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Bishop Larry Benfield at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Phoenix: “…broken people can be used by God in ways we might never imagine.”

September 19, 2010

Bishop Larry Benfield of the Diocese of Arkansas preached at Stephen"s Episcopal Church, Phoenix, Arizona (Diocese of Arizona) on the Sunday during the House of Bishops meeting here.

The following is Bishop Benfield"s sermon.

Bishop Larry R. Benfield

19 September 2004

St. Stephen"s, Phoenix

You have heard of St. Matthew, St. Paul, and St. Stephen. You may have even heard of St. Thomas á Becket and St. Augustine and St. Alban. But there are also the Martyrs of Memphis (Tennessee, that is, not Egypt) and Phillips Brooks (a 19th century preacher from my seminary) and Dietrich Bonhoffer (who wrote from a concentration camp) and Florence Nightingale (a nurse) and Sojourner Truth (an abolitionist).

They are all in a book called Holy Women, Holy Men, an Episcopal publication that contains the names of people whose lives we commemorate for their witness to the good news. Lately the list has grown and become, I say with some sheepishness, more politically correct. Folk argued that people of various ethnic backgrounds were not nearly well enough represented, nor were people who were not so overtly religious but whose work inspired others. So we have added Copernicus and John Muir and John XXIII, and even that Baptist missionary, Lottie Moon.

Given that we are trying to be more inclusive, a priest friend of mine and I have another name we want added to the list, a name very appropriate given today"s gospel lesson about wealth. Our candidate: J. P. Morgan, the American robber baron and, not so coincidentally, founder of the church"s pension fund, the man who made certain that Episcopal priests would perhaps one day be the best paid retired members of the clergy in all of Christendom. If you ever want to see a group of members of the clergy vote their pocketbooks, go to a future General Convention of the Episcopal Church should his name be submitted for inclusion on our commemoration list and watch them even think about voting against the man.

I say he was a true follower of today"s gospel. After all, the gospel"s commendation is to "make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth," and J.P. Morgan became the clergy"s friend. And I can argue with the best of them that J. P. and his fellow robber barons followed Jesus" injunction better anyone else of their age, perhaps better than anyone ever in America until the unprecedented wealth accumulation of our own generation of robber barons. Given today"s gospel, I don"t want anyone from those fundamentalist churches trying to tell us that we live in an increasingly godless generation. If the proof of faith is in the rise of the extremely wealthy, even in this recession, then we are in the midst of a Holy Ghost revival.

The truth of the matter is that we have a very difficult gospel today, especially when compared to the Old Testament lesson. In Amos we hear God railing against lying in commerce, while the gospel talks about the advisability of lies in the accounting department. For a people who have been brought up in the American religious tradition that hard work is good, honesty is a virtue, and greed corrupts, today"s gospel stops us in our tracks. Was Luke perhaps confused or sleepy when he sat down to write this part of his good news?

What most people do with this gospel is skip over the parable and go straight to the end. Most folk can quote the last line, "You cannot serve God and wealth" or "God and mammon" as the King James Version states it. But no one likes to talk about Jesus" apparent commendation of someone who will falsify accounting records to save his own skin. On the surface, it does not make sense.

I think, however, that Luke knew what he was doing when he wrote this portion of the gospel. Remember that Luke is the gospeler who has a special affinity for the person on the margin. It is why, for example, the familiar Christmas narrative is written by Luke from Mary"s point of view: women were not as important as men, and Luke wanted the woman"s voice heard.

Here we get Luke recording that Jesus says people can be faithful with dishonest wealth. If that message is to have any sort of resonance with 95% of us listeners, then it has to be about more than financial assets, since only about 5% of our citizens are really wealthy. Add Jesus" dishonest wealth comment to the parable about cooking the books, toss it in with the truth that the gospel is universal in its application and Luke"s penchant for the outcast, and we get a story that is saying that God"s kingdom has a place in it for people other than solely the virtuous. God"s kingdom has a place for people who can find something holy in the very brokenness of their lives, the daily dishonesty of life as we live it.

And that really is our hope. We go about our lives as far less than perfect people. We don"t always play by the rules. But somehow God"s presence still seems to be made known through us. Paradoxically, we find some faith to hold on to in the very midst of our unfaithfulness. As I constantly remind people, the face of Jesus is in you and me and everyone we encounter on the street. Somehow God is enfleshed in normal, stumbling folk, people who have no choice but to find faith in the midst of broken lives. It is a picture of a God made real in the likes of you and me. And let"s face it; it is the way that God has always been made known.

We hear today that we can find faith in our own un-ease. That truth is liberating and powerful. But I think Luke is telling us something else as well. He is telling us that we ought not be so afraid of coloring outside the lines, so to speak. Now, as someone who was a finance major and who appreciates the precision of accounting, I find the assertion disturbing that perhaps God is likely to be found in the lives of those who stand on the edge of respectability, whose lives don"t quite add up. But that message is certainly consonant with Luke"s own affection for the outcast.

Look at Jesus: apparent illegitimate son of a woman in what must have been an embarrassing marriage partner from her husband"s standpoint; Jesus not married himself as far as we know, no children to leave as the legacy that any good Jew of his day would want; and his always associating with tax collectors and prostitutes and various ne"er-do-wells. He colored outside the lines, found himself on the edge.

Look also at those saints with whose names I opened this sermon: Thomas á Becket, a shrewd political animal if there ever was one; Sojourner Truth, seen as an uncontrollable feminist and abolitionist in her day; Florence Nightingale, who was rumored not to have been baptized and to have provided a wide variety of ministries to the soldiers whom she followed, if you catch the gist of what I am saying. They all stood on the edge of respectability; refused to stay within the lines of propriety; showed God"s mercy to be wider than the moral accountants of the day would ever certify. In the eyes of some, the wealth of blessing they got from God was dishonestly gained. But God"s love showed through them. Their lives showed that God will cut us some slack, just as in the parable the unjust steward is able to show that his master"s account books could be jiggled with the result an outpouring of mercy that even the master commends.

That may be why I only half-jokingly want J. P. Morgan on our calendar of saints. In a world in which wealth is held up as good, why not have a robber baron on the list? He used his influence to help the church advance its mission and thus help preach the good news. He is a sign that broken people can be used by God in ways we might never imagine. And if God can use him, then I am sure that God can use every one of us, even if our portfolios are smaller, our gifts seemingly less. What we are called to do is to see how that good news can be pulled out of our otherwise dishonest and broken lives. Amen.

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Nancy Cox Davidge
Public Affairs Officer