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“In Praise of the Mob”

Pastor Wilbert S. Miller’s Sermon
“In Praise of the Mob”
Luke 16: 1-13
Sunday, September 18, 2016
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Are you as spellbound as I am by the mob?
Believe it or not, my hometown, Wheeling, West Virginia, had a robust mob when I was growing up.  Big Bill Lias, all 400-pounds of him, left the family grocery business to seek greater glory in the world of banned booze and bookmaking, ponies and prostitution.  You better believe Wheeling had mobsters!  Paul Hankish received his mob nickname, “No Legs,” soon after they were blown off when he got into his Studebaker one sunny January morning in 1964.  As you might speculate, Big Bill Lias was a key suspect in the bombing.

In every city we have lived, I have been enthralled by the mob.  Philadelphia—are you kidding me?  Angelo Bruno (The Gentle Don), Little Nicky Scarfo, Skinny Joey Merlino.

And, recently in San Diego, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the Mexican drug lord.  I was fascinated by the illegal tunnels his minions dug between Tijuana and the San Diego and couldn’t wait to read Sean Penn’s interview with “El Chapo” in “Rolling Stone Magazine.”

Now New York.  I long to learn about this city’s dazzling luminaries—for evangelism purposes, of course: Lucky Luciano, Vito Genovese, Joe Bananas Bonanno, Albert Anastasia of Murder Incorporated.

Is it just me?  “Goodfellas,” “Casino,” “Godfather 1, 2…and 3”—do you rush to the theater the moment these gangster movies hit the big screen?

I know what you are thinking: shut up, enough already!  But here’s my point.  I am not a risk-taker by nature so maybe that’s why these wise guys fascinate me.  Perhaps that’s also why Jesus’ parable of the dishonest steward baffles me and, I imagine, most of us.  You know the parable.  It is about another wise guy, one too lazy to dig and too proud to beg.   He had not managed his boss’s accounts in a timely or prudent fashion so, to save his neck, he paid each client a visit and floated deals too good to pass on.  One owed his boss a hundred jugs of olive oil and the scheming steward struck a deal: “How about paying me fifty and we will call it even Steven?”  Another client in arrears owed for a hundred containers of wheat and again, the ever fraudulent one concocted a crafty ruse, “Just make it eighty, Bub, and you can be on your way.”

Jesus’ parable infuriates those of us who pay our taxes well in advance of April 15 and scrutinize every angle in any planning process before taking a potentially disastrous misstep. We cannot fathom how Jesus extoled that devious schemer and, in the process, ends up scolding us judicious sorts for our tedious calculations and humdrum moderation.

Jesus must have known what he was doing though, don’t you think, when he told that crazy parable about the dishonest steward.  There is something about wise guys like him that, while turning the stomachs of good little girls and boys, also fascinates us.  We can’t get enough of these ornery rascals’ antics.  Deep down, we wish we could be a whole lot gutsier when it comes to taking risks for the kingdom of God.

Many people ask me, “When did God call you to be a pastor?”  The inquisitors seem in search of a saintly answer as to exactly when the Holy Spirit elevated me into holy vapors.  That’s not how it happened.  I wanted to be a pastor as far back as I can remember but I was always embarrassed to admit it.  Being a pastor seemed so…. well…. gloomy and boring.  One of my pastors growing up was fond of saying of our congregation’s ministry, “We have no burning issues here”—and that’s exactly how it felt: nothing particularly urgent, nothing terribly fiery, certainly nothing worth fighting for.  A dear friend of mine was fond of calling such ministries, “no hits, no runs, no errors.”   Good people, for sure, but the ministry was dreary and dull nonetheless.

As far as I can tell, my call occurred when I was interviewing for my seminary internship.  I had already completed two years at divinity school.  You would think, by then, I would have felt the call but I still wondered if I was cut out for this so-called Jesus business.  My supervisor-to-be, Pastor John Cochran, picked me up at the train station in a rickety old Datsun station wagon and took me on a whirlwind journey of South Philadelphia’s rough and tumble Southwark Housing Project.  Thousands of people lived there.  Three, twenty-five story high-rises loomed over Emanuel Lutheran Church.  Mass was held every day as were morning prayers; there was a parish school; kids from the projects were the crucifers and torchbearers and knew exactly how to swing the incense.  Lights were always on well after midnight.  The church never had enough money and yet outsiders were always captivated.  When seminary classmates and family visited, they claimed they had never seen anything like it.  Emanuel, in the mid-1970s, was the largest African American Lutheran church in America; we baptized forty-eight people at the Easter Vigil the year I was there.  I didn’t know it then but the minute we went on our whirlwind journey through the neighborhood where four teenage members were killed the year I was there, that was when God called me.  It was dicey and dangerous and urgent and marvelous.

We live and worship in a different neighborhood but at times it, too, can feel dicey and dangerous. This morning is one of those times.  We are again numbed by senseless bombings that have injured at least twenty-nine people in the Chelsea neighborhood.  And yet, just being here this morning means we are doing something bold as we trust that God “standeth, within the shadow, keeping watch above [God’s] own.”

I suppose that is why today’s parable strikes us as so strangely delightful.  The congregations and people that take risks for God’s kingdom are always the thrilling ones.  They stumble and make ghastly errors from time-to-time, and yet there is an exquisite faithfulness as they trust only that God is leading them and guiding them.  William Sloane Coffin, once the pastor of Riverside Church just up the street, said it this way, “I love the recklessness of faith. First you leap, and then you grow wings.”

Just being here this morning is testament that you have leapt.  May you find joy as you soar in the presence of God.