Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sermon: Trinity 9

24 July 2005 at Gloria Dei L.C. in New Olreans

Text: Luke 16:1-9 (10-13) (historic)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Some people really know how to make money work. It doesn’t matter what they do, what kind of occupation they have, they simply know how to make money grow. Some people just have the gift. They know when to buy, when to sell, and when to stand pat. They seem to almost have a sixth sense about the world of business. Jesus uses the word “shrewd” to describe this kind of business savvy.

Now, being shrewd doesn’t necessarily mean dishonest – but in this case, the steward was. He was lazy, and didn’t do a very good job of managing the company for the owner. The owner of the company (perhaps taking a page from Donald Trump’s TV show “The Apprentice”) calls the manager into the board room and fires him.

Now the steward is in a fix. He is not good with his hands, so he can’t get a job as a carpenter or plumber. He doesn’t see welfare as an option. And besides, who’s going to hire a middle-level manager who has such a black mark on his resume? So the manager decides to try to win back his job. He pulls one more business trick from his sleeve: negotiation.

Those of us who do not have the gift of making money foolishly pay the full price for everything. But shrewd people do not. They know how to cut a deal. They know how to bargain. Even large corporations understand that negotiating with a debtor to receive something is better than ignoring them and receiving nothing.

So, our dishonest, but shrewd, manager begins to reclaim his reputation. He knows only one thing will save his job: a quick reversal of the cash-flow problem. And one sure-fire way to get people to pay is to lower the price. He begins to visit each debtor and offer him a deal.

Now, this kind of negotiation is not what makes the steward “unjust.” What made the steward unjust was his getting into this mess in the first place by his own laziness and lack of accountability. No, in fact, this kind of negotiation and collection was just what the business needed. The owner was himself shrewd enough to realize this, and he commended the steward for his shrewdness.

“The sons of this world are more shrewd in their generation than the sons of light.” According to Jesus, we in God’s Kingdom are not typically shrewd in matters of money. Maybe it’s because we think money is evil, and so we shy away from it. Maybe we believe being shrewd is somehow in and of itself dishonest. Whatever the reason, Jesus chides his followers for not having a good relationship with money.

And what is that relationship we are to have? Jesus tells us we are not to be the servant of money – since we cannot serve two masters: both God and mammon. And notice the unjust steward’s relationship with money – he was shrewd because he made the money serve him. He was the money’s master, not its slave. He was willing to take a gamble on his plan to negotiate precisely because he didn’t see himself as the servant, but as the master. He also understood that he was the steward – not the owner. The money didn’t belong to him, so perhaps he felt a little more free to negotiate. He also realized who his real master was (in this story, that would be the boss), and that he was in trouble.

As sinners, we should constantly and daily come to grips with the fact that we are in trouble. Based on our own misuse of the Lord’s property – all of the things we like to describe as our own – we should all identify with the unjust steward. Indeed, we are wasting the Lord’s goods, and should he call us into the boardroom to give an account of our stewardship, can we expect anything other than being removed from our position of trust?

And we should also realize, like the steward in Jesus’s story, that we are only stewards, we are only managers. We come into the world with nothing, and we leave with nothing. In between, we are entrusted to care for the Lord’s property. Too often we covet that which belongs to God, and fail to give thanks to him for allowing us use of his goods. Too often we gloss over the fact that the Lord does demand an accounting from all of us.

And so, like the unjust steward, we too should be so bold as to negotiate. Our debts are far too high to pay. Our sins are too burdensome to overcome. No amount of promising, pleading, or old-fashioned elbow grease is going to make a dent in our debts (which, by the way, is the literal meaning of the word “tresspasses” in the Lord’s prayer). And like a person whose credit is damaged, we simply can’t go before the Lord and promise we will do better in the future. No, we need a radical solution to get out of debt. We can’t simply consolidate, take out a second mortgage, or spread out the payments over many years. We are too far gone. We need to have our debt forgiven. We need a form of cosmic bankruptcy that balances the debits and credits once and for all.

Of course, Jesus himself does just this. He takes our debt onto himself at the cross, and exchanges our abominable credit rating with his own perfection before the Father. God himself offers this debt-amortization to the whole world – but most people see it as junk mail and toss it in the garbage. Most people either find the deal “too good to be true,” or they misjudge their own standing before God. Most people either mistake themselves as masters (and not stewards), or they see themselves as good stewards – and not the wicked stewards that we all are. And so, our Lord’s unbelievable offer goes rejected every day.

Jesus wants us to have the right standing with both our boss, and the boss’s money. We are indeed stewards, we are servants of God. He is our master – and we can only serve one master. Too often we serve ourselves, making ourselves the master. Or we turn the pursuit of money (which isn’t even ours to begin with) into a master itself – a false god. We are servants of God, and masters of money.

Ironically, many who see themselves as free from the demands of God and free from financial worries are actually slaves. They serve their master mammon, devoting their very lives to it. They will do anything to get it, keep it, and serve it. They think of themselves as free, but in reality are enslaved. Jesus warns us against such slavery – for we cannot have two masters.

It is important that we have a healthy relationship with money – for it is God’s money, and it is there to do his work. Money enables us to care for our families, to keep the roof over the head, to take care of one another when we are sick, to keep us all fed and healthy. Money also enables the Church to keep its doors open, to keep a pastor baptizing and preaching and administering Holy Communion. Money allows for missionaries to take the Gospel to every nation. And every Christian and every Church is called upon to be good and shrewd stewards.

When we are the masters of money, we can indeed serve only the Lord. When we are shrewd stewards, the Lord indeed uses us to spread his Kingdom.

And let us not forget the greatest act of stewardship and service of all – when our Lord gave himself on the cross so that we might negotiate away our debts. This is why we can be so bold as to approach this altar, eat his flesh, drink his blood, and offer the sacrifice of Jesus as a payment for our debts. For this is the ultimate act of good and shrewd stewardship – to receive the benefits of the Lord’s creation – bread and wine – empowered by his word to become the very payment for our sins.

Let us rejoice in the stewardship the Lord has entrusted to us. Let us make good use of money and the fruits of our labor. Let us offer them all back to God as a thank offering for what he has done to wipe out our debts. And let us serve only him as our Master and Lord.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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