United Congregational Church
Sunday, Sept. 22, 2013
Luke, Slaves & Masters:
The Innocent Spouse & Children Project,
The Innocent Spouse & Children Project,
By Jeff Grant
Good morning, and Welcome to the United Congregational Church of Norwalk Connecticut. My name is Jeff Grant, and I am the Associate Minster and Director of Prison Ministries at the First Baptist Church of Bridgeport, Connecticut. For those of you who are not familiar with our church, it is in a neighborhood in Bridgeport called “The Hollow” that can be pretty rough at times. You can probably guess that the ‘hood in Bridgeport is sometimes a very difficult – yet very fulfilling – place in which to be a prison minister.
I spend the rest of my time as Director of two other ministries – the Progressive Prison Project and the Innocent Spouse & Children Project – both based in Greenwich, Connecticut. In these new forms of prison ministry, we offer support to people accused or convicted of white collar and other nonviolent crimes and their families. Believe it or not, Greenwich is sometimes an even more difficult – yet fulfilling – place to be a prison minister.
My dear friend Rev. Holly Adams is away this morning – in Russia no less – she has asked me fill in for her to preach this morning’s sermon on our Scripture reading from the Gospel of Luke, apply it to the work we are doing in our prison ministries, and specifically point out ways in which – in our experience – people have been transformed through Christ from being Slaves to money into being joyful servants of the one true Master. That Master of course is God.
This morning’s scripture lesson, Luke 16:1-13, is sometimes called the “Parable of The Unjust Steward,” or, in some versions of the Bible, the “Parable of the Shrewd Manager.”It is one of the most confusing passages in all of the New Testament, so it looks like we have our hands full this morning. It asks, “How is it that an unfaithful Manager, about to be relieved of his position, can gain praise from his employer when he ends his career by stealing more from him?”
I think that this is a certainly a question that anyone might be very interested in hearing about – and especially someone who might be heading to prison, who has a family member in prison, or who has recently returned home from prison?
To better understand this parable, we need to look at the context in which it was presented. The Parable of the Unjust Steward is the fourth story given in a series that begins in Luke 15. The first is the Parable of the Lost Sheep – which is a parable that tells us that every soul is precious to God and is worth great effort to save. The second story is the Parable of the Lost Coin – in this parable Jesus reminds us that we will put forth a lot of effort to a task that we deem valuable enough. The third is the Parable of the Prodigal Son, a story in which we learn that God wants us back even when we turn against him.
In today’s parable, each of us is a steward, or a Manager, of God’s creation and the blessings God gives to us. But a steward, or a Manager, does not own the things he manages. God is the Owner; we are the Managers. In the Parable, the Rich Man says to the Manager: “Give Me an Account of your management.” In the same way God gives us our lives to manage. But how many of us refuse to account? How many of us refuse to submit to authority? Even when that authority is God’s authority? Maybe especially when that authority is God’s authority?
“Give me an account of your Management,” says the Owner in the parable. Yet the Manager at first refuses just as we refuse. We refuse to submit to authority. And we suffer. We think we know better. We think we can go it alone.
The Parable continues and tells the tale of the unscrupulous Manager – who thinks he gets one over on everybody. He even thinks he gets one over on God. The Manager wanted to make his money the easiest way possible. He wanted to make it on the backs of others – in unscrupulous transactions. Being forewarned that he is about to lose his job, the unjust steward provided for himself by making use of other’s resources.
Doesn’t this describe us – aren’t we all too easily persuaded to take shortcuts? To cut corners? Even though we knew in our bones that somebody was likely to get hurt? That we might be cheating our families – or ourselves – from that great life that we had been promised?
But note carefully the way in which the Lord commends the Manager after his deeds had been revealed. The Parable states: “So the master commended the unjust steward because he had dealt shrewdly.” That’s right, the Manager was Commended – but perhaps not in the way the Manager would have preferred.
In the Oxford Dictionary, one definition of the word Commended is to “entrust someone or something to,” as in “I Commend him to Your care.” This definition is from Middle English: the prefix “com,” from the Latin word, commendare, (expressing intensive force) + and the balance from the Latin word, mandare(meaning to commit or entrust). So the word Commended in this context can easily mean the Lord forcefully committed the Manager– which of course is exactly how we sentence prisoners when they have committed such egregious acts.
In today’s Parable, the Manager is indeed sentenced by God – but not cast off as we do in modern-day United States to unyielding prison sentences. Instead, a loving and compassionate God sentences the Manager to a life of service to God. The parable states:
if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? 12 And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
Let me tell you some stories about families that are learning that they can no longer be Slaves to money, and thus have been joyfully “sentenced” to lives as servants of God:
Let me start by sharing a little bit about my own family. We’re a family in which we’ve learned a lot about being no longer be Slaves to money and being joyfully “sentenced” to lives as servants of God through service to others. Service and volunteer work is not only something we joyfully do, it is something we suggest to everybody who goes through life crises – and since almost everybody goes through some life crisis, we recommend service to others to almost everybody.
As some of you may know, the Reverend Hopeton Scott is the Senior Pastor at The First Baptist Church of Bridgeport, and he chose me for the prison ministry position mostly because of the path that I chose after I was released from prison. I served almost fourteen months in a Federal prison for a white-collar crime. After my release, I volunteered in hospitals, rehabs and prisoner reentry programs; I attended and earned a Master of Divinity from Union Theological Seminary in NYC – the preeminent urban seminary in the world; and then I became a prison minister in the inner city in Bridgeport, Connecticut – that is my main calling and where I spend most of my time.
But something else was burning a hole in my soul – it was a thirst – a calling – to help people and families get through what my family went through. That’s why we founded our new ministries: the Progressive Prison Project and the Innocent Spouse and Children Project, both in Greenwich, Connecticut, that offer experienced and compassionate support to the families of the people accused or convicted of white collar or other nonviolent crimes. These families receive so little compassion and empathy – and are so easy to “other” – by a world that is all too eager to believe the next sensationalized headline and to ignore the human side of things.
Not too long ago I received a call from a friend about a family in crisis. This family was from an affluent suburb of a major financial center. The husband/father was now in prison for securities fraud.
Upon his arrest the husband left his family penniless, with no plan, no means to support the mother, children or their home. Their family and friends cut off all ties with them almost immediately – they were left without any emotional, spiritual or financial support. They were Eskimos on an ice barge.
It was a scenario I knew all too well. I agreed to meet with the mother the next day – I asked my wife to come along for the first part of the meeting and help in case the mother wanted her point of view and a little extra hand holding.
The house and grounds were lovely, if fallen slightly into disrepair – I was familiar with the Norma Desmond-esque nature of these things. I was pragmatic and down to business, my wife was all compassion and kindness (her specialties). The mother was a deer caught in the headlights – she had no plan, no direction, and nowhere to turn.
The mother’s tale is a sad and all-to-common one these days – an over-ambitious husband who lost his way. The details are not particularly important, and even if they were, propriety and privilege prevent me from discussing them here.
The mother needed to stop being a victim and to make some difficult decisions. What other choice did she have – it certainly looked like her husband was not going to be coming home any time soon. She needed answers, to understand her options. She needed a plan – a plan that included a spiritual solution for her material problems.
A spiritual solution basically means to not be afraid, to expect miracles – and then allow them to happen. This is but one of the miracles I have found along my faith journey – a path of spiritual discovery that only seems to seems be richer and more fulfilling as I share it with others.
It took us a little time to develop trust – I was asking her to make a big leap of faith. But the more we spoke and shared our lives, it became clear that what we shared was our suffering – we were bonded by our brokenness. I shared with her my family’s suffering and spiritual solution, and suggested that our experience, strength and hope would open a path for her family’s own spiritual solution.
Of course, her spiritual solution would have to deal with some very real issues. She needed to find out what went wrong, when and why? To do this she needed a team of professionals – she gave me permission to put together a team of expert lawyers and other professionals to work solely on the behalf of her and her children (incredibly, she never retained independent counsel – or received any advice or counsel – independent from her husband who was now in prison).
In very short order, we had a full team in place where there had been none. Among the miracles that happened for this mother were that this team of wonderful lawyers and professionals all worked on her matter in nontraditionalpayment arrangements.
We delved deep into spiritual matters – and dug into the how and why? We searched for signs and guideposts, as to how this all could have happened – how this innocent spouse could have been unwittingly dragged into this mess? We searched, scoured for, and unearthed clues; we considered, intuited and prayed for options and solutions.
You can imagine how frightened this mother and her children have been. Frightened, isolated, penniless, without hope. You can imagine how difficult it was when we came into each other’s lives and we prayed together, and then asked each other to not be afraid. We started by asking each other if we could look at things differently, engage in spiritual solutions, start to expect miracles, and that we could allow these miracles to happen simply through faith, trust and eliminating fear – or at least the strangle-hold that fear had on making good, sound decisions.
Huge miracles have already happened for this mother and her children – mostly through the work of the wonderful team of professionals that we put together for her. This team also had to overcome its own fears, learn to expect miracles and allow them to happen. Doing things differently is just as difficult for lawyers and other professionals as it is for anyone else – maybe even harder.
Through the outstanding work of this team, there will almost certainly be a safe and secure future for this mother and her children. God has delivered what mere mortals might have thought was impossible. I know what this mother and her children originally thought was impossible.
Certainly, there will be a lot of life changes that they will have to get used to – theirs is a family that will almost certainly be split forever by institutions like divorce and prison. And this mother and her children, through none of their own doing, will likely bear the cross of a tragedy in which a lot of people and institutions lost of a lot of money and respect for the system.
As I see it, the biggest tragedy of all about white-collar and nonviolent crime is not how big the matter is, or sensationalized the headlines – it is in our failure to see it as a human story, with real people, real brokenness, and real families left behind.
That is why we are honored and proud to announce the launch of the Innocent Spouse & Children Project. It is the first ministryin the United States to support with intentionality the families of people accused or convicted of white collar and other nonviolent crimes.
We are so grateful to have had the opportunity to help this mother and her children along their faith journey in learning that they could break away from their own enslavement, no longer be Slaves to money and a false Master, and be joyfully “sentenced” to lives as servants of God – just as they have helped uslearn in much the same ways and have helped our new ministry to grow and evolve.
Thanks be to God.
Portions of this sermon have been previously used in prior sermons on this important subject. Thanks to The Expository Files for assistance on some insights.
Rev. Jeff Grant, JD, M Div
Director, Progressive Prison Project/
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
Director, Progressive Prison Project/
Innocent Spouse & Children Project
Director of Prison Ministries
First Baptist Church of Bridgeport
126 Washington Avenue, 1st Fl.
Bridgeport, Connecticut 06604