— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~15th Sunday after Pentecost; September 22nd, 2019~~~
We will read the gospel in a moment, but first a story…
A man once caught stealing was ordered by the king to be hanged. On the way to the gallows he said to the governor that he knew a wonderful secret and it would be a pity to allow it to die with him and he would like to disclose it to the king. He would put a seed of a pomegranate in the ground and through the secret taught to him by his father he would make it grow and bear fruit overnight.
The thief was brought before the king and the next day the king, accompanied by the high officers of state, came to the place where the thief was waiting for them. There the thief dug a hole and said, “This seed must only be put in the ground by a man who has never stolen or taken anything which did not belong to him. I, being a thief, cannot do it.”
So he turned to the Vizier who, frightened, said that in his younger days he had retained something which did not belong to him. The treasurer said that dealing with such large sums, he might have entered too much or too little and even the king owned that he had kept a necklace of his father’s.
The thief then said, “You are all mighty and powerful and want nothing and yet you cannot plant the seed, while I who have stolen a little because I was starving am to be hanged.” The king, pleased with the ruse of the thief, pardoned him
(The Gospel of Luke, Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections by R. Alan Culpepper in Volume IX, of The New interpreter’s Bible, page 310).
Jewish folklore is full of stories about tricksters. Even the Bible itself has such stories. Maybe the most famous is the story of Jacob tricking his brother Esau out of his birthright and being rewarded for it. Rabbis used and continue to use such stories of clever rogues to make points. Jesus used just such a story in the gospel reading for this morning… like a rabbi, Jesus makes his point with a story about a trickster…
Jesus said to his disciples, “There was once a rich man who had a manager. He got reports that the manager had been taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses. So he called him in and said, ‘What’s this I hear about you? You’re fired. And I want a complete audit of your books.’
The manager said to himself, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve
lost my job as manager. I’m not strong enough for a laboring job, and I’m too proud to beg … Ah, I’ve got a plan. Here’s what I”ll do … then when I’m turned out into the street, people will take me into their houses.’
“Then he went at it. One after another, he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’
“He replied, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’
“The manager said, ‘Here, take your bill, sit down here – quick now – write fifty.’
“To the next he said, ‘And you, what do you owe?’
“He answered, ‘A hundred sacks of wheat.’
“He said, ‘Take your bill, write in eighty.’
“Now here’s a surprise: The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.” (Translation by Eugene Peterson)
Jesus wants to show how we – like the dishonest steward, like the thief – can be so clever, energetic, committed to securing our future while at the same time we can be passive, apathetic, shallow in thought and slow to action when it comes to our lives of faith day by day. All of us – not just the rich and powerful – can and do spend hours upon hours, days upon days, months upon months, years upon years thinking, working, saving, planning, putting our best efforts forward to build a financial future that is rock solid, prudent, bullish. And if along the way we say a prayer or two or read the Bible or go to church or meditate or self-examine or give a little away to charity, that is just well and good. Our real passion, however, is with money management and securing our financial future. Or we can be so energetic and passionate about our hobbies, our past times, but when it comes to working at deepening our faith and expanding our service to neighbors, we lack focus and don’t apply our wits and shrewdness to becoming a stronger disciple of Christ.
Jesus seems to be teaching us to reverse our passions. We need to put our best efforts in living into the light of Christ and trust the rest to fall into place.
On a church sign somewhere nearby, I cannot remember which church, the caption is something along the lines of – “Do you put the same amount of passion into church as you do football?” Usually church signs don’t register with me for long, but that one did. In my case its not football but baseball.
I had a fairly high level of passion about wanting to see the Atlanta Braves secure the title in the Eastern Division of National League, and that was going to be possible on Friday night. I went late afternoon to see our son play soccer and then on the way home we stopped to eat. The food took longer to come than usual. It was 10 minutes to opening pitch when I got into my car for the 50 minute drive home. I said to myself, “Well, you can at least listen on the radio.” When I turned on the Braves Radio Network, 99.3 in Cornelia, GA, the announcers were passionate but they were talking about the Habersham Raiders High School football team. Ugggh. I was distressed. Here’s what I did: I loaded up Fox South Go on my phone and streamed the game on my phone and it played through my Bluetooth in the car. I turned the picture away from so I would not be tempted to watch while I drove, but I could listen.
The point is I became pretty clever and worked hard to find a way to listen to the baseball game. Do I have the same level of shrewdness and wit when trying to figure out ways to live out my faith in the world?
Truth be told, I actually think so, but the story Jesus told does bring all of us up a little short. We can make things like indulging our hobbies and securing our financial future a little or a lot too prominent in our day to day living. Jesus invites us to seek him, seek God, seek love of neighbor first and let all the rest fall into place.
As an aside, I am glad our church does not have one of those signs that you have to change week after week. Ours is fixed and much more appealing!
There is a cartoon in a cartoon collection in my office called “Sanctuary Smiles” which has a pastor out changing the church sign. The first, permanent line says “Sermon this Week” and the pastor is placing the letters while two members watch… he writes “Just Come and Find Out Meathead.” The members say to each other – “You can always tell when he needs a vacation.”
At any rate, in the story of the dishonest manager Jesus is luring us to put our full selves in securing eternal life – not to be ho-hum or so-so about the faith but to be fully engaged in our faith lives as if our very futures depended upon the decisions we make. We are called to be alert and engaged with the great love, grace, mercy, compassion, call of God in our lives…. and
then the kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven … and then we will inherit eternal life … and then we will be fully alive in Christ Jesus our Lord!
A story is told of a rabbi in a European village who one day summoned the townspeople to the village square. He said he had an important announcement. The people gathered, but not without much grumbling at the inconvenience. The shop owner resented having to leave the business. The family with their day off resented having to reorder their errands. But, out of respect, they all went, however reluctantly, to the town square.
When all were present, the rabbi said, “I wish to announce there is a God in the world!” That was all he said. But the people understood. They knew they had been acting as if God did not exist. (Anthony de Mello)
God is in the world, and God can be seen and served …
by loving your family, friends, faith community …
by seeing in the stranger at the gate a child of God …
by working for justice for the oppressed …
by feeding the hungry, housing the homeless,
educating those deprived of access…
by bringing medical care to the poor …
by working for honesty and integrity
in business and government …
There is a God in this world,
let us be urgent and shrewd in finding ways
to love and serve God and become people fully alive. Amen.