Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us and forgive our sins,
for your name’s sake.
The story goes that a rich man, like many rich men, had staff persons who managed his property and his wealth and the rest of his staff (and probably his romantic endeavors, but that part of the story is usually spoken in hushed tones or kept to the footnotes). The head of staff was the manager or the steward, accountable directly to the rich man. The manager was empowered to make decisions on the rich man’s behalf (which is the whole point of having managers and stewards — to avoid the burden of everyday details), and the manager’s word to an employee or in a business deal represented the word of the rich man himself.
Which was just fine so long as the manager made sound decisions and kept his word: the rich man’s reputation remained intact. When the manager became known as a squanderer of property and wealth, however, or when the manager made deals & promises that he did not keep, or if the manager spoiled & confused the best efforts of staff, then the rich man’s reputation was comprised. Catch that: the problem wasn’t (or wasn’t only) the manager’s management of the rich man’s stuff; the more urgent & offensive problem was the manager’s management of the rich man’s reputation.
The loss of reputation is harder to restore than the loss of wealth.
It may sound like the parable of Luke 16:1-13 (find all of the Revised Common Lectionary readings here), but it’s also the parable of Psalm 79:1-9, of Jeremiah 8:18-9:1, even of Psalm 113:
Psalm 113: God is the object of praise, not one of many objects but the only right recipient of praise from the rising of the sun to its setting. Who else is like the LORD our God? To give anyone or anything else praise is anathema to the reputation of God.
Psalm 79: When the people of God suffer, when the world laughs with scorn and says, “Those people do not have God’s favor! God has forgotten them!” then God’s reputation for faithfulness & deliverance is undermined. An important & sensitive point of interpretation for today’s world: who counts among “the people of God” and thus whose suffering is an insult to God’s reputation?
Jeremiah 8: God’s reputation is thoroughly depleted when the poor themselves lament, “Is the LORD not in Zion? God has left us!” God’s sadness is not only the result of the people’s devastation but (arguably) moreso the result of their doubt. God’s reputation as one who gives life, as one who leads people to lands of milk and honey, as one who is redemption and protection — it’s all laughable if the people, in their hurt and fear, turn away from God (backtracking to Jeremiah 8:5).
When the doubt of the faithful or the deeds of a manager or the suffering of a people call into question God’s reputation, then God — for God’s own sake — is motivated to restore that reputation.
For the sake of restored reputation, God raises up the poor to sit next to princes and gives women who have been scorned a home, all in order to hear us say: “Praise the LORD!”
For the sake of restored reputation, God goes searching: “Is there no balm in Gilead?!”
For the sake of restored reputation, God fires the manager and the steward and any intermediary until such time as they/we prove to God our shrewd willingness to prioritize God’s reputation over our own (demonstrating grace instead of fighting to be right, for example, such as cutting a debt to 50 that we know should be 100).
God’s reputation is wrapped up in this world, vulnerable to it — every time there is suffering, every time we who claim God’s name harm one another, every time our praise is directed elsewhere besides God.
We cannot bless God’s reputation if we are serving our own.
Ooooo yes, the more I dig into this Sunday’s Revised Common Lectionary texts, the more I like them! I think y’all just got my sermon outline (if I had a preaching assignment for this weekend).
How are the texts sitting with you this week? What threads emerge across the readings or are you picking just one of the RCL texts this week to preach? How is your sermon prep going? Share your questions, brainstorms, and encouragements in the comments!
Rachel G. Hackenberg is a United Church of Christ (US) minister, soccer mom, blogger, and author. Her book Sacred Pause plays with words to refresh our relationship with The Word.
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