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Sermon: You Cannot Serve God and Wealth

Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA September 18, 2016.
18 Pentecost; Year C (RCL): Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Ps. 79:1-9; 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13      

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,
be always acceptable, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
         In today's Gospel, Jesus tells a parable speaking to the purpose of money. Many commentaries and blogs suggest this story of the dishonest manager is one of the most challenging of Jesus' parables. Incompetence and dishonesty seem to be rewarded. But I'm fairly positive that isn't why Jesus told this story.
           Jesus speaks about "dishonest wealth" -- money or profits gained through usury, the illegal practice of lending money at unreasonably high interest rates. Jews were forbidden from lending money at interest, so they found their own version of a loophole: they could lend commodities such as oil, corn, or wheat, and charge interest on those goods. Here this rich man, through his manager, assessed his neighbors interest. It is this illegal profit to which Jesus points as "dishonest wealth."
           When the manager learns he is going to be fired, he tells all those who owe his master to dispense with the interest. They need only return what they first borrowed and no more. What the manager was "buying" were relationships and favor in the future if and when he should become unemployed. This is a shrewd move. The dishonest manager was not punished by the rich man, for in acting so, he brought favor upon his master as well. The manager, who took these actions without asking his master, and thus was dishonest, still almost made his master appear pious. Jesus commends the manager's astuteness, not his dishonesty, for he knows how to make the money and situation work for him. It's certainly a curious story.
           Jesus said hard things about money, or rather, the love of money. We cannot put our security in money. Bank accounts, bonds, stocks, real estate, or gold all have worth that fluctuates. Just think of the many economic swings our nation has undergone over the past 100 years. Like many of you, our own portfolio took hits several years ago and only now seems to have stabilized and is growing (slowly). Jesus says we dare not put our love and hope in material things.
           Money is intended to be a source of blessing, not a tool of power. It is to be used to bless you, your neighbors, and the world. Yet, sometimes, money exercises power over us and others. Wealth that is an active power demands its own devotion, and then that devotion becomes an active rival to God.
           I know growing up with white privilege, my family had more than its share of this world's goods. There were times when I let things I had become way too indispensable to me, a favorite stereo system, or some of the bikes I collected, and I thought they were irreplaceable. But they are gone now, and you know, I DON'T miss them! Now, my wife Chrissie and I marvel at all the stuff we have, much more than the things we don't have.
           Things are to serve people; not people, things. We know our home is to serve our needs, and we like to think of it as serving our friends and families as well. We are working to downsize our "stuff" to eliminate what is not necessary for those purposes. That has been a good lesson for us.
           Yet we all may still have issues with money; who earns it, who spends it, how and why. I remember that Socrates was trained as a stonecutter who never spent a day cutting stone. His wife worked to support them and their children so he could provide free lessons to his students. That sounds much like Chrissie supporting us after I left my former career to discern what and where God would next lead me and us. At first I struggled with that, thinking I was not contributing so I had no say in the money. I had to remember the power of our relationship over money to put THAT into perspective.
           In his book The Seven Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Press, 1999) Thomas Merton wrote, "If what most people take for granted were really true -- if all you needed to be happy was to grab everything and see everything and investigate every experience and then talk about it -- I should have been a very happy person, a spiritual millionaire, from the cradle until now ... What a strange thing! In filling myself, I had emptied myself. In grasping things, I had lost everything. In devouring pleasures and joys, I had found distress and anguish and fear."
           Steady and adequate income is a great plus in life, but is not the primary thing. We all know, there are too many who have too little to make life good for themselves and those they love. The need is so great. Too many wonder where valued work can be found, where food enough is available for their next meal, or where they might lay their head in some kind of comfort. Money would help, but money is not the root of this story's message.
           I suggest the real message here AND in today's parable is that Jesus wonders why his own followers are not more creative and diligent in their stewardship given that they are managers of a far more valuable household than the story's.
           Why is it that the work of God so often takes second place - not in terms of money, but also in terms of relationship and time? I've spoken before on how we think about what we do with what we have and how we do for others - through Self, Substance, and Service. As hard as the "children of light" work and as generously as they give, there are always "children of the age" who work harder in the interest of owning more - sacrificing their offerings at the altar of self-interest - which is hardly the same as offering yourself to God and your neighbor.
           As we are invited to consider what it means to be stewards (rather than owners) of all that we have, it is crucial to remember we were all bought with a price. "Christ Jesus, himself human ... gave himself a ransom for all." (1 Tim 2:5-6) Apart from the generosity of God, we have nothing - we are nothing. By God's gracious favor, we have everything we need.
           If shysters and charlatans of this world, motivated by nothing but self-interest, can be so shrewd in managing the resources at their disposal, then how much more should God's people, motivated by justice, be shrewd in using their resources for God's purposes? Jesus teaches in Matthew 10:16, "Be wise as serpents, innocent as doves."
           In God's economy, people matter more than profits. The prophet Jeremiah, the Psalmist, and Jesus, all agree on this, with the epistle writer adding a prayer for "a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity" (1 Tim 2:2) for everyone. The rich man and his manager engage in a power struggle in this surprising, difficult to interpret, parable. This master praises the dishonest manager for his cleverness, but the manager was actually doing what Jesus recommended for the kingdom of God. He uses the situation to build his own relationships with people. Jesus' point is not to commend dishonesty, but rather to urge his followers to be zealous and clever in preparing for the kingdom of God - and to care less about worldly goods.
           Our stewardship is not passive; it requires an active response. It is good and right that when we prayerfully consider our giving, that is come from our abundance, and not from our leftovers. The first 10% off the top, the first fruits of our labors, is recognition of the many blessings we have received from God.
           Whether you see it as Time, Talent, or Treasure, or maybe view it anew as Self, Service, and Substance, it requires Mission and Commitment. And relationships.
           Our world today feels very uncertain. We are slammed from all sides with dire predictions and stern warnings. Do you really believe that this is what God desires for us? If we have a vision of what the Kingdom of God here on earth might look like, then we can undertake that Mission to work towards it and a accomplish it. We will only succeed if we have prayer-engaged Commitment to get it done!
           The question, therefore, is this: What is the purpose of money in your life? Do you own your money, or does money own you?
           You cannot serve God and Wealth.
           AMEN.