Sermon by Rev. Wyndee E. Holbrook for Laurel Heights UMC
Sept. 18, 2022, the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So, he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’ And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly, for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.
“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much, and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then, you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”
For over a decade, Nika Booth had a secret. This 41-year-old federal employee didn’t tell anyone, and the shame was eating her up inside. She withheld her secret from everyone, including her closest confidants. She just kept it all inside.
To make matters worse, her secret was getting bigger. “I felt like I was going crazy,” she said. “But I grew up in a home where you don’t talk about your personal struggles, so I kept it to myself.”
In 2019, Ms. Booth decided that she could no longer live with all of the hiding and shame.
What was her secret?
She owed more than $130,000 in student loans, and the interest was compounding faster than she could possibly keep up. She came to a tipping point and decided to go public with her facts and figures, simply in hope of learning if there might be other hardworking public servants in a similar situation. She said, “I wanted to know that I wasn’t alone.”
Before she could change her mind, she wrote down the numbers on a post-it note: Her student debt was accruing $25.15 per day in interest. So even though she was paying over $750 a month, a tiny fraction, only $8.47, was going toward her six-figure principal balance.
She stopped hiding and posted her embarrassing reality on Instagram.
Nika is a public servant in Washington, DC and by finally sharing her secret she learned about the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. A little-known option sponsored by the US Department of Education for those who’ve served 10 or more years in public service. The jubilee of forgiveness for this program, however, can be at the end of a long and very complicated road fraught with mind boggling rules that can keep people in debt.
Some might fault Ms. Booth for taking out the loans and then seeking forgiveness a decade later. She obviously carried a heavy weight of shame. Sharing her story didn’t make the debt go away, but she heard from thousands of other people in similar circumstances. Crowd sourcing information led to her new reality. She is looking at a 2-year countdown until she’s debt free.
Nika Booth found freedom by looking at her problem in a new way.
Now let’s connect the dots between Ms. Booth’s story and today’s interesting and rather strange parable. What does Jesus want his followers to learn?
According to biblical commentaries, once the manager is caught squandering or wasting his master’s money his thinking would have been something like this, “What if I go to some of the folks with the biggest debts (who are the best customers) and let them reduce their debt by the amount I was overcharging them? The boss will get paid, and I’ll be the new best friend of the customers. This will save my neck and make me a hero on the street. I’ll have my pick of places to stay, instead of being out in the cold, or in jail.”
Someone looking out for their own interest isn’t a surprise, until Jesus, the great teacher, tells us the boss praised the manager for his quick thinking instead of coming down on his dishonest double dealing, now that’s a story twist!
Jesus is teaching us-
Don’t be naive and follow rules for the sake of the rules, think for yourself to determine how to navigate life and make things right. The manager was caught being dishonest in a dishonest world. But, if he was forgiving the part of the debt he would have skimmed for himself, he’s actually righting a wrong while serving his need for a future place to live.
Jesus is telling his disciples how to navigate in the “real” world, while adding the reminder to follow one master with honesty and integrity. Remember, the manager wouldn’t be in this position if he had been faithful all along. It is his ability to think on his feet that is praised, not his dishonesty.
Jesus wants us to look beyond naive notions about blindly following. Keep yourself honest and you won’t be on the wrong side of the Master, but simultaneously, be prepared to use the mind God gave you.
As Nika Booth experienced, sinking in a black hole of debt is like serving two masters. She felt like she was going crazy as she tried to live a normal life and service such a huge debt.
Have you met someone who so carefully follows rules that they are paralyzed by them? Nika followed her family’s rule to keep your personal struggles a secret, and she was miserable until she was willing to face her shame and take a fresh look at her situation. We all need to try thinking outside the box while helping people along the way.
Jesus’ life lessons for his followers:
Don’t be quick to judge what someone else does to survive.
Stay honest. Be willing to learn and adapt.
Perhaps like David Negaard, a 62-year-old, high school English teacher, who owed $105,000, an insurmountable debt on his income. He went to college later in life after serving in the Navy and other jobs. But he truly wanted to make a difference in young lives as a either youth pastor or a high school teacher. In 1996 he did his homework and decided being a teacher was more secure than being a youth pastor. (NOTE church – we wonder why there are fewer and fewer youth ministers.)
He believed a degree would guarantee sufficient income to retire any debt in short order, but instead he learned the painful reality. That assumption was simply no longer true. He became among the many degreed people who are unable to earn enough money to keep up with their debt.
After 23 years in the classroom, Mr. Negaard figures he would have made a lot more money if he had remained an electronics professional with a high school diploma.
But like Nika Booth, he finally found his way out because the of the same debt forgiveness program.
Forgiveness is “life-changing,” Mr. Negaard shared.
He said, “It makes it possible not just to survive but to prosper and perhaps even live life fully, or <at least> more fully.” Debt forgiveness opened up possibilities for his future in a way that very little ever had.
We all need public servants like school teachers, government workers, police and safety officers. So, do we applaud them for being shrewd enough to figure out how to use available resources to make their lives better?
Do we rejoice with them that after years of struggle they finally found relief and forgiveness from the system that set them up to serve the cruel and unrelenting master known as debt?
These stories came from the New York Times along with those of other public servants who have used the Public Service Debt Forgiveness program. Their long-term student debt ranged from $50,000 to $300,000 and here’s what they had to say about their experience of debt forgiveness:
“A fresh start”
“I’m finally released from my second crazy-making job of navigating the student loan system.”
“No more bondage.”
“Living beyond the shame.”
Quite simply, “FREEDOM!” They were all trying to serve two masters, not because they didn’t know better, but they and countless more were trapped in the black hole of debt.
Church, how do we as the hands and feet of Jesus address such unfair systems? Surely people in this very situation are here this morning.
Grace Church in “Stoke on Trent, Scotland” takes the shrewd manager’s lesson about building relationship through money management to heart. Their ministry is called “Grace Money” and they offer free, impartial, and supportive debt advice to people in their community.
Their aim is to support people through listening, managing their debt, finding solutions to their financial position, and helping their neighbors to budget.
What a shrewd way to counter one’s Pharisee and be a true disciple. They’re using the tool of money to help people be self-sufficient while they extend the grace of God. This is a terrific example of what Jesus’ thinking outside the box to meet needs can look like.
Laurel Heights we can do this! Let’s use our resources to best serve people’s needs in unexpected ways. We have smart and loving people, let’s use our budget to live out our mission and unleash the power of our people to change the world one life at a time.
And by living this lesson may we all share in the greatest of debts, the debt of gratitude for the freedom we share in Christ. Amen.