use this link The Sunday Sermon: Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – September 18, 2016
best site Shrewd Saints
Last Monday, when I got to the office, Shelly asked me how Sunday went. She was well aware of all that was going on, having put together the novelette that was last week’s bulletin announcements. In addition to our Annual Rally Day Sunday where we have a celebratory brunch to introduce our Sunday School leaders and teachers, present our curriculum, welcome our children, youth, and adults back to the classroom and generally celebrate another upcoming year of Christian learning, (in addition to all that) we had a reunion. As part of the year long recognition of our 150th Anniversary as a worshipping community, we had invited back form Pastors, Youth Directors, Musicians, Seminarians, and others to celebrate with. The brunch and the table setting increased a bit as we welcomed the Neely’s, the Penningtons, and the Westburys, and then later in worship recognized Shirley Hawkes and Austin and Alicia Wicks.
After worship and a re-arranging of the gym from Rally Day Brunch set-up to Patriot’s Day Program set-up, a few of us gathered at Friendship Manor (three of us, actually, Matt, Connie Vice, and I) to be with those residents. And then, finally, at six fifteen, we held the second annual Patriot’s Day Program here in the Family Life Center.
So, anyway, after I gave Shelly a very brief update on all those events and all the people involved – residents and visitors – telling here that all went really well given all the moving parts (!), she said, “Great! So … what’s next?”
After a little chuckle, myself, I thought about it and said, “Well … I don’t know.” I jumped over the whole week in my mind and landed on today, saying, “Next Sunday, I guess. What is that? The 18th? That’s what’s next, Sunday the 18th!” I realized that I hadn’t thought much beyond all the events of Sunday, September 11th. It’s wonderful to be in the moment, the “right-now” since we’re not promised tomorrow or next week, still … I had no idea what was next! (Scary …)
But here it is! Today is what is next when yesterday’s question is asked about tomorrow. And today, we return to our Gospels, the Gospel of Luke. A lectionary passage no less. I found comfort in the good ole lectionary I spurn all summer long. First, let’s pray together … And now listen for the Word of God … Read Luke 16:1-13 … The Word of the Lord.
Whaaaat???? ( I thought of titling the sermon that this morning, “Whaaaat???” Or better yet, “Say What, Jesus?” But I didn’t … save that for later). Still, what in the world did we just hear? This is saintly behavior?
Last week, in the midst of rallying and re-unioning (otherwise known as reuniting), we read from the book of Hebrews and talked about the “great cloud of witnesses,” drawing parallels to those who came before us as members of this church (including several from the past who were present), preparing the way for us that we might join the procession that marches ever onward into God’s future, unknown but undeniable. We spoke of “saints,” giving thanks and “hoping to be one, too.” In this morning’s scripture reading, Jesus is speaking of saints, as well. He’s speaking to the saints, of old and of today. But the saints we remembered and that we want to be surely don’t look, or act, like the main character in our reading this morning, do they? Should they? Jesus seems to be saying, “Well, yea, actually. A little bit …” The challenge that Jesus, in Luke’s sharing of “The Dishonest Steward,” presents to us is to be quick and shrewd, just as the children of this world are clever and cunning
It’s a difficult direction to hear because we’re focused so fully on what we think should happen in this parable. But this dishonest steward not only doesn’t get punished for what he does, he gets commended, praised, and otherwise lauded, and not only by his soon-to-be former master, but by Jesus, himself! This parable presents as one of the model for our faith – like Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and David, in Hebrews last week – someone whose life is the complete opposite of everything Jesus ever taught. In this parable, Jesus is weaving a story in which the main character is a shyster! A lazy, conniving, self-centered manager of someone else’s treasure who is out for his own personal gain, to save his own precious skin!
You listeners – if you were really listening at all – lean forward into the reading and hearing of this passage all the way to the end because you want to see this scoundrel get what is coming to him. But when the master finally speaks, we are shocked. It’s a compelling story, but the ending is anything but satisfying to us “good people of honesty, integrity and faith,” because instead of being defeated, this rogue in our story triumphs! His plan succeeds. And then his former boss, the one whose estate he had mismanaged, praises him for being ingenious! “Say what, Jesus?!” Let’s look closer …
The steward is being fired for mismanagement of his rich landowners land. And in his distress we hear the steward’s inner monologue. “What will I do now?” he wonders. “Shall I dig (manual labor)? I’m not strong enough! Shall I beg? I am too ashamed! Oh, poor me.” Very Shakespearean, “Now is the winter of my discontent.”
Unless … unless …
And in his mind he seizes on an alternative that will cost his former master much but make him welcome in others’ homes after he has been dismissed by him. In response to his imminent crisis, he calls his master’s debtors and summarily reduces the debt of each. His master, you see, has let out his land to tenants who have agreed to pay him a fixed return in grain or oil. We can tell by the transactions recorded that the rich man and his debtors deal in large commercial interests and amounts, not in household quantities. This steward is really putting the screws to the man who is soon to fire him.
And the way in which he does it, by reducing the amounts of the debts while he is still in the service of the rich man, or at least while the debtors still assume that he is the rich man’s steward, gains the debtors favor. The rich man will not be able to reverse his actions later without losing face with his debtors, and the steward will have acquired a debt of honor and gratitude from each debtor that will ensure their goodwill toward him in the future. Very Shakespearean …
Now there is are interpretations of this parable that attempt to make this steward more righteous than he seems at first hearing. But such interpretations just don’t hold up. The title of this parable is “The Dishonest Steward,” not the scripture-abiding, rule-following, self-sacrificing, or righteous steward. (In fact, I read that the most direct translation of the word “dishonest” in verse eight is “unrighteous!”) This guy is a shyster! (Because I wanted to say that word again!) A lazy, conniving, self-centered manager of someone else’s treasure who is out for his own personal gain, to save his own precious skin! And he’s going to get his comeuppance, we think, like all villains do. When his master finds out what he did he’s really going to get his! Except … he doesn’t.
The master does find out … and commends him, because he acted shrewdly. Our villain is praised by the one he cheated for his foresighted, shrewd action. That’s the first twist. His plan succeeds. His former boss, the one whose estate he has previously mismanaged, now praises him for being ingenious. The greater twist, though, comes when Jesus himself praises the man. Jesus says, in verse eight, “The people of this world are more shrewd … than are the people of the light.” In other words, Jesus says, “The scoundrels get it. You believers do not.” And in verse nine he commends our imitation: “I tell you …” do what this guy does.
None of the parables of Jesus has baffled readers (and any interpreters who are honest enough to admit it) quite like this story of the dishonest steward. But one of the biggest challenges of our discipleship, of our “being a saint like those who ran this race before us” is before us … We must be shrewd saints.
That’s a tough adjective for us disciples – “shrewd.” We most commonly associate this word with self-serving behavior, if not ethically questionable behavior. It’s difficult for us to associate our lives of discipleship with it. We most easily live into calls from Jesus like the one to be “childlike,” equating that with being simple and even naïve. We’re just supposed to take what the world hands us and “keep the faith,” which mostly means, don’t rock the boat, our Kingdom is not of this world.
But this parable and its interpretation say to Jesus disciples that for all the dangers in worldly possessions, it is possible, in fact it is imperative, to manage our “stuff” in ways appropriate to life in the kingdom of God right here on earth. Oh, it’s a tightrope, a slippery slope, a deep, deep challenge to so manage our “worldly stuff,” but it can be done. It must be, Jesus says. Honest or not, the steward in our parable understood how to use what was entrusted to him to serve a larger goal. What about us? Who are the children of light, the people of God, and what are we called to do?
You see, we so easily use our faith, its hope, its promise, and the love of God we receive through Christ to exclude and condemn, to instill fear and guilt, to gain control and power. But that was never the aim of Jesus or his ministry. John 3:17: not to condemn, but to save … Our challenge as disciples of Christ is to remember the larger goal, the bigger picture, and to use all that we have – spiritual gifts and earthly possessions – in ways appropriate to life in the kingdom of God right here on earth, in ways that will offer life to everyone!
Somewhere in the middle of our journey, somewhere along the way, it becomes easier to serve all the pressing demands in our lives: the demands of people, of schedules, of money. (Perhaps it already has) Somewhere along the way, the vision for God’s call becomes cloudy and muddled; we’ll stop hearing God’s voice and join the crazy survivor-takes-all-mentality. (Perhaps it already has) Somewhere along the way the crises in our lives seem so much bigger than the answers. (Perhaps that’s already happened to you.) And at some point we will be tempted to huddle up in an effort to save whatever is left and forget about living for something greater. This is the challenge of our discipleship: To claim and reclaim the life that is ours in Christ and the something greater, something bigger, that is ours from God when all else tells us to “hole-up” and “wall off.” How are we doing with that? How do we do that? A little bit at a time, as verse ten begins.
Our life of faith is one of faithful attention to the frequent and familiar tasks of each day, however small and insignificant they may see. Our life consists of endless opportunities to reclaim, rediscover, reinvigorate, and revitalize ourselves and save the world. Fred Craddock puts it beautifully:
“Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with a queen, convert a nation, or be burned at the stake. More likely this week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home, vote for a county commissioner, teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, and feed the neighbor’s cat.” Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much.
The bewildering parable of the dishonest steward and the positive use that Jesus makes of its shifty protagonist may never be satisfactorily solved until faith is made sight. But the challenge it sets before us for our own discipleship is to remember the bigger picture, the broader vision, so that we may reclaim who we are and renew our vision for the kingdom of God among us, with the gifts entrusted to us, one small step at a time. Our challenge is our opportunity. We must use all that we have at our disposal in service to our discipleship call: To open our hearts and the hearts of others to the life that is ours in Christ and the something greater, something bigger, that is ours from God.
Shrewdly done, good and faithful servant.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / September 18, 2016