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The Way… of Authentic Leadership

(a sermon for October 13, 2019, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost; second in a series, based on Isaiah 6:1-8 and Mark 10:35-45)

(a podcast version of this message can be found here)

One thing is for certain regarding our text for this morning: it’s that in approaching Jesus the way that they did James and John, those wily Zebedee brothers, simply didn’t get it.

I mean, basically what they were attempting there was an astonishingly bolder version of the maneuver I suspect most of us learned as kids on the playground: the act of “calling it.”  You remember what I’m talking about here: you wanted to make sure you got your turn on the swings before everyone else, so just as soon as you were out the door for recess you shouted, “I call first on the swings!” Or, if there was going to be a kickball game happening you’d say, “I call being captain” or “I call first ups,” and theoretically, at least, that was enough to seal the deal for you!  I must confess that I was never particularly good at the art of “calling it,” but as I recall those kids who were pretty much ruled the Opal Myrick School playground!  There were great benefits, you see, for being skilled in this particular maneuver!

Of course, there are other names for this:  calling “dibs,” for instance; or, in the case of claiming the front seat on a car ride, it’s “calling shotgun.”  But whatever it’s called, it all comes down to the same thing: it’s about being first, and best, and in prime position; really, it’s all about power.  And when James and John walk up to Jesus and first say to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you,” it’s pretty much to establish that whatever else Jesus might have to say about those who would be granted the right to sit at his right hand and at his left in glory, as far as James and John were concerned the whole issue was pretty much settled because they had already called it!

Now, understanding that I’m simplifying this just a tad, it’s nonetheless true that for these two disciples this was no casual request; for what they were asking of Jesus – what they were claiming – were in fact the highest places of honor in his glory, the power seats of his coming Kingdom.  It’s interesting to note, by the way, that in Matthew’s version of this particular story, it’s James’ and John’s mother who makes this request of Jesus, which gives this request a softer edge; you know, this is just a concerned parent looking out for her children (“They’re good boys, Jesus, they deserve it!” ).  But Mark’s gospel cuts to the heart of the matter, which is that it’s James and John seeking out the honor for themselves.  And the language used actually bears this out: the original Greek of this passage suggests that more than asking, more than even wanting, the Zebedee boys were literally craving that place of power; and even the rest of the disciples could see that this was nothing more than a brazen self-seeking attempt to claim leadership at a moment when very soon the whole world would be taking notice (because remember, in just a few days Jesus would be making his “triumphal” Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem).

Clearly, as I said before, James and John just didn’t get it.  And, in the words of Mark Vitalis Hoffman of United Lutheran Seminary, this is why Jesus answered this request, “doubtless with considerable exasperation,” by suggesting that “they don’t have a clue what they are asking for.” James and John couldn’t possibly conceive of drinking the same “cup” of suffering and death that Jesus would soon have to drink; these two eager disciples had no understanding of what it would mean to be baptized with the same baptism that Jesus was to endure.  All they could see was the glory of it; all they could envision was that they would be firmly enthroned with Jesus in his glory as the authentic leader in God’s kingdom.

And to all this, Jesus simply responds – and not for the first time, it should be noted – you want to be first in line? Really? You’re ready to be the leader?  You’re craving greatness?  Maybe, he says, you’ve forgotten how “godless rulers throw their weight around,” and how “when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads,” [The Message] or how so easily these so-called great leaders become tyrants over the people.  Well, know this: this is not how leadership goes with you:  “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”  For “that is what the Son of Man has done: he came to serve, not to be served – and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage [The Message, again].” If you’re going to be my disciples; if you’re going to lead in my name and do so authentically… this is “the Way.”

For me the most perplexing thing about this story is that even though we know how mistaken James and John were in making that request of Jesus, we do understand where it comes from.  I mean, let’s be honest; by and large in this culture when we think of leadership we think of accomplishment, self-determination, power, influence, autonomy… and volume!  In fact, this week I heard a news commentator express the opinion that one of the big problems in politics today is that no matter how honest or earnest or wise someone happens to be, in these days it’s virtually impossible for anyone who’s quiet and unassuming or, God forbid, self-sacrificing to ever be elected to public office!  Never mind politics, that’s simply human nature!  What’s that ancient expression, “Fortune favors the bold?”  Well, all too often it’s precisely an aura of self-centered boldness that ends up passing for authority and leadership in these times; and as history has revealed again and again, that’s usually not for the better.  And trust me here, lest we think this wholly a secular issue, the church is not immune.  Writes Leonard Vander Zee, “From medieval Popes who vied with kings over territorial control to pastors who accumulated so much power that they became corrupted by it, the church has repeated this mistake over and over.”

In the end, you see, what we have in this world and even, at times, amongst the faithful is a failure to understand authentic  leadership, which as Jesus defines it will always be marked by self-giving service; in knowing and living unto the truth that the greatest of all will be the servant of all.  And this is not a novel concept: Jesus is proclaiming this truth all through the gospels; that “many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first;”(Matthew 19:30) that “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it;” (7:14) and how he said, “Let the little children come to me… for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (19:14) What it all comes down to is where the Kingdom of God is concerned, this Way on which Jesus even now is calling us to walk – and on which we are called to lead others – turns out to be the complete inverse of the world’s concept of power and success and glory.  As disciples of Jesus, you see, the way of truly authentic leadership happens not in being served but in serving others in Jesus’ name.

And what does all this mean for us, friends?  I dare say that none of us here – or at least I hope none of us here – are seriously vying for position regarding that seat at the right hand of Jesus; I do think we understand, as Jesus himself said, that that place “is for those for whom it has been prepared.”  Better for you and me, I think, to be about the work of the kingdom right here in our own little part of the world.

But I do think there’s a lesson here for you and I here on Mountain Road:  that even for those of us who simply try to live out our faith in normal, everyday kind of ways, there is a real temptation to settle into a “receive” mode in which all of life is about our own personal fulfillment:  our goals, our ambitions, our dreams for our future.  And when that happens; as life becomes more and more self-centered, we become less centered on God’s purposes for our lives.  As Rick Warren has written in The Purpose Driven Life, while many believe that we’re supposed to get the most out of life, “that’s not the reason God made you.  You were created to add to life on earth, not just take from it.  God wants you to give something back… you were created to serve God!”  And this applies no matter what you do in your life: whether you work as a pastor, or whether you teach, or drive a truck, or pick up garbage or do brain surgery for a living… to quote Warren again, “Regardless of your job or career, you are called to full-time Christian service.  A ‘non-serving Christian’ is a contradiction of terms… if you aren’t serving, you’re just existing… [and that’s tragic] because life is meant for ministry.  God wants you to learn to love and serve others unselfishly.”

At the center of the spiritual life and our Christian faith is the Way on which Jesus calls each one of us here to walk and to live; it is the way of service, it is the way of self-giving and true sacrifice, and not only it is an example of true authority and authentic leadership in the church, it is also the way that our greatest leaders – even a few sitting in our own pews – are known.

Back in seminary, we “wanna-be” pastors were taught all about the different kinds of power structures that exist within your average congregation… and let me just say that 35 years later, it’s still a nice bit of information to have!  There’s elected power, of course; you know, the church officers, the deacons and trustees, and committee leaders, the lay-people chosen to act for the congregation and who, depending on how a church operates and how it relates to one another as a congregation, can yield a fair amount of power and influence.  But then there’s also those with reputational power; and these are the people in the congregation who maybe don’t hold an office at all, but likely have been a part of the church for a long time and are people everybody loves and respects.  These are the ones, if there’s a difficult and uncertain vote to be taken in a church meeting, that everyone will look to just to see how they voted before deciding themselves (trust me, folks, it happens!).

I’ve also discovered, though, that there’s also a servant power that exists in the church; in fact, I’ve seen it at work in every congregation I’ve served as pastor, including this one.  And the thing is, it’s a very quiet and utterly assuming power, and it doesn’t necessarily belong to those who are the movers and shakers of the church; truth be told, sometimes you might not even know who they are, or at least not until their work has touched you in some way for the better, and even then maybe not. But believe me when I tell you that it’s powerful stuff.  These are the people who send the anonymous notes of encouragement; who somehow just seem to know when a plate of brownies or a dinner casserole is just the thing to ease a troubled heart and empty belly after a hard day; who go out of their way to offer a friend or neighbor a ride to church or to the Saturday night bean supper (hint, hint!), who come to your pastor with some kind of gift – of money or of resources or something else – and somehow manage to get me involved in a covert operation in bringing this gift to a perfect stranger, all with the explicit instructions to never – never (!) – reveal the donor; these are the people who pray persistently, who care constantly, who serve without question and who love without limit… all because that’s the way that Jesus has called them to live, and to lead. And they’re not people who believe themselves to be privileged or entitled, or even powerful in any way… in fact, in my experience quite often these folks are more like Isaiah in our Old Testament reading today, feeling as though they’re somehow unworthy of and ill equipped for the task of doing God’s work, and yet when the Lord asks, they’re the very first ones to say “Here am I; send me!”

And I’ll tell you something else… these are the people – the ones with servant power – who keep the church, this church, alive and moving and growing.

And just think of what could happen by God’s grace and leading if we all utilized a bit of that power in our work together…

I pray that as we seek to walk the way of true discipleship, this will be the power that propels us forward.

And may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on October 13, 2019 in Discipleship, Faith, Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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Rekindling the Flame

(a sermon for September 29, 2019, the 16th Sunday after Pentecost, based on  2 Timothy 1:1-14 and Matthew 13:31–32)

(the podcast version of this message can be found here)

It doesn’t seem to matter where I am or what I’ve been doing; every year just about this time when the leaves start to turn and there’s some cool crisp autumn weather it all comes flooding back to me, the memories of a little “hunting camp” way out in back of the woods of Aroostook County, Maine… and more specifically, of all the times I spent there with my father.

Now understand that this was a different place than the lake camp I speak of so often; this was just a simple little cabin that my Dad and a couple of his friends built as a place for hunting in the fall and snowmobiling in the winter, sometimes just as a place to go on a Friday evening to make a pot of oyster stew on the woodstove (which, back in the day, was the Lowry family meal!) and bunk in for the night.  This was my Dad’s place of retreat and relaxation, and over the many days and nights we spent there together it became mine, too.  There are actually a hundred stories I could tell about that little hunting camp, but I have to say that one of the things I remember most fondly is just how quickly and incredibly cold it used to get in that camp on those autumn and winter nights in Maine!

Now, mind you, it wasn’t so much the cold itself that I remember – although I did learn the value of “long johns” and wool socks early on in my life (!) – but rather the way that my father would handle the cold.  What I remember as a kid was waking up in the wee hours of the morning and looking down from my bunk to see my father quietly stoking the fire in the old Clarion wood cookstove we had there.  All these years later I can still see him there: lifting the iron covers off the top of the stove, poking around the ashes, stirring up the coals to see if there was any life left to them. Almost always there’d be a few embers, so he’d throw some cedar kindling in the stove, maybe a piece of hardwood or two, and then he’d put the cover back on, opening up the draft just a bit to get the fire roaring.

But the best part was that then, instead of going right back to bed, Dad would almost always just sit for awhile in the dim light of the kerosene lanterns – he might put a kettle on for a cup of coffee and he’d probably smoke his pipe, but mostly he’d just sit – and I’d see him there pondering life and enjoying the quiet rumble, snaps and cracks of the woodstove coming to life.  It was just a small thing, I know; but I’ve got to tell you that as I would lie up in the top bunk and drift back to sleep I always took incredible comfort in it.  It was like everything was alright in the world and I could go to sleep and not worry about a thing.

Of course, I’ve come to realize over the years that what my father was doing was that which his father had taught him, what he’d learned in the days on the farm two generations ago when my grandparents readied their children for a new day.  Understand, in those days, tending fires was no small skill: there’s a story in our family about how one of Dad’s sisters was born on the farm during the middle of the winter; and it was so cold that day that they had to wrap the newborn baby up in blankets, put the baby in a box, and set the box next the woodstove to keep this infant warm.  So it was vitally important, you see, to keep that fire burning steady and strong throughout the cold night!

That was something my father learned, and in ways both subtle and direct, my father was teaching me.  Ultimately, you see, this business of getting a fire going in the middle of the night is more than a skill, more than the preservation of heritage or the keeping of a tradition; in the end, it’s actually kind of a caretaking.  It’s guarding something that while sometimes a bit intangible, is also very valuable; something quite precious for the next generation to receive as their own.  It’s loving someone in such a way that they, too, will learn to love and to care.  I can’t fully explain it to you; all I know is that even now, that’s the kind of husband and father I want to be. It’s the kind of pastor and Christian man I aspire to be in my daily life; and to tell you the truth, it’s always kind of been the way I have perceived God to be!   I want to be someone who tends the fire on cold autumn nights, because in just about every way you can name, that’s what’s been done for me.

Remember, Paul said to Timothy, the gift of God that is within you, “a faith that first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and now, I am sure, lives in you.”  Remember, he said, to keep rekindling that gift of faith inside of you, “fanning [it] into flame,” as the NIV translation puts it, so that it will keep burning warm and bright.  Remember to speak it, act it and live it so that your faith might be seen by all those around you, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

One of the things we talk so much about in the church is this notion of “a life in Christ.”   But what does that really mean?  Certainly, there are many aspects to a person’s life lived in Christ Jesus, the tenets, if you will, of the Christian experience: things like compassion and forgiveness, spirituality and prayerfulness; the fruit of the Spirit, which “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness” (Galatians 5:22); and, as Paul admonishes Timothy in our text for this morning, it’s “holding to the standard of sound teaching.”  All this considered, however, I would suggest to you this morning that in the end a “life in Christ” actually comes down to something very basic about a person’s life.  Eric Frost says it very well; a life in Christ, he says, “is the Christian’s awareness of the grace of God at work in his or her life.”  In other words, as life unfolds in its wondrous and mysterious way, what’s at the forefront of one’s heart and mind is not our own luck or sense of accomplishment, but rather an awareness “of God’s own purpose and grace,” proof that God regularly enters our lives with all the resources of his love and his power.

And the thing is, for most of us that awareness of God’s own purpose and grace is something that was taught, shown, nurtured and continually reinforced for us by others who lived that “life in Christ:” family members and friends, Sunday School teachers and church pastors, not to mention countless other people whose faith intersected with their commitment to the community;  people like coaches and scout leaders and volunteers of all shapes and sizes.  The very fact that we’re even here today in worship or that we’re involved in the life of the church; all of this says a great deal about the heritage we received from those who came before.  Friends, we are “legacies” in the truest sense of the word, and this is something that as Paul says, we should constantly remember with true thankfulness.  But even more than this – and this is a key point – it’s also something that should remind us of the legacies we want to leave for those who will come after!

This is a truth that’s at the heart of Paul’s second “pastoral epistle” to Timothy.  Not only do we learn that Timothy’s faith was the result of a legacy passed on from generation to generation, grandmother to mother to son, we also hear Paul’s admonition that Timothy keep at that work, “this faith and love rooted in Christ… guard[ing] this precious thing placed in your custody by the Holy Spirit who works in us.” [The Message]   In other words, this legacy is never to remain solely with us, but is something meant to be passed on to the “next generations” of our children and grandchildren; shared with neighbors and friends who are struggling to live lives of integrity and purpose; and as a way of nurturing seekers and new believers who are filled up with this incredible and mysterious feeling of God’s presence in and through their lives and who simply want and need to understand what it all means!  So often there’s an ember of hope and faith that’s just beginning to spark and catch fire within an open heart; and it is up to you and me to “fan into flame the gift of God” that is in each one of us, not reluctantly or fearfully, but in a way that is “bold and loving and sensible.” [The Message, again]

It’s all too easy, you see, to allow the flames of faith die out to merely an ember simply out of neglect; that’s not only true for our own faith, beloved, but also as regards the faith we’re called to encourage in others.  And it’s easy to understand why.  After all, we live in a world and culture that actively seeks to pull us away from our faith; we are so distracted, so busy, so desensitized by all the other things of life and living that we risk forgetting that which matters the most!  But anybody who burns wood for heat in their homes will be very quick to tell you that while it’s is a wonderful energy alternative (in fact, I’m sure they’ll tell you that wood heat actually warms you twice:  first when you cut and stack it, and then when you actually burn it!), the truth is that it only keeps your house warm when you remember to stoke the fire!  Because when the fire goes out, it gets cold very fast!

What Paul is saying is that this flame of faith is truly precious, and can be all too easily snuffed out.  It has to be guarded; we must always be attentive to it, taking the time, making the time to constantly be stirring up the coals and the ashes within our hearts.  It is only when we are “rekindling the flames” of our faith that we can begin to fan the flames for others, only in our faithfulness that we can create the legacy of a life in Christ to those around us and to those who will follow.  It is only when we fully embrace everything that God has placed within us, living without “be[ing] shy with [God’s] gifts, but [being] bold and loving and sensible” about them, that we’ll be actually living out of a full awareness of God’s presence and in “the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus,”  so that our children and our children’s children will be inspired to seek “a [truly] rich and honest faith” for themselves as they live and grow.  (Something, I might add here, that given all the tragic and violent news of this past week emanating from our own community, is more important than ever.)

But you see, none of this happens unless we’re careful with our this flame of faith is burning within us!  You and I, as parents and grandparents and teachers and coaches and friends, first and foremost need to be about the business of tending the fires of our own faith.  We are to be constantly seeking to rekindle this flame by means of prayer, and worship, and time regularly spent in meditation and spiritual renewal (in that regard, let us never forget that prayer and devotion are the cedar sticks of faith; if you want to get a fire going, mistah man, there’s just no substitute!).  And we’re to be ever and always fanning that flame sharing what we know to be true in faith, but moreover to live in such a way that says we mean it.

Now I know there are times for most of us when it seems as though there are barely enough burning embers to even spark a flame, much less start a fire!  But as Jesus said in his parable, a mustard seed doesn’t appear to amount to much either; but then you plant those seeds, in time it becomes “the greatest of shrubs, and becomes a tree.” So it is for you and me: we’ve got the coals that are burning within our hearts, and we’ve plenty of kindling that’s been provided through the help and guidance of the Lord.  Eventually, given the fuel that we (and God) bring to it, a roaring fire is going to start.

Inside every one of us in this very room, beloved, there’s a flame burning: a sincere and vital faith given to us by God and which has been nurtured by a whole communion of saints in the past and continuing today.   It’s right there before us, the embers glowing… so the question is, what are we going to do with it?  How shall we make a fire with just a spark?  And how will be share it with those around us and with those who follow us?

I pray that each of us will be rekindling that flame, so as the song goes, soon all those around will  be warmed up in its glowing, now and in the years to come.

Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on September 29, 2019 in Epistles, Faith, Family Stories, Maine, Paul, Sermon

 

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Adjusting the Bottom Line

(a sermon for September 22, 2019, the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 16:1-13)

(A podcast version of this message can be found here)

Let’s just say this up front: our text for this morning is by no means “easy.” In fact, let’s just go with what a whole lot of biblical commentators over the centuries have confessed in one way or another: that of all of Jesus’ parables, this so-called story of the “Dishonest Manager,” is perhaps the most “notoriously difficult.”

And it’s easy to see why:  I mean what we’ve got here is a parable that’s chock full of immoral, unethical behavior from beginning to end!  We’ve got this property manager who’s called out on the carpet by his wealthy boss for “squandering his property” – presumably cheating said boss out of his money – and demands an audit of the books before he’s fired.  So this “dishonest manager,” realizing that his days are most certainly numbered, immediately goes into crisis mode (after all, he reasons, “I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.”) and decides to go around to at least two of this master’s renters and tells them to reduce what it is they owe; this to ingratiate himself to these people so perhaps he might have a place to stay after he’s out of work!

So, basically what we have here is a shady character involved in some very shady dealings, a swindler engaged in the act of swindling his soon-to-be ex-boss, “adjusting the bottom line” to his own advantage and to save his own skin!  There’s nothing here  the least bit inspiring or commendable; this man is a scoundrel and most certainly a criminal, someone who if justice were served would be convicted of fraud and tossed into jail! And yet, it turns out that not only is the boss impressed with the guy’s shrewdness but worst of all, it seems, so is Jesus!  In fact, says Jesus to his disciples on the heels of this story, “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light,” adding, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Or, as it’s paraphrased in The Message, “I want you to be smart in the same way” as this unjust, crooked manager!

And you and I, together with generations of biblical scholars and faithful disciples, are left with the same question:  what’s that all about?  What is Jesus even thinking here?  It’s bad enough for him to be suggesting that God’s people might have something to learn from such a criminal, but could Jesus really be suggesting that as his followers we ought to be engaging in such unethical, not to mention selfish, behavior?  It’s no wonder that there have been those biblical scholars over the centuries who have wondered aloud if Jesus actually did tell that particular parable, or if maybe, just maybe, Luke got it wrong in the telling!

I think, however, if we dig a little deeper into this parable, and Jesus’ assessment of it, it actually makes a lot of sense.  And as so often is the case when we look at scripture, it comes down to language and context.  First of all, we need to understand that when we’re told that “charges” were brought against this manager, the Greek word there is probably better translated as “slandered,” which suggests that perhaps this manager wasn’t as dishonest as we were led to believe (granted, just about every Bible in the world refers to him as the “Dishonest Manager,” but it’s worth noting here that as often is the case with any accusation there might just be a rush to judgment… just sayin’!).  And the charge itself, that the manager had been “squandering” his property, in the Greek language has more to do with spreading it around rather than wasting it; literally in sense of sowing seed!  To quote Richard Swanson, could be that “the manager was investing.  Or he was diversifying.  Or he was stimulating the local economy.  Or he was making allies for his master against a time when allies would come in handy.”

Could be… or maybe not.  But can you see how a particular choice of words would serve to make a heretofore thoroughly dishonest manager a shrewd manager (oh, and by the way, the Greek word used for shrewd is phronimos, which also suggests wisdom and prudence)?

It’s also important for us to understand that Jesus tells this particular story immediately after he’s told a trio of other very familiar parables: that of the lost sheep, the lost coin and of course, the parable of the prodigal son.  Remember, those three stories were in response to the scribes and Pharisees grumbling and complaining that Jesus was welcoming tax collectors and sinners, of all people, and eating (!) with them (15:1-2).  So these stories about how God reaches out to those who are lost and draws them back into his loving embrace; about how even the worst of the worst and lowest of the low could be welcomed back home by the father who loved and forgave him actually flows very nicely into this next story about a supposed low-life criminal who is commended for his incredible shrewdness!  And isn’t it also interesting that the next thing Jesus says is a reminder to his disciples and to us that “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?”   Or, to quote The Message again, “If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?”

Kind of changes our whole reading of what Jesus is saying in this parable, doesn’t it?

No… I don’t think that Jesus is actually suggesting we go out into the world and seek to mismanage other peoples’ money for the sake of the Kingdom of God, nor is it for us to take undue and unfair advantage of a particular situation in which we find ourselves.  But it does seem to me that the point that Jesus is making here is that God calls us to make use of the resources that we’ve been given; to make an assessment of all that God has provided us, in trust, to care for and invest; doing the absolute best in whatever way we can with that which we’ve been given so that when that final day of accounting comes for us we also might be commended for our shrewdness, our prudence and our wisdom.

If that all still sounds a bit suspect, let me put this another way: in a world that ever seems to be shifting beneath our feet, it would seem to me that a greater sense of responsibility as regards our faith is paramount in importance.  In this seemingly outrageous parable of Jesus we are being admonished that in times of crisis, when all the other securities of this life have either fallen short or crumbled altogether, our actions as God’s people need to be decisive, bold, creative and above all, faithful, even if some personal risk is involved; because the future, as uncertain as it might seem, is ever and always God’s future, and we who would call ourselves believers are stewards of it.  The steward in the parable takes a rather precarious and bleak situation and works with it; he  wheels and deals and does whatever he can, “adjusting the bottom line,” literally and in faith that somehow, someway some good will come out of it.  Likewise, you and I are called to take what we have, this treasure which is the hope and love and peace and joy of God Almighty, working with it in and through all the joys and challenges of this life that by our efforts and God’s grace, it will become transformed into something sacramental and miraculous.

This is what Jesus is getting at, and it’s a crucial understanding of the Christian life for you and me, and a challenge as well. Maybe it’s not tantamount to the shady dealings of a soon- to-be unemployed property manager… but the point is, if he was able to do this why can’t you and I, as the children of God and 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?

I think that what all this means for us in these days of confused and challenging situations is that now, perhaps more than ever, where our lives as Christians and as the church is concerned it can never be “business as usual,” if in fact there ever was such a time.  As stewards of all that God has given us in such abundance, we can no longer merely rest on a safe and easy “bottom line;” that is settling for a “warm and fuzzy faith,” basking in what’s comfortable and easy and convenient about our relationship with God, daring not to risk ourselves on what one Celtic hymn refers to as “the steep and rugged pathway,” the way which requires from us courage and some struggle, not to mention wisdom and prudence.  Our bottom line needs adjusting, friends; we need to be stirred out of the comfort zone that keeps us from being bold stewards of God’s future.  And that’s true for us both individually and collectively: you have often heard me say from this pulpit what I’ve long believed, that the best thing that the Church can do in these times is to actually be the Church; well, I’d like to add to that.  If we truly hear Jesus’ words in this parable, perhaps the best thing we can do right now as the Church – and each one of us here as part of that sacred body – is to be all that we can be… and more.

Of course, along with being bold and courageous and occasionally outrageous in doing so, we also must be… cautious.  Don’t forget here that Jesus makes the point of reminding us that “no slave can serve two masters,” because “you’ll either hate the first and love the second or adore the first and despise the second;” [The Message] all this to say that you can’t love God and wealth, any more than you can employ the ways and means of the world in your faith without risking becoming sucked into that kind of a life rather than one that’s wholly centered on Christ and his kingdom… so maybe Jesus wasn’t advocating the life of a scoundrel, after all (and also, by the way, if you read the next verses in Luke, you discover that the scribes and Pharisees, “who were lovers of money,” ridiculed Jesus for what he was saying about this… which just sort of proves Jesus’ point)!  The point is to be bold, yes; but it matters how… and that’s what you and I need to remember as we seek to live out the ways of God’s purpose and plan in this life.

I remember how, on the days following 9/11, a few of us who were pastors in our community decided to hold an ecumenical prayer service in the aftermath of that horrible day.  As I recall it now, it all pretty impromptu,  there was little or no time to promote it, and really, we weren’t at all sure what we were going to do or say once we got there!  But word got around, and come the evening of the service, that sanctuary – which was at the Catholic Church, the largest in town – was filled to overflowing – standing room only, fact (!) – with just about every congregation in town represented and including a whole lot of people who’d rarely, if ever, had darkened the doorway of a church until that night.  It was surprising and humbling, to say the least; and what I will always remember is that our host pastor, a wonderful priest by the name of Fr. Jim Morrison, stood before these literally hundreds of people who’d come out that night and simply said, “Well, at least one good thing has come out of these terrible events.  It got us all together.”  We were together… in faith, in fellowship and above all in prayer… and we sang and we wept and we embraced one another in that moment as one people of God, relying on the power and grace of God to sustain and lead us. It was a truly holy moment, one that I know with every fiber of my being was good, and right, and acceptable to God.

It’s often said that on 9/11, the world changed forever, but the truth is that our world is always shifting and changing; and so are we in our lives and living. Each new day, each new event, each new change brings with it a new challenge for you and me as people of faith.  But whatever happens, whatever changes come our way, one thing remains the same:  God’s future is sure and God’s kingdom is forever.  And because of this, we can move into God’s future with hope, confidence and strength.

So let us not be afraid to adjust the bottom line of our lives in faith, proclaiming this sure and certain hope boldly with wisdom and all shrewdness that we might be entrusted with the true riches. Thanks be to God.

AMEN and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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