Sunday, September 18, 2016

Go and Do the Same: Choose Wisely -- A Stewardship Sermon

Luke 16:1-13

What do you think about the manager’s behavior in this parable we just heard? Do you think the manager would be a good model for Christian behavior? It is true that the Prodigal Son was forgiven for squandering his father’s estate, but what about this squanderer? Do you think he deserves forgiveness?  

This is a most unusual parable, which most scholars can’t seem to crack. Every time you read it, you’re left wondering why Jesus told a story like this! But Luke seemed to think that it merited inclusion in his Gospel. So, it must have something to say to us. But, is it the right passage to be used in a stewardship sermon? The answer to that is simple – the people at the Center for Faith and Giving, including Ron Allen, thought it would be a perfect stewardship text. 

So what stewardship message does this reading offer us? Like I said, scholars struggle to make sense of the passage. So, why should I think I can make headway? In my case, I’m going to follow Ron Allen’s lead, and take the route of the Rabbis who often spoke of moving from the lesser to the greater. In this case, if the manager, who doesn’t seem all that honest and faithful, does something commendable, then surely if we follow the values of God’s realm, then think of what good things can be accomplished. 

The manager gets fired because he squandered the property of his wealthy master. What happens next is quite interesting. He called up his master’s clients and fixed the books so they would owe less than previously recorded. That way, when he was out of his job, he might have a few friends who could take care of him. What looks like a criminal enterprise gains the respect of the master, who commended him for his shrewdness. What does Jesus think of his behavior? He simply says that “the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.” Could it be that Jesus is telling us that we should be shrewd ourselves? As Jesus is recorded saying in the Gospel of Matthew:  “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16)

What I hear Jesus saying is that we need to be shrewd in our dealings with the world. We need to choose wisely when it comes to our dealings with the world. There’s no room for naivete in this journey.

As you think about what it means to choose wisely, I’d like to go back to the  lead character’s job. The Greek word used to name the job is oikonomos.  While this word can be translated as manager, as it is in the NRSV translation, it can also be translated as steward. That makes it a good word to use in a stewardship sermon. When we think about stewardship, we might want to think about our roles as stewards. To do this, we need to better define what it means to be a steward. That’s because in our context, the word steward usually means a waiter. But that’s not the way it is used here. The way it is used in the first century makes the word steward very useful in a stewardship sermon.

In the first century stewards were the people the wealthy entrusted with managing their estates. Back then stewards were given significant freedom to make decisions regarding their master’s property. Because the property owners thought they had “better things to do” they empowered their managers to take care of business. It would seem that in this case, someone blew the whistle! The owner called in the manager, and asked that he give an accounting of the property, and that led to the cooking of the books. The steward shrewdly laid the groundwork for the good life in his post-management career. That leads to the commendation of his shrewdness.  

Since I don’t think Jesus wants us to defraud people, how should we emulate this steward? How can we act shrewdly? When it comes to stewardship, how do we as God’s children choose wisely when it comes to God’s resources? This is the essential question of stewardship. Perhaps a better way to put it is to think in terms of investment. To what degree are we willing to invest in God’s realm? Isn’t a good steward the person who shrewdly and wisely invests in God’s work?  

When we move from the parable to the teaching moment that follows, we may feel like we’re on firmer ground. If we think in terms of moving from lesser to greater, then in this teaching moment we move from the story of a dishonest manager to a faithful disciple. Jesus tells us that if we’re faithful with a little, then God may entrust us with much more. After all, you don’t become a general overnight! 

I find it interesting that Jesus compares how we deal with mammon or money with how we handle God’s true riches. If we’re faithful, and wise, with one, then we’ll be faithful and wise with the other.

How then does the shrewd manager offer us a word of wisdom? What does Jesus mean when he says that the “children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light?”  I think Ron Allen puts his finger on something valuable in writing that the children of light “should be as fresh, creative, imaginative, innovative, and bold in the service of the values and practices of the realm as those enmeshed in pursuing the values and customs of the present broken world.”  If the dishonest manager was bold and creative in his bookkeeping, and you have to give him credit for a gutsy move to provide for himself after the job goes away, how can we be bold and creative in the way we work to bring the message of Jesus and his realm to the world? How and where will we invest time and resources so we can participate in the work of God’s realm?

To be bold and creative doesn’t mean being reckless. Bold and creative stewardship involves choosing wisely. It involves shrewdness. This is true for the congregation and for us as individuals.

The reading from Luke 16 ends with a warning: “You cannot serve God and wealth.” These are two different masters, with two different end games. You have to choose wisely in a world filled with idols, choose wisely. Even if we don’t take a vow of poverty, to be a faithful steward means staying away from the pursuit of wealth for its own sake.

One of the more intriguing interpretations of this passage comes from John Wesley. In one of his sermons he offered this word of wisdom about wealth and stewardship.   He declared:
Gain all you can, without hurting either yourself or your neighbour, in soul or body, by applying hereto with unintermitted diligence, and with all the understanding which God has given you; —save all you can, by cutting off every expense which serves only to indulge foolish desire; to gratify either the desire of flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life; waste nothing, living or dying, on sin or folly, whether for yourself or your children;—and then, give all you can, or, in other words, give all you have to God.                [http://www.umcmission.org/Find-Resources/John-Wesley-Sermons/Sermon-50-The-Use-of-Money].
This seems like good stewardship advice. Work hard, earn a living, take care of your needs, save all you can, and then give all you can for the work of God. That’s stewardship in a nutshell.

In the coming weeks we’ll be lifting up the spiritual discipline of stewardship in sermons, in testimonies, in letters, and newsletter articles. In a few weeks the stewardship team will be providing the congregation friends and members with a packet that will contain an estimate of giving card along with other information about stewardship.  When you receive that packet, I would ask that you consider your commitment prayerfully and wisely.  Yes, be a shrewd steward!

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