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For All the Gifts Along the Way

(a sermon for November 24, 2019, the 24th Sunday after Pentecost and Thanksgiving Sunday, based on Deuteronomy 26:1-11)

Actually, as much as you all know I’ve always loved Thanksgiving Day (!), I must confess that most of those celebrations over the years have all pretty much melded together in my memory; a cornucopia, if you will, of many busy, sometimes even chaotic family gatherings and endless servings of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy (and stuffing, and sweet potato casserole, and peas and onions, and pies, and… well, you get the idea)!

There are, of course, a few memories that stand out: one of my earliest memories of Thanksgiving, for instance, was one spent at my grandparents’ house and how their table was elegantly and perfectly set with the fine china, polished silverware, and freshly pressed linen tablecloths and napkins, with a small crystal goblet filled with cranberry juice set just so at the center of each plate, to be drank at the very beginning of the Thanksgiving meal, just after grace and before anything else was served!  By contrast I also remember later years when the meal itself seemed overshadowed by my father’s and my utter determination (and, I realize now in retrospect, my mother’s great forbearance!) that we get up to the hunting camp for the last couple of days of deer season that weekend!

And I’ll always have very fond Thanksgiving memories of our own children growing up, all of them running around underfoot laughing and playing with their cousins, even a couple of occasions of Lisa and I having to sit at the dreaded “children’s table” with them when they were very small (which, by the way, did not reduce my consumption of turkey one little bit!).  I also remember one year when Zachary, who was just a toddler at the time, was so fussy at mealtime that I ended up taking him out for a long drive all through the surrounding countryside, in the fervent hope that he might actually fall asleep and so everyone else could eat in relative peace and quiet; but how, all in all, it turned out to be a pretty enjoyable day for my son and me, and I might add, another great, albeit for me slightly delayed, Thanksgiving Dinner!

Strangely enough, however, as I was thinking about it this week I’ve realized that ultimately what I remember most about all these Thanksgivings past is not primarily the food but the people with whom it was shared; all the laugher and conversation, and the stories that get told and told again around that table often long into the night, all these joyous reminders of who we are, where we came from, the many blessings that we share, and most importantly, where those blessings came from…

…which, when you come right down to it, is kind of what the day is supposed to be all about anyway!

Therein lies one of the more interesting things about our Thanksgiving Day celebrations: as the late columnist Erma Bombeck once wrote, “Thanksgiving dinners take eighteen hours to prepare, [but] they are consumed in twelve minutes,” so… the question becomes, what are we to do with the rest of the day?  Granted, for many people and families these days Thanksgiving becomes more like a progressive dinner with several stops (and very often more than one dinner!) throughout the day, and what with parades and football and of course, the infamous “Black Friday” sales that now begin as early as Thursday afternoon (!) there is plenty happening to occupy the day; truly, I don’t think I need to tell anyone here how busy and convoluted a day Thanksgiving can become!  But that said, you have to wonder if at the end of the day it’s all worthwhile.  After all we’ve managed to layer upon our celebration of the day and admittedly, in all that is often required by it, can it still be said of us that we’re honoring the origin and purpose of Thanksgiving Day; and perhaps even more importantly, is it still about true thanksgiving unto God?

It’s worth noting here that though our American celebration of Thanksgiving commemorates that storied feast of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Plantation in 1621, historically speaking it wasn’t the first in North America.  That distinction likely belongs to the members of an expedition to Newfoundland in 1578, who celebrated their survival from a series of vicious storms with a feast of “tinned beef and mushy peas” brought over from England (mmmm….).  History also records a celebration meal shared in Nova Scotia by European settlers and the indigenous people of the region in the early 1600’s; and there’s even a proclamation of a yearly “day of thanksgiving” following a safe landing at Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, several months before the Mayflower even set sail for the New World.  But regardless of the timing or circumstance, all these celebrations had at least one thing in common: the admonition to give prayerful thanks to God for the blessings of the harvest and, indeed, for life itself.  In the exhortation of an English preacher named Robert Wolfall, who was amongst that group of explorers in Newfoundland, they needed to be “thankefull to God for theyr strange and miraculous deliverance in those so dangerous places.”  That’s a conviction that continues to be expressed every year as “we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing,” praying that in whatever form it might take in this particular generation “the wicked oppressing [might] now cease from distressing.”

So for us this act and celebration of thanksgiving does carry with it a long and austere tradition; but here’s the thing:  the desire of people to offer thanks to God goes back a lot further than that.  The example of giving thanks unto the Lord can be traced back to the very beginning of scripture; as far back as the story of Noah we hear about how after he emerge from the ark, the very first thing he did was to build “an altar to the LORD” (Genesis 8:20) for purposes of offering up a sacrifice of thanksgiving, thus establishing a tradition of giving thanks unto God.  In fact, there are at least 140 passages throughout scripture that call for God’s people to true thanksgiving, both individually and all together; giving thanks and praise to God as the giver of all our many blessings, and as the ultimate source of all goodness, the foundation of all that we have and all that we are.  And that story continues even now:  for God, you see, has always been the very heart of our story, yours and mine, and those of the families of which we are part; God is at the beginning of that story, God’s in the midst of every detail that’s unfolding as we speak, and God will be there at its conclusion.  And God’s presence through it all, is the supreme reminder of who we are, where we came from, all the many blessings that we share, and most importantly, of where those blessings came from… and the first and best reason for us to give thanks!

Which brings us to our text for this morning, from the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, in which Moses seeks to retell the story of God’s chosen and redeemed people, as well as about the need for worship, true thanksgiving and a the humble offering back unto the Lord. Now, the “back story” of this particular passage is that the people of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years and are just about to enter the Promised Land; however, Moses is dying and knows that he will not have the privilege of entering into that land.  And so, quite literally on his deathbed, Moses tells the story of their long history in the care and presence of God, along with very specific instruction as a good and proper “act and attitude” of thanksgiving.  As we heard it read this morning, you know that it involves taking “some of the first of all the fruit of the ground,” putting it in the basket and going “to the place that your God will choose as a dwelling for his name,” handing it to the priest who in turn will set the offering on that altar of the Lord.  It’s all very ceremonial, and in the parlance of Biblical scholars very much part of the “priestly narrative” of some the Pentateuch, that is, the first five books of the Old Testament; and it’s still very much in keeping with our Christian liturgy and tradition even to this day.

But here’s the thing I want us to notice this morning: that all of this culminates in… a story; a story that’s meant to be shared and passed on.  When this offering of first fruits has been set upon the altar, says Moses, “you shall make this response before the LORD your God: ‘a wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.’”  This is your story, says Moses, and it is a story that needs to be told again and again and again; it must be shared because this is the story of how God brought his people – our ancestors, yours and mine together – safely from there to here, guided and cared for and blessed every step of the way.

And you’ll notice also that the story that Moses recounts is unflinching in its honesty, remembering the painful parts of the journey as well as its triumphs: their affliction and suffering at the hands of the Egyptians, the years of slavery and their cries to God for redemption.  Just as so many family stories will inevitably include a remembrance of some the most difficult times that family has faced, Moses here wants to be clear that true thanksgiving, in some way or another, acknowledges both the bitter and the sweet, understanding that it was the hardship of their journey that led them to even more fully appreciate the mighty hand of God, his “signs and wonders” and his deliverance of his people to “a land flowing with milk and honey.”  This, says Moses to the people of Israel, is your heritage, this is your blessing, and this is who you and whose you are; and for this reason, you are to give thanks, make your offering and with all those who reside among you, friend and stranger alike, “celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.”

And that, dear friends, is what Thanksgiving is all about.  It’s all about our story: yours, mine and God.

I love what the Rev. W. Dennis Tucker, Jr., of Truett Seminary of Baylor University, says about this: “Simply put,” he writes, “gratitude is rarely confined to the present moment.  More often than not the present moment is the culmination of ‘givings’ all along the way – sometimes being delivered to something and sometimes from something… the fruitfulness of the present [is rooted] with the faithfulness of God all along.”  I like that; Tucker’s words serve as a reminder to me that the act and attitude of thanksgiving, as well as to the matter at hand, our celebration of “Turkey Day” this Thursday, must involve more than just a cursory moment of grace for good food and fellowship, spoken quickly before the food gets cold!  Certainly we should be thankful for “health and strength and daily bread,” just as we ought to be happy for family and friends who have gathered around the table with us and for the countless gifts of love that are ours in the here and now.  But we also need to be aware and truly thankful for all the gifts that have come to us along the way: for the lessons learned over time and across generations, and the inheritance left us from those family members and friends – the saints of this and every generation – who have helped to make us who we are; for the experiences of life that have helped us to grow and persons and as a people, for love and laughter and wonder, and even for the difficulties of life and living we’ve been forced to face which have given us strength and understanding for the living of these days; as well as for the untold blessings of freedom and the fullness of bounty that is ours as a nation and as a people.

For all these gifts given along the way from generation to generation we give thanks and praise… but most of all, we give thanks to the one who is the true source of all good gifts around us, the ones, as the song says, are “sent from heaven above,” the ones that which “the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.”

So have a wonderful day this Thursday, friends!  Have a great time with your family or with your friends, eat lots of turkey and stuffing (I know I will!) and if you can, make sure you take the time to visit and sit around the table and tell the good stories… again!  Have fun; and as you do, remember just who you are and where you came from… take some time to remember the many blessings you share – speak them aloud, because that’s always a good thing to do – but most importantly, let us all remember where those gifts, the ones for today and the ones along the way, actually came from…

… and may our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

 

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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“Blessed Are You…”

(a sermon for November 3, 2019, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 6:17-26)

Amongst the very first textbooks I purchased as a seminary student, and one that still holds a space on my crowded bookshelf, is a copy of “Gospel Parallels.”  Edited by no less than our own esteemed New Testament professor, the late Burton Throckmorton, this volume served a unique purpose in that it presented the three “synoptic gospels” – that is, Matthew, Mark and Luke – in such a way that you’re able to read all the identical or similar passages side by side.  In other words, if you’re interested in comparing how each of those Gospels, for instance, records the events of the crucifixion it’s all right there on one page, complete with all the footnotes and textual cross-references.  So it’s an essential tool for Biblical study and exegesis; but perhaps even more than this for me it’s served not only as a reminder that Holy Scripture tells a story but also that it’s also a collection of stories, each one told in its own unique way.

And such is the case with the four gospels and the story of Jesus: by most historical accounts Mark, with its precise language and great brevity, came first, followed by Matthew and then Luke which drew from Mark’s account and then expanded upon it, including, for instance, the story of Jesus’ birth and, in the case of Luke, even writing a second volume, recording the “Acts of the Apostles.”  And then, finally, there’s John’s Gospel, which is sometimes referred to as the “Spiritual Gospel,” in that it looks at Jesus’ story through a more deeply theological lens, so to understand the “why” of our Lord’s coming.  And it’s all the same story, by and large – at times even word for word the same – all about Jesus’ miracles and healings, his parables and teachings, and of course his death and resurrection.  But for me having four different accounts is a lot like how family stories get told around the table, with one sibling having his or her own version of the story in question and the other offering up another version; one with a different emphasis and maybe with bits and pieces that were previously left out!  It’s not that the story wasn’t true, or that it was changed or exaggerated somehow; rather it’s a story that’s gotten richer as it gets told from a different point of view.  The same story, you see, but a different telling; and in the end, you end up with a much better understanding of what actually happened and even more so of what it all means!

Take for instance our text for this morning, Luke’s version of what is commonly referred to as “the Beatitudes.”  It’s generally thought of as being part of what’s called “the Sermon on the Mount,” and that’s how these verses are presented in Matthew, as part of many teachings included in that “sermon,” and specifically pointing out that Jesus “went up the mountain,” (5:1) that his disciples came to him up there, and this is where Jesus stood to speak to the crowds gathered below on the hillside. I dare say that for most of us this is probably the image that comes to mind when we picture Jesus saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” (5:3-4) Truly, it’s the stuff of many a Sunday School paper and a whole lot of Biblical-themed movies, a beloved scenario one would not easily seek to change!

But here’s the thing; Luke, in his version of the Beatitudes that we’ve shared today, does tell the story differently.  Not only does Luke claim that Jesus “came down with them and stood on a level place,” not standing above the people but right down there where this “great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people” from all over were gathered – to the point of where Luke is specific about Jesus “look[ing] up at his disciples” as he’s about speak, suggesting he might actually have been sitting as he began to speak – not only that, but Luke emphasizes that the whole reason that Jesus had actually come down to this level place was because so many “had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases” and that “power came out from [Jesus] and [that he] healed all of them.”  And really, that’s a significant difference in storytelling, because now, rather than this image of an incredible oration offered up to an attentive multitude from a lofty hillside cathedral what we get in Luke is… this literal throng of people all pushing and shoving to get close to Jesus, all of them in the fervent and even desperate hope that they might be cured of their troubles and unclean spirits. To put it bluntly, it’s an over-crowded, chaotic mess of a scene, but it’s in the midst of all this noise and confusion some incredible words of hope are being offered.

And therein lies the other big difference in Luke’s version of this story: because what happens on this “level place” is that Jesus does, in fact, heal them all; but then, as we’ve said, he looks up at his disciples (which in and of itself suggests that Jesus is surrounded by all these people!) and says, “Blessed are YOU who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  Blessed are YOU who are hungry now, for you will be filled.  Blessed are YOU who weep now, for you will laugh.” (Capitalization mine!)  Understand the difference here: in Matthew, it’s “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” (5:3-6) For starters, there’s a slightly different selection of “blessings,” and that’s worth noting (Matthew records eight, as opposed to four in Luke); but the major difference has less to do with that than it does the point of view!

In Matthew, you see, is talking about “those” who, by their place in the world, are placed squarely in the midst of the Kingdom of God. Indeed, in the words of Craig Barnes of Princeton Seminary, these are the qualities that describe “what life looks like under the reign of heaven, a reign that has already begun in Jesus Christ and will someday be realized.”  It offers us, writes Barnes, “a glimpse… of what it means to be a citizen of this reign of Christ… it’s a blessing, a grace that places you on a path that takes you somewhere you did not expect to go.”  So on that basis, Matthew’s words kinda sorta suggest it’s something that’s still yet to come, and as we understand the truth of the kingdom’s eventual fulfillment, that sense of what will be rings true; truly, that’s the second advent we’ll be awaiting in our worship when that season begins in a few weeks.

Matthew sets forth these “beatitudes” in a way that’s “now, but not yet,” which is fine and good and theologically correct.  But did you hear what Jesus said?  He said, “Blessed are YOU who ARE poor… Blessed are YOU who ARE hungry NOW… Blessed are YOU who weep NOW…” (again, capitalization is mine)  As Luke sets forth the “beatitudes,” it’s not something that’ll happen someday in the life to come, but a blessing that applies to life right here and right now, life as it’s truly experienced.

Because I don’t know about you, friends, but there are times in my life when I do weep, moments when any kind of laughter or joy evades me.  There’ve been moments when I’ve felt hungry, and not just for something to eat; but rather because in emptiness I’m yearning for something to fill up that space in my life.  And yes… there are times that I’m poor; poor by the world’s standards of wealth, perhaps, but more often poor in the sense of lacking hope or strength or spirit (it’s no accident, you know, that the Greek word used here for poor is ptōchoi, which refers to one who crouches or cowers in fear; in fact, it’s also where we get the slang term for spitting, ptooey, which ends ups here suggesting someone who’s been constantly spat upon in life).  I’m here to tell you, friends, that there have been moments in this life when I’ve been just about that poor in spirit; and unless I miss my guess, I suspect you can say the same!

So isn’t it good, then… isn’t it a true blessing to know that in the midst of all the difficulties and challenges that we endure in this life that ours IS the Kingdom of God; isn’t it good to know that in our emptiness we WILL be filled up with good things; isn’t it truly hopeful to have that assurance that even in the midst of all of our tears we WILL be laughing?  And while we’re on the subject, isn’t it also great to know, as Jesus says and as is translated in from The Message, that when “every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit” your faith and your allegiance to God,  not only are you “in good company,” but all heaven applauds the steadfastness of your faith?

Don’t misunderstand; Jesus is not saying that poverty and hunger, weeping and being hated are good things in and of themselves; nor is he suggesting that our relief, our comfort, our recompense is some measure of “pie in the sky,” so to speak.  But he is proclaiming that in such sufferings, there is joy that is already ours in the reality of God’s kingdom even now coming to pass; a true joy that is ours in having the healing power of the Lord with us in times of trial. To quote some words of commentary on this passage from the Taize faith community, “Hunger and poverty, weeping and hatred are sometimes unavoidable… but these situations are not the deepest reality; behind this, already just visible, God’s Kingdom is present.”  The blessedness that Jesus promises, it says, “is both an objective state of affairs for their current situation and the promise of a joy to come.”  What Jesus wants for us – truly, what Jesus promises us for the here and now – in the midst of literally the worst of what life brings you and me is “to show us the incredible newness and fundamental otherness of this reality that is the Kingdom of heaven” in our midst.

And that blessedness is good news, indeed.

Of course, it should also be said that in Luke’s version of these blessed promises, Jesus also mentions a few “woes:” as in “Woe to you who are rich… woe to you who are filled now… woe to you who are laughing now…” in fact, (referring once again to The Message version of this text) “there’s trouble ahead [for you] if you think life’s all fun and games,” or “when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them.”  Those verses echo Mary’s “Magnificat” in the Nativity story, which is no accident; this truth that the coming of Christ and his Kingdom proclaims a complete inversion of worldly ways and means; where the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, when the hungry are filled “with good things,” and the rich are sent away empty. (1:52-53) In other words, friends, we need to remember that true happiness is never wholly achieved by the world’s misguided and all too often imbalanced standards, but rather by that of a kingdom that is even now being brought by a God who loves us beyond measure and wants for us to know true joy.

So let me again just state the obvious here:  life is not easy.  It’s filled with challenge and difficulty, contradictions by the number and utter uncertainty at every turn. And the sad truth is that we are all too understanding of what it means to be poor, and empty, and in mourning – if not literally or physically, then certainly spiritually – and I dare say that most of us in this sanctuary have felt the sting of being hurt or reviled or excluded in one way or another.

Like I said, Life is not easy… but that is not what all of life is about.  We know this because God in the person of Jesus Christ has loved and redeemed and brought us into his kingdom, and because of this, in the midst of this life and in the life to come, we are also blessed.

Blessed are YOU, beloved.  Blessed are you, and blessed am I.  For ours is the kingdom of God… be thinking about that as we come to table of blessing this morning.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019   Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2019 in Jesus, Life, Scripture, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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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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