritized communities? And what might reparations for these communities actually look like?

A little closer to home, just this week Harvard released its report about the human remains it has in its museum collections. The University has the remains of more than 22,000 individuals. Staggering. 22,000. And among them include one of the largest collections of Native American ancestors and the remains of 19 people of African descent who were or were likely to have been enslaved.

When President Bacow called a steering committee together to write a report and to make some recommendations about what should happen to these remains of 22,000 people, he stated that we must begin to confront the reality of a past in which academic curiosity and opportunity overwhelmed humanity.

We as an institution and we as the people who make up this institution are left grappling with difficult questions when we confront this sinful history and reality. In the report, Professor Philip Deloria outlines some of the important questions the steering committee asked. Who has a right to the bodies of the dead? For what purposes, under what conditions? What wrongs have we committed? To whom exactly should one repair? And determine how. And what do we do about the gaps and uncertainties and ambiguities that arise when those questions stop being abstract? These are haunting questions and they do not absolve the university, and thereby us, from the responsibility to act. Professor Deloria goes on to say that we question and debate and condemn, and sometimes absolve our predecessors, realizing that while we may not be responsible for their history, we are very much responsible to it. History is not inert. It demands action.

And during our staff retreat, we were also wondering what difficult questions that we as a community of faith should be asking of ourselves. And sometimes, honestly, it's hard to even know where to begin, but as the staff began talking it through together, it became clear that we can only begin with admitting and confronting how broken the church really is. As Matt put it, we should be shameless about our repentance. What historical and current failures do we need to own up to? What demands honest transparency and what sins are we afraid to admit even to ourselves? One thing is clear. If we are ever to build trust with those who have been hurt or ostracized by the church, this is the only way forward.

A wise pastor once told me that in the gospels, Jesus asks many more questions than he answers. To be precise, he asks 307 questions. And the parable that Jesus tells us in the gospel lesson for today, read so beautifully by Courtney, certainly leaves us with more questions than answers. If there was one theme to the commentaries that I consulted this week, it is that this parable is complicated. A seminary friend reminded me what our New Testament professor used to say about Jesus' parables. Parables are like cars. You should pay attention to where the car is going but not get caught up in what the model and make and color of the car is.

So our parable today opens with a property owner who accuses his manager of mishandling that property and fires him. It's all based on speculation. And the manager knows that the security of his and his family's future is in jeopardy, so he needs to do something drastic. He gets creative and comes up with a plan. He goes to the landlord's debtors and reduces their debts so he can collect at least a portion of what is owed. He reduces one by half and another by 20 percent. How does he choose these seemingly random amounts? It's one of the many details that's left out. How well does this manager know his neighbors? Does he recognize that this is all that they can pay?

And in an unexpected turn of events when the landlord learns of the manager's action, he compliments the manager as shrewd instead of berating him as dishonest. Was the landlord just glad to have reaped what he was owed or was he impressed with the manager's ingenuity. And further puzzling is Jesus' echo of the landlord's praise. He says that the manager is more shrewd, and other translations also say more clever or more wise, more prudent in the ways of the world than his followers.

So is Jesus suggesting that his disciples should cheat or earn wealth by fraudulent means? Does he recommend lying as a way of living? These questions all rest on the assumption that the manager has responsibilities to his boss. His dishonesty relates to the loss of income for the landlord, and his action can rightly be categorized as dishonest in a fair and just accountable system. However, was this economic arrangement just or fair? We know in Jesus' context, individuals without wealth or property did not have many options for survival. Often, they were at the mercy of landlords who demanded a lion share of crops on top of owing exonerate taxes to the Roman Empire.

Sir, we do admonish the manager or the system that he lives in. Perhaps ancient listeners existing in this exploitative system were more sympathetic to the manager's circumstance and understood his motives a bit better. Perhaps they had also faced similar dilemmas and found themselves weighing similar options. Now it is true that the manager uses morally questionable methods, but his sharp judgment helps to break down a system that exploits those that are at the bottom, a system that would've entirely left him out if he had stuck by the rules. So by reducing the debts, he may indeed expose the unfairness of the existing payment structure.

So what questions arise for us as contemporary listeners of this parable? Where ought our sympathies and focus lie? How do we live in similarly toxic and exploitative economic systems? And to whom are we responsible to care for? How tempting it can be for our answers to life's really difficult questions to be withdrawing from the messiness of the world. But the reality for most of us, whether we live 2,000 years ago in the Roman Empire or in the 21st century United States, life so often is about weighing options and making small calculations, choosing who or what to prioritize in the next decision with less than ideal circumstances. We are all implicated.

And just as we are about to get lost in the fog of questions and choice and intricacies of life, Jesus illuminates the path forward as clear as day. You cannot serve God and wealth. He doesn't mince his words or muddle what he says. Jesus underscores that devotion to God is there and our only priority as followers of Christ. It is never easy in a world full of negotiation where power and wealth demand our loyalty. And we show our devotion to God in how we treat one another. This story is not an easy one to hear, and at times it is an even harder story to live by. Serving God has little to do with keeping ledgers and making sure that everyone gets their due, it has a little to do with fairness and it doesn't make good economic sense. Jesus had a way, a funny way of not making sense. Life is messy and hard, but Christ is clear about what it means to serve and show our devotion to God. It lies in how we continue to pursue justice, continue to reconcile ourselves to one another, continue to mend a world that is broken, no matter how fragmented it is. It is about loving one another even when we don't have all the answers, and insisting on justice even when it seems impossible.