Leuenberg, Fellowship and the Dishonest Steward

Preach in Arnoldshain, Sept. 2010

I was very tempted this morning to tear up my sermon and write a new one, based on a comparison between ecumenical relationships in Europe and the Oppenheim cellar labyrinth. So many developments which our Reforming ancestors could not have anticipated; so many new tunnels dug, sometimes under the neighbour’s house; so many brickings up, openings up and rediscoveries of the old. But as Herr Pieper has very kindly translated the sermon I gave him in the middle of August, I can’t let all his work go to waste. And I hope what I have to say, adding a little bit of new digging done during this week, will not be too labyrinthine for any here this morning who have not shared in our CPCE consultation at Arnoldshain this week.

Our consultation has been on the theme of Kirchengesellschaft; lacking Herr Birmerli’s exploration of the word’s semantic field and Herr Scherle’s helpful 3-level diagram, I have taken this to mean ‘church fellowship’. I should have loved to be in dialogue in this sermon with more of the ideas I have heard in the last few days; but, as you know, it had to be written a while ago so that it could be translated in advance into another of the many languages spoken by this esteemed gathering. Cumbersome though this process may be, in itself it is an act of fellowship, as I who speak and you who listen are all doing our best to understand one another’s language and culture, different though we are, and to make our own standpoint comprehensible to others. This is one small example of the visible fellowship described in Leuenberg Thesis 15: an expression of commitment to each other; a testimony to our mutual obligation and a confession of the catholicity of the church.

As a minister of one Reformed denomination, the United Reformed Church in Great Britain, I am offering you this morning one outworking of the catholicity of our particular church, in that the readings we have heard this morning come from the Revised Common Lectionary, a lectionary common to many Catholic, Episcopal and Reformed church communities within the English-speaking world. This three-year lectionary takes the church year as its framework, yet in the halcyon Sundays after Trinity we have opportunities to consider the life and teachings of Jesus more reflectively than is possible in the few months between November and May, Advent and Trinity, into which the whole christological story must necessarily be compacted.

The readings set for this Sunday may initially seem to have little to do with fellowship; yet as Herr Klaiber has already shown us with Ecclesiastes, the discipline of exploring what is set in the texts rather than choosing texts in order to explore a predetermined opinion can be rewarding. Let us see whether this may also be the case today.

One more preamble before we can begin in earnest. The Revised Common Lectionary displays its ecumenical heritage through uncertainty as to whether a thematic approach, focussing on the Gospel reading, or a lectio continua approach, as advocated by Calvin, is to be preferred; its solution is not to choose but to offer both options for the Hebrew Bible readings. Usefully for our purposes, the choice I had to make between Amos 8 and Jeremiah 8, Psalm 113 and Psalm 79 had light to shed on the different ways in which the concept of our churches’ fellowship may be understood.

Let us begin, however, with the hardest text: Jesus’ parable of the Dishonest Steward, which has always raised questions in my mind. Is the rich man a picture of God? Is Jesus advocating ‘creative’ accountancy, so long as the balance sheets add up? Or, on the other hand, is the rich man a symbol of unjust power, and the dishonest steward a saboteur of the capitalist excesses which put his debtors into his power to start with? If so, is the rich man’s commendation worth having?

I am sure that oceans of ink have been spilled on addressing these questions in a historical and scholarly way. As a practical theologian, I am more interested in how we may position ourselves within this story. I am acutely aware of the pitfalls of fundamentalist literal correlation between the Palestine of two thousand years ago and our own church contexts. Yet I know I may count upon your courtesy to humour me, even if your own inclinations are more cautiously analytical. So here I come off the fence, and say that I can’t believe in a God whose power over all his tenants and employees – us – is expressed coercively through a demand for debt repayment and/or a notice to quit employment. Or that Jesus is applauding financial impropriety. On the contrary, we should take seriously Jesus’ contrast between ‘the children of this age’ and ‘the children of light’: as he warns us, we cannot serve God and money.

If, then, we are not looking at an allegorical picture of how the Kingdom should be, but simply at a case study of how ‘the children of this age’ deal with crisis, what can we learn? Sadly, the steward’s dilemma will be familiar to many in our current economic situation, including within our own congregations: ‘I am about to lose my job – what can I do to stave off financial ruin?’ Looking his situation squarely in the face, he decides that what he most needs is support from others; so he decides on a strategy that, when he is dismissed, will make others welcome him into their homes. What he is seeking, in a word, is fellowship. Of course, he cannot pretend to be on the same level as his master’s debtors. There are status inconsistencies between them. They, though indebted, have resources of oil and wheat to draw upon. As he visits on his master’s business, he has authority over them; yet shortly he will have no authority, no resources beyond what his eloquence can bring him. Is there a hint here – or am I pushing it too far? – of the description in Thesis 7 of our consultation regarding Leuenberg’s ‘unity in reconciled diversity’ between our churches of differing confessions, sizes, resources? Yet in spite of such discrepancies, fellowship between the steward and his master’s debtors is still his goal.

Ironically, as a side effect, he also achieves some degree of fellowship between himself and his erstwhile employer, who compliments him on the chutzpah of his strategy. This seems odd: why should the employer who has sacked a man for squandering his property applaud him for losing even more, by decreasing what his debtors owe? The answer, of course, is that the master will still get the whole of what is his. Just as tax-collectors in Roman times were infamous for charging more than the set rate and pocketing the difference, in reducing the debt, the steward is losing only his own cut: fifty jugs of oil, twenty containers of wheat. For the sake of future good relationships, he is foregoing present rewards. And Jesus commends his strategy. Don’t think financial affairs are beneath you as children of God’s kingdom, he advises those who hear him. Those who make gain their business know the power of money. You should use it too, but in the Kingdom’s service, not as an end in itself.

I ask again: where do we stand in this story: as the master, the steward or the debtors? Depending on the context chosen, even within one denomination we will answer this question differently and view our fellowship with other churches accordingly. In England the URC sees itself as relating ecumenically to many churches. We often use the phrase ‘punching above our weight’ to describe our position with respect to the Established Church, and define ourselves in contrast to it. I am sorry to say we take our relationship with the British Methodists for granted: on the local level a third of our churches are united with them. Yet in Scotland, as elsewhere in Europe, it is a Reformed church which is the Established Church; and that changes the URC’s own self-understanding.

Again, compared with some of our Reformed relations in Eastern or Southern Europe, the URC in any of its nations suddenly becomes large and wealthy. It is impossible to make rigid categorisations, and I’m not suggesting we try. I am inviting you, however, to consider how our fellowship may be affected, beyond the fact of our varying confessional theologies, by our differing contexts – what I have learned this week to call ‘non-theological factors’. Some of us may see ourselves as the major church in a nation, the one owed respect and deference, but also the one who is always approached for funding.

Some may feel like the poor relation, expected to fall in with the ways of the established church and to offer scarce resources to ecumenical relationships when our own existence feels imperilled. And some may feel like middlemen, forever explaining one church’s role to another, juggling many contexts and expectations. All of us are part of the one Leuenberg Fellowship, yet we may experience that connectedness in very different ways.

Given the financial constraints put on our churches – as on every part of our communities – by the banking crisis, by the reduction in numbers opting in to church tax arrangements, where these are in place, and by the ongoing loss of resources experienced by the churches of Eastern Europe ever since the Communist era, such tensions are likely to be exacerbated, not reduced, in the next few years. So what is our strategy to be? How are we to achieve welcome into one another’s homes in the hard times to come?

Here I return to the two contrasting possibilities expressed in our Hebrew Bible readings this morning. I chose Amos’ trenchant condemnation of injustice; yet I could equally have chosen a passage expressing Jeremiah’s lament for his people’s failings. Lament goes to the heart of human experience, though it is frequently edited out of our Bible readings and our sermons. His cry of pain: For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me will ring a bell in all those churches feeling under threat from decreasing financial resources, from ageing or declining congregations, from active atheistic attack, from passive disinterest in what Christianity has to offer. Yet had the steward stuck with lamenting his situation, he would have found no fellowship. Similarly, Psalm 79, speaking from a destroyed Temple, can do no more than cry aloud to God for aid and for vengeance on those whom it perceives as agents of its ruin. Psalm 113, on the other hand, focuses not only on God’s rule over all human affairs but on God’s care for those at the bottom of the heap: those who are poor, homeless or cut off from human relationships, it asserts, can look to God for deliverance. I have heard this week that we in CPCE also hear that cry, and answer our answer as part of God’s mission entrusted to us. Though the honest expression of lament for a glorious past can be cathartic, it cannot be our final response to the current situation in which we as churches within the Leuenberg Fellowship find ourselves. I am thankful to report that lament was not the leitmotif this week. But how then should our fellowship be expressed? How can the Leuenberg Agreement be more than a piece of paper we have all signed? For, as Thesis 11 states: ‘The understanding of church fellowship according to the Leuenberg Agreement involves more than merely its declaration.’ How do we ‘deepen and strengthen the fellowship [we] have found together’? (Thesis 14) so that we will indeed find welcome from each other when we are most in need?

A month and a half ago, I could write: I’m sure that presentations and conversations during this week’s consultation will have given us food for thought in this area. Now I know this to be the case, for me at least. I hope for you too these suggestions will have included ways to make the relationships between us concrete at the most local level. A few years ago I was a URC delegate to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches meeting which developed the Accra Confession, giving our economic and ecological stance a status confessionis. It was an inspiring meeting yet, going home to my congregation, I did not find it easy to share its insights with them. Reception is a theological theme deserving of more attention. Yet the table and pulpit fellowship offered by Leuenberg since its inception, where this has been taken up, has made a real and concrete difference to the fellowship between our churches.

We cannot, however, sit on our laurels, for the European church situation has changed significantly since the original Agreement was signed in 1973. One sign of this is the proliferation in Europe both of ‘new churches’, coming out of the house church and charismatic movements, and of ethnic churches, arising in many parts of the world beyond Europe, made up of migrants wishing to worship God according to their own cultural norms.

In Britain it is becoming a commonplace for traditional churches to offer hospitality to such groups, which often have few resources of their own, thus reminding ourselves that the church of Jesus Christ is not a Eurocentric affair, but includes people from every nation and tribe. This may be true for you too. For example, this Pauluskirche congregation in Frankfurt is already sharing hospitality with an Indonesian congregation. In coming years, then, may the fellowship of Leuenberg be expanded, both confessionally and geographically, as Theses 18 and 19 seem to imply, addressing this new situation?

Yet Amos and Psalm 113 do not allow us to remain within the comfort zone of our fellowship, either as it now is or in an expanded version. They point us outward, towards those within or beyond our number who are in need. And the original financial theme of Jesus’ parable also points us towards the poor of our lands, those encumbered by debt. While an English proverb advises us that ‘charity begins at home’, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, reminds us that ‘the Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members’. Surely the same should hold good for the fellowship of Leuenberg churches, as we strive for “the fullest possible cooperation in witness and service” (Thesis 11).

What will that mean in practice? Here I become Congregational, in order to say: That will depend on your own context! I hope that on a local level Leuenberg churches will face such questions together out of choice, rather than being compelled by economic necessity to work together. Yet Jesus knew human nature pretty well. Without the financial crisis provoked by his redundancy, would the steward ever have considered foregoing his cut of the debt? I doubt it! Is it possible, then, that the master’s apparently callous action provoked transformation on his servant’s part? Should the steward have been grateful for this chance to enlarge his circle of fellowship? Here the question of reconciliation and the healing of memories may arise.

Whether or not this is the case, the advice in our reading from 1 Timothy holds good. Let’s pray for all in high positions, both in our churches and in our governments, and for ourselves as we return home, that living justly and peaceably together we may come to greater knowledge of the truth we have found in Christ Jesus, the one who has already welcomed us into the fellowship of his one church.

‘Komm, Herr, segne uns’


Rev. Sarah Hall

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