(Read Luke 17:1-5.)
The Rev. Ted Fenster swiveled the chair from his desk. His eyes traveled over his bookshelves until he found the Greek concordance. He planted his feet as he rocked forward and reached for the book. He reversed his motion and settled back down in the chair. He loved to study. He loved to do it slowly and methodically. Context, word study, structural considerations, Synoptic comparisons—on and on he could go, until he had the full impact of the passage.
And if he loved to study, he was not fond of being disturbed in his study. And there was Roger. There had been no warning sounds on the steps. Seventy-five pounds of boy were not going to create creaks in boards. He was just there, his forehead pressed to the window of the pastor’s study door.
Roger was ten years old. Fenster had started to chase him away when they were paving the parsonage driveway two months ago. But something stopped him. Instead, he let him help carry boards for the forms and do other odd jobs.
Roger was not a talker. He seemed to be a loner, a little hyperactive, and a kid who never looked at you. If he appreciated Fenster’s attentions, he did not say so. But he came back. When the pastor was loading the van with groceries for the food bank, Roger just appeared and started carrying boxes too big for him.
“Here, let’s you and I carry that thing together,” Fenster said. Without a word, Roger followed Fenster’s lead and took hold of one end of the box and followed him out to the van.
“Thanks, Roger,” he had said at the end of the chore.
Roger’s face was almost expressionless. “Gotta go.”
Over the weeks, Fenster learned that Roger was living with his divorced mother in a garage apartment two blocks away. The mother seemed to be unemployed and had a number of “friends” who stayed over quite often. So, Fenster had decided that he would do his best to find time for Roger.
But, he was so enjoying his study, and now here was Roger. He motioned for Roger to enter. Roger had no greeting. He just came in and sat in one of the armchairs.
“So, how did school go today, Roger?”
Fenster did his best for the next ten minutes to carry on a conversation with Roger. Then, the phone rang. It was Harry Osborn, the church treasurer. When Fenster hung up, he said, “Well, Roger, I guess I’m going to have to chase you off. This man is coming over, and it’s very important business.”
“Can I empty the trash?” Fenster had let Roger take care of the church trash from time to time. He had observed that there were days when Roger would rather do anything than go home. He guessed those were the times when a “friend” was staying over.
“Oh, I suppose.”
Roger jumped from his seat, grabbed the office trash can, and disappeared.
In a few minutes, Harry arrived, and Fenster welcomed him into his office. Fenster was immediately engrossed in the meeting and did not notice that the second door to his office, which led to a back stairs to the furnace room, had been left open.
Fenster and Harry Osborn had no consciousness of the boy who was working his way through the Sunday School rooms of the basement below them. They could not see him stop frequently and look at what remained from Sunday’s activities. Roger had little idea what went on in Sunday School. He was passing through a world of flannel-graph cut-outs of long haired bearded men in dresses. There were sheep and fish and crowns and swords and shields. There were leaflets in the room that had the tiniest chairs: the leaflets had purple crayon scrawlings across them and the chairs were dotted with crayon marks. There were sayings on the chalkboards: “Jesus loves you”, “How can I love my neighbor?”, and “Christ died for our sins.” The two men in the office above were oblivious to the boy below who was feeling so comfortable in that musty basement with ground-level windows so dirty you could not see through them.
Up in Fenster’s office, the two men were playing chess with questions and answers and checks and ledgers. Fenster’s questions were delicate, quiet, non-threatening. Harry’s answers were cocksure, accompanied by loud laughter. He boldly produced bank statements, adding machine tapes, vouchers, canceled checks.
“You know, I really don’t know why you can’t understand this, Brother Fenster. I think we went over all of this last month, didn’t we?”
“Well, you know I’m slow,” said Fenster. “But I just have one more thing to ask about. What is this check to Strong Construction for? We have not had any dealings with them since I’ve been here.”
“Oh, that! Now that is something else. Uh, now let’s see. How can I explain that? Well, look at it this way. John Bigelow gave us that memorial gift last month. Now, Strong did do some work for us two years ago—on the furnace ducts. Now, we never paid them for that. So, I took advantage of having that gift and just paid them. You know, we have to keep up our reputation in the community. They were glad to get paid.”
Down below, the little child had made a decision. He had emptied the trash in every classroom. There was a waste can in the foyer of the church. He would bound up the back stairs and dash through the Preacher’s office and run down the hall to the foyer. Then, it would be time to go home. He opened the door to the furnace room and froze as he heard the voices of Fenster and Harry Osborn.
“Look, Preacher, I’ll get you that bill, and it will be exactly the same as that check. And you’ll be sorry you ever accused me of anything. Cause I’m going to have some people with me, and they’ll know what you have been accusing me of, and they’ll throw you and your fancy-prancy wife out of this church so fast your head’ll swim.”
Fenster’s words came slowly and broke with emotion: “Harry, I’m sorry to tell you this, but there is no bill. I have already talked with Strong Construction. They did not receive a check for twenty-five hundred dollars. They have never done work for our church.”
“The _____ they haven’t!”
“And I already have talked with Germaine Van Sales. Our van was paid for six months ago. None of these payments went to pay for the van. I know that you have written checks that are pulled out of the bank statement. Those checks were written to your office supply company. The amount of those checks correspond exactly to the amount of these phony checks to Germaine Van and Strong Construction.”
The conflict above raised the chill bumps on the child below. This child had finally found a place where he could get away from what went on at home when his mom had men over and when she smoked her dope. Now this man was cussing at the Preacher.
In another minute, Harry Osborn was gone. Ted Fenster swiveled in his chair and saw Roger at the back door of his office. One look in Roger’s face told him that the boy must have heard some of what was going on. He paused.
“Sit down, Roger. I need to tell you some stuff.” Roger sat in the big armchair without a word. His eyes were cartoon-like empty circles of questioning fear. Fenster began, “Today, I had to talk with that man about some money he handles for the church. It’s not his money. It’s, it’s God’s money.”
Fenster began to relax. This little guy was suddenly becoming his confidante, his closest buddy. As he struggled to keep things simple, things became quite simple. All of his self-doubt and fears began to resolve as he explained why he had to challenge Harry Osborn’s embezzlement.
“Do you get it, Roger?”
“Yeah, I think so. So, how come this guy is, you know, in the church?”
“You know, Roger, that is a really tough question. Not everybody who comes here loves Jesus. Do you love Jesus, Roger?”
“Is Jesus like you?”
Fenster was flustered. “I-I hope I’m something like Him.”
“I love Jesus. I gotta go now.”
The boy was gone. The desk was piled with Greek grammars and commentaries and notebooks. Fenster was very tired. But his eye caught his Bible under the pile. He pulled it out and read his text one more time.