(a sermon for September 25, 2016, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost; based on Luke 16:1-13)
The story is told of Henry Ford, the legendary industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company, who, while on a visit to his family’s ancestral home in County Cork, Ireland, was approached by two local officials seeking contributions toward the construction of a new hospital in the village. And Ford, who by this time was very wealthy and very much used to requests such as this, immediately pulled out his checkbook and generously wrote out a check for $5,000 toward the project; which, given that this was the 1930’s, was a great deal of money. So, wonderful; except that the next morning at breakfast, Ford opened his copy of the local daily newspaper to read the banner headline: “American Millionaire Gives Unprecedented Gift of $50,000 to Local Hospital!”
Needless to say, Ford wasted no time in summoning the two trustees who had visited him the day before! Waving the newspaper in their faces, he demanded an explanation, and the trustees apologized profusely for what they claimed was a typographical error: “Dreadful mistake,” they kept saying. “Dreadful mistake!” In fact, they promised that they would get the editor to print a retraction the very next day, and on the front page, which would declare that Henry Ford had given not fifty thousand to this worthy endeavor, but only five.
Well, you can guess what happened next; Ford looked in the eyes of those two smiling trustees for a long moment, and began to see what was really happening. In the end, he decided to add another 45 thousand to the original gift, so to make the full fifty thousand a reality, but would do so on one condition: that the trustees erect a marble arch at the entrance of this new hospital, on which there be placed a plaque with these words from Matthew 25:35, drawing straight from the King James Version: “I was a stranger and ye took me in!”
That’s a great story; and actually, the shrewdness of those two hospital trustees is fairly reminiscent of that of the manager who is at the center of the story Jesus tells in our text for this morning; that is to say, single-minded, quick-thinking, and more than a tad deceitful (!), which gives you an idea as why there have been those over the years who have had some, shall we say, difficulty with this particular parable!
I mean, it’s not exactly the kind of story, or the kind of hero we’d expect from Jesus: here’s this manager who squanders all the company’s money for his own personal comfort, and then, when he realizes his boss is on to him, quickly starts buying off the company’s clients, skimming off the top of his master’s profit margin so to save himself later on. It’s not by any stretch an “ethical business practice” and far from what anyone, then or now, would consider to be righteous behavior; and yet, in the context of this parable Jesus seeks to glorify it! Not only does this low-life manager apparently get away with what he’s done, he ends up being praised by his master for his shrewdness and, as The Message translates it, for knowing “how to look after himself.” Kind of works against the whole “do unto others” thing we’re used to from Jesus, doesn’t it? And as if this weren’t unsettling enough, once he’s told this story Jesus then turns to the people around him and says, you people could learn a thing or two from that dishonest manager! “I tell you,” he says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth…”
Whoa! I’ve got to imagine that at this point, even the person who was sitting there only half-heartedly listening to Jesus telling this story was now paying complete attention! “By means of dishonest wealth?” What’s that all about? It’s a shocker, even by our standards; and especially so coming from Jesus; but that, you see, was the whole point. And the reason for the parables themselves: Jesus knew that if he could hook them, and us, in with a story of one crooked manager’s clever treachery, then he could get us to pay attention to something ultimately much more important!
To wit: if, in his utter desperation this dishonest manager showed such resourcefulness in providing for himself – making full use of the very thing that had corrupted him the first place – why can’t the children of God, who are the stewards of something infinitely precious, show the same vigor and determination in preparing for the coming of God’s kingdom? Likewise, if you and I who seek to follow Christ cannot use to our best advantage the resources of this life and this world, then how can we ever be expected to be good managers – that is, good stewards – of the true riches to which God wants to entrust us?
Indeed, as Jesus himself says it, “whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”
I think back to when our children were very small, and Lisa and I would seek to invest them with a sense of responsibility in life; in other words, to have them share in the work of our family, to give them a chore or two! Of course, the reality is you can’t send a pre-schooler to wash the supper dishes or to do the laundry; they’re kids, after all, and too young and inexperienced for those kinds of jobs. No, you start them out with the smaller tasks of picking up their toys, or taking their dishes to the sink, or cleaning their rooms; which, as I recall, sometimes worked out pretty well, but oftentimes… not! But it did instill this idea that doing the little jobs made you ready for the bigger ones later on!
Well, this is what Jesus is saying here: to be faithful in very little means you can be counted on to be faithful in a great deal. And yes, we are talking about stewardship here; the stewardship of all of life: the ways that we faithfully make use of the blessings of time, skill and circumstance, all these the resources of worldly ways and means that are ours by God’s own blessed abundance. The fact is, there is so much in this life of ours that we deal with, budget and prioritize quite literally on a daily basis; there is so much before us that can be used to the good of life, on the one hand, or else can be made to create divisiveness, dependency or degradation on the other. You can make your choices based on faith, or you choose to follow the prevailing winds of whatever’s happening in the world this week; either way, however, into the midst of this “stewardship of life” comes the Christ, and his question – his challenge – to us is clear and direct: if we cannot handle the resources we’ve been given aptly and shrewdly for the sake of God’s kingdom, then how will we ever be a true steward of God’s greater gifts?
Understand, friends, this is no mere hyperbole! You and I are called to be disciples of Jesus Christ, and as such we are tasked with managing all of life and the world for his sake; we are meant to be gauging and measuring the impact of everything we do by the manner which God is glorified, justice is done and love is exemplified! We are to be regarded as children of light in a world of darkness; and yet the truth is that so casually and often even unknowingly, we acquiesce all these many blessings of our lives for the sake of the world’s continuing darkness.
And we can’t have it both ways! In our reading today, Jesus goes on to talk about how “you cannot serve God and wealth,” that such a thing would be akin to a slave serving two masters, “for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other;” in other words, it can’t be done. And make no mistake, there’s a clear admonition here from Jesus against our making wealth and power a priority over God. But I think in this context it’s also a warning against “compartmentalizing” our lives. For truly, with all the concerns that pull at us in this world, it becomes tempting and all too easy for us to relegate our faith in God to a specific and limited part of our lives; while letting the rest of our lives be directed elsewhere. But what Jesus tells here, as much as we might think this works, it can’t; just as we can’t serve both God and wealth, we cannot expect to be good and honest managers of the Kingdom of God when our attentions have been divided here, there and everything in the world!
Let me give you a small example here: some years ago I was a part of an online discussion group with other clergy-types that had a lively back and forth on the subject of… clocks; specifically, clocks hanging the back walls of church sanctuaries (yes, this is what pastors talk about!). Now I have to confess that I have a very love/hate relationship with the clock on the back of our wall! On the one hand, it serves to more or less keep me on track time-wise (more or less!), but on the other hand, because of that clock I will always feel as if I risk becoming a slave to the hour instead of to the proper act and attitude of Christian worship, to the movement of God’s Spirit in our midst, and to my calling as your pastor in this church.
Well, come to find out I wasn’t the only pastor who worries about these things, and I’ll never forget what was written about this by one of my colleagues, the Rev. Christopher Brundage, wrote about this: “A clock and a cross,” he wrote, “ do not belong together in the same room. [They] exclude each other. We simply cannot serve both of them. A cross represents love, blood, and sacrifice; while a clock represents quantity, measurement, and this dangerous illusion that we can manage and control the events that swirl around us.”
Now, friends, I don’t suggest we get rid of the clock, here or anywhere; but my point is that we need to be mindful of what a clock represents in our lives: about “getting there on time,” or “finishing before time’s up,” or how we all try so hard to fit a week’s worth of worry into a single day. Better for us to consider where we place the true emphases of our lives; best for us as followers of Jesus Christ to begin to reclaim those parts of life and living that have been relegated to the peripheries of a world that pulls us in a multitude of other directions. It’s not about turning wholly away from everything else we know in this life; rather it’s about incorporating everything else into that which is the most important of all; understanding all of it belongs to God.
We are the managers, beloved; we are the stewards of the life we’re given. It’s only when we are faithful stewards of the here and now that we can ever hope to be entrusted to the true riches with which God wants to bless us even now in the coming kingdom of God.
So how will you spend this day? Or maybe, more to the point, how do you intend to spend the day tomorrow, or on Tuesday, or on any of the days that follow? How will your time be used? What kind of choices will you make with the resources you’ve been given? And after all that, what do you want your legacy to be?
Beloved, let me just say that how you answer those questions makes all the difference in the world… literally and spiritually! But I also have to say that the answers come one little act of faith at time; and the good news is that if you and I can be faithful in all those little things, we’ll certainly be faithful in much.
Beloved, let it be said of us that we lived faithfully unto all of life… now and in the kingdom to come.
And may our thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry