A reflection on Luke 16:1-13, and baptism
She was nine years old, and after months of pleading with her non church-going parents they finally agreed to have her baptized. The girl was thrilled and could hardly wait for the big day, the day that would finally mark her as one of the community, a full member of the church.
On the day of her baptism many other people were also being baptized, in fact she had to wait in a long line until it was her turn at the pool. Her denomination baptized people by full immersion in a huge pool of water. As she watched she realized that the water was deep, probably up to her shoulders. And she began to be afraid.
She was only nine, and could not yet swim. Water made her nervous. Members of her family had recently teased her by throwing her in the deep end of a swimming pool thinking this would teach her to swim; the sink or swim theory. She never sank, but neither did she learn to swim, she just learned to be afraid of water.
Now she stood on the edge of the baptismal pool. It seemed deep and huge. She had to walk up a short flight of steps to the rim of the pool, and then down another flight of steps into the water.
In the middle of the pool stood her uncle, her mother’s brother. This beloved uncle had been there when she had her tonsils out. He came to the hospital and prayed over her. She remembers being two years old, comforted by the uncle laying his hands on her head and praying.
Perhaps it was the memory of this event that gave her the confidence to step into the water. But, as she walked through the shoulder deep water, struggling to get to the middle of the pool, she became terrified. What if she slipped out of the grasp of her uncle and drowned. It could happen. She couldn’t swim and she’d panic and drown in the waters of baptism.
Inch by inch she made her way to her uncle. He reached out for her and took her in his strong grasp and baptized her. Three times he submerged her and three times she arose, “In the name of the Father, and of the son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
And suddenly she was baptized. She would live to tell the story of the day she almost died at her baptism.
In many ways the feelings of this young girl are exactly the feelings one ought to have at baptism, dying to one way of life and being born into another. Of course this concept is better when applied to adults who have life experience than to infants or even children. Still we are reminded of this at every baptism we attend and every time we renew our own baptismal covenant, as we will do a moment.
In the ancient church only adults where baptized and they went through two years of preparation. This training was intended to teach people about the importance of leaving behind their old way of living, their old way of worshipping some local god or goddess or the Emperor. It was intended to teach people about the love of God, made known to us in Jesus, and the salvation found through him by living a Christian life. A salvation of love grounded in grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
Our Gospel reading today points us in that direction. This reading is best understood when it is read in conjunction with our readings from last week on the lost sheep and lost coin which are gathered back into the whole. Those parables are then followed by the parable of the prodigal son and then today’s readings. They are all connected to frame the point Luke wishes to make about the radical nature of God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness. As we read these parables we think, “No one would do that.” Well, no one except God.
Remember the Prodigal Son? It’s the story of a young man who demands his inheritance while his father is still living. The father gives it to him but the young man squanders it away. Soon he is living in extreme poverty and decides to swallow his pride and return home. He comes home willing to be a servant to his father but is instead welcomed back with open arms.
Our reading today tells the story of steward who has been embezzling funds from the land owner. It appears he has done this by skimming a portion of the rent monies from the servants who work the land for the owner. The owner figures it out and the steward realizes he is about to lose everything. So he takes some radical measures to ensure his future security. The steward forgives the servants a good portion of the debt they owe the land owner. The subtext, based on ancient farming practices, tells us that it is quite likely these servants think it is the master who has forgiven the debt. Thus, when the master comes to town the servants would be thrilled to see him. They’d rave about what a great master he is, how generous and kind. It seems from this reading that the master figures out, yet again, what the steward has done. This time his steward has brought him the loyalty of his servants, and so now the master forgives the steward.
The prodigal son and the unworthy steward are two sides of the same issue: squandering resources followed by exorbitant forgiveness. Basically pointing us to the idea that we humans are forever squandering what God has given us, and yet God continues to love us. God continues to pour forth grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
We lose sight of what this means if we focus too closely on “money;” to understand it we need to broaden our lens and pull back. Both the son in one parable and the steward in another are guilty of squandering. The same Greek verb for squander is used in both parables – so we get the connection.
Then, we need to understand that the Greek verb which means squander also means “to broadcast or scatter away.” Our entire understanding of this reading can hinge on this verb – squandering and broadcasting. The son and steward squander, but God broadcasts – God spreads forgiveness broadly. God forgives us all the time. Each Sunday we pray – in the body of Eucharistic prayer – Our Father who art in heaven, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us…. Pointedly we remember that Judas, who was about to betray Jesus, was forgiven and fed. We all live complicated messy lives. Sin is the word we use to articulate that messiness. Sin is broken relationship in all its forms – broken with ourselves, broken with one another, broken with God. We live lives filled with hurt and fear; hurt by others, and afraid to take the steps to make amends. Nonetheless, these words, “The gifts of God for the people of God” invites us to come just as we are, in all of our brokenness, hurt, pain, or sorrow. It is an invitation to come to the table to be healed, renewed, restored. The waters of baptism bring us into this community; the bread broken and given for us keeps us connected to the whole, the body of Christ the bread of heaven. Forgiving ourselves, forgiving others, even at times forgiving God, is the effort we make to participate in God’s grace and mercy. It’s not easy; no one can throw us into the pool of forgiveness and make us do it. We have to make the effort, and learn to learn to swim the rugged waters ourselves. Thinking about it can scare us to death. Doing God’s work is often like that. It frightens us because it means we will die in one way and live again in another. Our baptismal covenant guides us along the way and reminds us as we pray, “I will with God’s help.” With God’s help we can forgive. With God’s help we can strive to restore wholeness to a broken, fractured, fractious, world.
portions of this sermon were inspired by Sarah Dylan’s blog