Sermon: Stinker Steward Granny Spy

Sunday, September 18, 2022
(Sunday, September 22, 2019)
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A few years back, another pastor friend of mine sent me a really fascinating article that still comes to my mind from time to time. It was an article about World War I and World War II – and specifically, an article talking about the pivitol role that knitting played in winning the war. Since I’m a huge crafts nerd – especially when yarn is involved – my friend knew that would pique my interest!

In this article, the author wrote about how women working with the Allied powers actually used their knitting to help fight the war. You can easily imagine that women did things like knitting hats and scarves and socks for the troops, as you’d expect – and I’m sure they did. But this article focused on women who got a little more creative with the tools at their disposal – women who used their knitting for things like covert observation and encrypted communication and even straight up espionage! Pretty wild, right?

Sometimes they used their knitting as a cover to spy on enemy forces. The article told the story of one woman whose home had been occupied by German officers. She would sit at her window, quietly knitting, while secretly she was tapping signals to her children with her feet as they pretended to do homework in the room below.

Sometimes these women used the knitting itself to send messages! Knitters would sit at strategic places, like near train tracks, and they would spy on the movements of the German military as they sat there knitting. And depending on what they were looking for, they might purl a stitch here or drop a stitch there to pass along information, like how many trains they saw and what they were carrying. Or perhaps even the yarn itself might be knotted with a message in Morse Code that would later be revealed when the knitting was unraveled. Isn’t that fascinating?

The boldness and the courage of these women really inspire me. And I find it so impressive how cunning they were in making use of the tools at their disposal. And I’m not even just talking about their yarn and their needles. These women fully knew that no one would ever suspect that some little old lady sitting on a bench knitting would secretly turn out to be a spy. They actually used their appearance of innocence and naivety to their advantage, and in doing so, they wound up helping liberate millions of people who had been conquered and oppressed.

I found myself thinking of those women, and their shrewdness and cunning, as I was reading through our gospel lesson for today. Whatever else you might say about the manager in this story that Jesus tells, you can’t deny that he was also a clever and cunning person.

That being said, this is easily one of the strangest and most perplexing stories in the entire gospel witness. Theologians have been arguing for millennia about how to understand this parable, and there are a lot of different interpretations, but the basic shape of the story goes like this:

A rich man finds out that his manager has been living it up and squandering his property. And worse, he only hears about it because other people are starting to talk about it. He is, understandably, pretty cheesed off about this, so he calls up his manager and tells him to pack up his cubicle and hit the bricks. 

The manager knows that the game is up and his goose is cooked. So he does some pretty quick mental calculations. “What am I going to do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?,” he says to himself, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am not about to start begging.” The manager realizes that he can still use the tools at his disposal to do a little last minute business. 

So he calls up a couple of the people who owe his boss money and meets with them. He gives them some deep discounts: he knocks 20% off the one guy’s bill and straight up cuts the other guy’s bill in half. Now, the language here kind of obscures just how much money we’re talking about. Our translation talks about “jugs” of olive oil and “containers” of wheat. The actual amount of each was about 900 gallons of olive oil and about 800 bushels of wheat. It wasn’t that these were people who were really, really into olive oil and wheat; these were commercial debts. These two men were his boss’s business partners, and this manager had just made both of them very, very happy.

Shockingly, the rich man actually commends the manager for his shrewd behavior – though we can probably assume he doesn’t give him his job back! The rich man could expose the manager, but in doing so, he’d also be exposing himself as a bone-headed businessman who let a cheating manager cheat him – twice! He could also try and shake down his two business partners for the wheat and oil they still technically owed him, but that wouldn’t exactly make him very popular with them either. So the manager has basically left him with no choice but to take it on the chin and move on. 

And this guy – the cheating manager who squanders his master’s property, the unscrupulous steward who uses his last day in his position to screw over his boss one last time – this is the guy that Jesus is lifting up as an example. It is truly a bizarre parable. And there’s some disagreement over what the mangager was really doing, whether he was cutting interest or giving up his own commission or if he was a slave sticking it to his rich owner. But the basic fact remains that he looked at the tools at his disposal and saw how they could be used for a larger purpose.

This is why I have been thinking of those knitting granny spies. They too looked at the tools they had at hand and saw that they could use them for a larger purpose. Granted, in the manager’s case, the “larger purpose” was his own self-interest. He knew he could have collected on the debts his boss’s business partners owed, skipped town, and lived the high life until the money ran out. But instead, he saw the bigger picture; he chose to ensure a future for himself by benefitting someone else. 

Jesus commends the manager not because of his selfishness – he commends him because he knew how to play the game really, really well – the game of money and politics and power – and he used that knowledge to his advantage.

Money and politics and power can feel like really icky words to a Christian. We are used to seeing these things being used in ways that do not give honor to God, in ways that cause division and take advantage of the weak and the vulnerable and do harm to God’s creation. This is the “dishonest” or “unjust” wealth that Jesus talks about.

But the truth is that we don’t really have a choice about whether to participate in this game. We live in this particular economic and political reality, and all of our lives are shaped by money and politics and power whether we like it or not. And so Jesus urges us to take a page out of the dishonest manager’s crooked ledger and play that game to the very best of our ability. We can’t transcend the systems of this world – we’ve all got debts and bills to pay (Lord knows I do!) – so instead, Jesus invites us to lean in. Jesus invites us to play the game, but not for our own selfish interests, instead, he invites us to play for the kingdom of God.

I think of it like how the ELCA or Thrivent Financial has a pretty considerable amount of wealth stashed and invested in various places. But instead of using that wealth to, say, build golden palaces for ourselves, or to make all the pastors millionaires, or whatever, that money gets used for hunger relief and disaster response around the globe, and for local ministry and mission with our neighbors all over the country. As a church, we wisely invest and make the most of worldly financial systems so that we may use our resources in God’s service rather than in service of wealth. 

In a sense, we’re like Robin Hood – except without the stealing. We’re like those knitting grannies. We may seem like good, sweet, innocent, naïve church people, but in reality we are undercover spies, working for God’s agenda of liberation and justice and grace, cleverly using every tool we’ve got to win ground for the kingdom.

Like those knitting grannies – and like the unscrupulous manager – we are called to make good use of the things at our disposal. We are called to be wise and cunning stewards of the gifts that God has given us. 

So I invite you to consider this week: what is your version of knitting needles and yarn or olive oil and wheat – what are the gifts that God has entrusted to you? And how can you use those gifts to play the game really well on God’s behalf? How can you be a secret knitting granny spy working for the kingdom of God?


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