Sermon:  Proper 20 Year C-September 22, 2019-The Rev. Eileen Weglarz-Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Psalm 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Luke 16:1-13

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Before the great Anglican priest John Wesley became founder of the Methodist Church in the 1700’s, he was a teacher at Oxford University. When he began his career he was paid 30 pounds per year—in those days a lot of money. His living expenses were 28 pounds, so he gave 2 pounds away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he gave away 32 pounds. The third year he earned 90 pounds, lived on 28, and gave away 62.

The fourth year he earned 120 pounds, lived on 28, and gave away 92. One year his income was a little over 1,400 pounds. He lived on 30 (inflation, I suppose) and basically gave away nearly all of the 1,400 pounds.

Wesley felt that with increasing income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but the standard of giving.[1] He understood and lived into what it truly means to be faithful with what God gave him, and being shrewd as a child of light. He understood and lived into the truth (as few of us are able) that one cannot serve God and wealth.

In today’s gospel, the Pharisees are standing off to the side watching Jesus. His disciples are listening intently as he tells his parable about a steward who handled the business affairs of a wealthy man. A house steward was a person who, in today’s system, would be called a middle manager. This steward is on the verge of being fired by his wealthy superior because, through waste, neglect, and pilfering, he has squandered the assets of the business for which has had responsibility.

When asked to produce an audit, the clever steward senses that the ax is about to fall, and he quickly decides to make some friends among his employer’s tenants. One by one, he calls the tenants who farm the land for a fixed fee. He benevolently allows them to discount what they owe by as much as 50 percent. Half off—not a bad deal. Don’t you think they might feel generous and even a bit beholden to the steward?

The steward shows that, although he might be incompetent, he is certainly no fool when it comes to saving his own skin. Since the range of job opportunities open to middle managers who have squandered their own territory is quite thin, he decides to win over friends in high places in order to save himself from having to dig ditches or beg for alms.

Strangely enough, while this whole process looks shady, it is not at all clear that this man, in slashing the tenants’ debts, is actually stealing from his employer. Perhaps he is simply cutting out his own commission as a desperate ploy. Otherwise, why would his employer be so complimentary when he realizes what the man has done? It wasn’t uncommon for such managers to take up to a 100 percent markup on their tenants’ debts, much like the dreaded tax collectors. That leaves quite a bit of leeway for maneuvering.

Besides, if the steward had been caught stealing, he could have been hanged. Rather, as an “exploited exploiter,” he could make friends with the very ones he had exploited. Not such a bad deal, actually. The landlord’s tenants end up better off; the landlord gets about what he would have received. And, the steward has developed contacts that can serve to keep him out of the ditches and off the streets.

So, what IS Jesus teaching us in this strange parable?        

The first point is that followers of Jesus are to use the things of the world in the service of God as astutely as the shrewdest of finaglers in secular business would use whatever resources they have at their disposal.

To have a spend-it-all attitude or to be uninformed and neglectful toward the resources and blessings at our disposal does not please God. We need to make use of technology, education, and business strategies—all of the resources available to us—in working for the Kingdom of God. Our gifts are given to us by God to glorify God and to work for God’s eternal purposes, and they are given to us to delight us and give us a sense of purpose and worth.

The second point Jesus makes concerns the wise use of worldly wealth. Do you know that one of the wisest things you can do with your money is give it away? John Wesley apparently did. It’s not the only thing, but it’s one of the wisest things. Why? Because, and this may sound a bit strange, gaining friends through generous gifts means you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. In a word, if you give generously here, you will be warmly welcomed there. 

We hear a lot from New Age circles about the “law of attraction.” Actually, it is nothing new. Living according to the generosity God extends to us and expects from us has always reaped benefit and return. But, that isn’t the motivation. At stewardship campaign time, churches sometimes come up with all kinds of reasons why we should give that are faulty.

The practical approach: Give because our church needs 5% more money this year over last year.

Flattery: You have the means to do so—only you can give this amount.

Guilt trips: “You are wealthier than 95% of the world’s population. (I admit that I’ve used this one.)

Appeal to greed: You can save on your income taxes.

Appeal to ego: We will name the building or a window or a plaque after you if you give some large amount.

We give every reason except the right reason: We give because God gave not only his son but continually gives to us. We give because Christ gave his own life. We give because we are not truly human beings created in the image of God until we become givers. We give to keep grace alive within us. And, we give because it reflects the very nature of the God who gives, within us.

Third, Jesus is teaching us to live as if there is no future, at least in this world. Because, when we really think about it, we have really very little control over our futures. Yes, we plot and we plan, and we seek to make ourselves and those we love financially secure in the best way we know. But, it can all be taken away in a moment’s notice. Read the book of Job. He will tell you how God, who created heaven and earth and blesses you with everything you have, is ultimately in control.

I think Jesus wants us to live in the moment, not in the past, nor totally in the future, but in the moment, the now, which is the most challenging way to live. If we are stingy with our material blessings today because we want to secure and protect our futures—we act in fear. Or, perhaps at one time in the past we were poor, so we seek to keep ourselves from ever having to suffer again—and again we act in fear.

Jesus wants us to understand that when we are faithful with the resources that God has given us today, God will bless our tomorrow. It’s not pleasing to God if we hoard beyond what we reasonably need for tomorrow, when many of God’s children around us are in desperate circumstances today, and we have the ability to change that.

Likewise, we cannot please God, if we squander God’s blessings on foolishness today, giving little thought for how we can serve God’s Kingdom tomorrow. Tomorrow is God’s judgment on today.[2]

Finally, Jesus wants us to understand what is really important in this life—loving God with all of your heart and soul and mind, and serving God’s purposes in the world around us.

It’s like a story (a modern day parable) about the pearl of great price, told by Greg Rickel:  “One day, while walking downtown, a man who collects exceptional pearls sees in a store window the largest, most beautiful and magnificent pearl he has ever seen.  The man addresses the storekeeper, “I want that pearl.  How much is it?”

The storekeeper says, “How much have you got?”

“Well, I have $300 in my pocket.”

“Good, I’ll take that. What else you got?”

“Well, I have a Chevy Suburban outside, low mileage, about two years old, paid off.”

“Good, I’ll take that, too. What else you got?”

“Well, I have two certificates of deposit worth about $18,000.”

“Good,” says the storekeeper, “I’ll take those too.  What else you got?”

This goes on and on. The man gives away his house, his property, even his family. Until finally the storekeeper says, “Okay, here. The pearl is yours.” The man turns to leave the store. But as he is walking out the storekeeper stops him and says, “Hey, you know what?  That family of yours—I don’t need a family. So, I’m giving them back to you. But remember, they’re mine, not yours. You must take good care of them.

And that house in Connecticut, well, I don’t need another house, so you can have that back too.  Although it does not belong to you, I just want you to care for it. And as for the CD’s and the stocks and the Suburban, and even this $300, you can have it all back, too. But remember, it is all mine.  Take it. Use it wisely. Care for it for me.

So the man left with everything he had when he walked into the store—plus the grand pearl. But there was a big difference. He walked into the store owning everything he had. He walked out owning nothing. Instead, everything he had before was now a gift.[3]

Give what you have for the Gift beyond value, and let God give back to you what you need and more. Hold it lightly; hold it delicately, with an open palm, not a tight fist. Use it wisely, with eternity in mind. It’s not yours—it’s God’s. And, remember, no matter how hard you try, you cannot out-give God.  Amen.

[1] Adapted from, “Increasing our Standard of  Giving,” Proper 20, September 19, 2004.

[2] Illustration adapted from The Sign in the Subway, Carveth Mitchell, CSS Publishing Company, 1-55673-056-X).

[3] From Synthesis, Proper 20, “Postscript,” by HKO, September 19, 2004.