Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | September 23, 2007

2007.09.23 “Life Lessons in Unlikely Places”

Central United Methodist Church

“Life Lessons in Unlikely Places”

September 23rd, 2007

Luke 16: 1 – 13

Pastor David L. Haley

 

Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.  I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He replied, ‘A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill and make it eighty.’  And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.  And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?  And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?  No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”  – Luke 16: 1 – 13 , NRSW

       Surely, Jesus is kidding, right?  In this morning’s Gospel, is Jesus really commending to us this crooked manager?

       No matter where you’re from, you know the type: the wheeler-dealers, the fast Eddies, the politicians characterized by a statement once made by Tammany Hall politician George Washington Plunkett: “I seen my opportunities and I took them.”

       When I went to Africa years ago, I heard the story of the African official who visited England.  His host, also a government official, pointed to a building and said, “See that building?” Then he patted his pocket and said, “25%.”  Years later, the Brit visited the African, who gave him a similar tour.  “See that bridge,” the African official said. “What bridge?” said the Brit. The African patted his pocket and said, “100%.”

       Living in Chicago, we, of all people, ought to recognize such types. Chicago, after all, was a city built, not just on the lake, but on the make.  As the late Mike Rokyo used to say, the motto of the City of Chicago ought to have been, not “Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden)” but “Ubi Est Meum?” (Where’s mine?)

       One of the things I admire most about Jesus is his ability to teach life’s lessons from the most unlikely places, from the most unlikely people.  He had a sharp eye for the world in which he lived.  So his teaching is full of power and politics, lost coins and lost sons, sloppy farmers and crooked managers, places and people through whom life lessons could be learned.  And so this story of the crooked manager [with thanks to Sarah Dylan Breuer]:

       A rich man lives in a big city with a lifestyle of luxury made possible from the income of the estate he owns in the country. He’s hired a manager to run it while he parties, and all of the work of planting and harvesting is done by peasants whose grandparents might have owned the land but lost it through debt. Now the peasants work the land as tenant farmers, buying what they need from the company store (at outrageous prices), with whatever is left over after the exorbitant rent is paid to the landowner. The harvest is never quite enough to pay the rent plus what the family needs, so the family is slipping further and further into debt, working harder and harder to pay what can’t be paid.

       The face of this system is the steward — who might have come from the same families as the people who now suffer under him, but who managed somehow to get the education needed to add 2 + 2 and also to lose the backbone needed to refuse to participate in something so clearly unjust.

The landowner fires the steward because of rumors that the steward was squandering the landowner’s resources. So, out of favor with the master, and with farmers who aren’t about to take him in, what does the steward do?

He gathers all the farmers who owe him money, and declares that their debts have been reduced from the rough equivalent of “a bazillion dollars” to something they might be able to pay.  Of course he fails to mention that he was fired, or that the landowner didn’t authorize this generosity. The result is that the farmers believe the landowner is the greatest guy in the world, and the steward by extension.

       When the landowner comes to visit, he gets cheered like a hero.  When he finds out why, he’s got two choices. (1) He can go outside to the assembled crowd and tell them that it was all a terrible mistake, and watch things turn ugly, or (2) He can take credit for the steward’s actions, in which case he’ll remain a hero in the eyes of the farmers. Either way, the steward goes from scab to hero. When he retires, the farmers will take him in, even if the landowner won’t.

       Then Jesus concludes by saying,

               “The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation that are the children of light.”

        Why is that? Why is it that the fast Eddies and the Karl Roves are more abundant than the Martin Luther Kings?  Why do peace and justice go begging, while war – even an unjust war — is a juggernaut that can’t be stopped?  You know why: follow the money: because there’s very little profit in doing right.

       Why do our churches languish?  Don’t we have good news that we believe in, good deeds to be done?  What is it that we lack?  Beliefs?  Commitments?  Dreams?  But do we follow up with our money, our skills, our time?  What’s wrong with the children of light?

       But you know how it goes.  You’re reading that letter from the political action group, or the environmental group, or the human rights group, or the church, and it sounds great – hey, I’m for that – until you get to that line:  “Contribute here.” 

So, Jesus goes on, “I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

“Make friends for yourselves through money, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes?”  Is it possible to buy our way into heaven?   No wonder this story is on the list of the difficult sayings of Jesus.

       On the other hand, is it really that shocking? Using the crooked money manager as a point of reference, Jesus is telling us that how we live — how we use our lives and our brains and our time and our money— has consequences for the reign of light or of darkness, for good or evil, for others, or selfishly for ourselves.  We can use what to have to build a better world for everyone, or we can just spend it on ourselves.  We can use what we have to build relationships or destroy them, to help people or to hurt them.  Jesus observes that non-religious people often seem to understand this better than religious people do. 

          For example, do you remember last year when billionaire Warren Buffett gave away 85 percent of his fortune, or about $37.4 billion, to five charitable foundations; the greatest share, $31 billion, going to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation? The foundation hopes to use the gift, among other things, to find a vaccine for AIDS, and to attempt to find cures for the top 20 infectious diseases in the world, as well as ensuring that every American has a chance at a decent education.  Warren Buffett describes himself as an agnostic: yet I’m sure pastors all across the country were saying, “Go thou and do likewise.  

       But you say, “I don’t own Berkshire Hathaway; I didn’t invent Microsoft, I don’t have a million dollars, “What can I do?”       

       Well, even the most ambitious of dreams or projects comes down to incremental steps, which we accomplish one by one, one decision, one step after another.   I like the saying, “It is possible to eat an elephant, if you do it bite-by-bite. 

       Which is maybe why Jesus went on to say:

 

        “If you’re honest in small things, you’ll be honest in big things; If you’re a crook in small things, you’ll be a crook in big things. If you’re not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?”

Most of us will never get the opportunity to end world hunger, bring peace in the Middle East, find a cure for a killer disease, or sacrifice our life for someone else. But, meanwhile, what each of us can do is use who we are and what we have to do what we can. 

I want to share with you one of my personal obsessions: to bring an end to the War in Iraq.  This obsession has its roots during the Vietnam War, when a young man two years older than me, who went to my school, to our little church, went off to faraway Vietnam, stepped on a mine, and came home in a box.  It absolutely destroyed his family.  Seeing that, I swore I would do everything in my power never to let a misguided war do that again. 

Then came 9/11, and the talk changed to Iraq, and most of the children of light saw what was coming.  All I could think of was all those fathers and mothers who were going to lose their children.  But could we stop it?

And then, last year, my son Chris joined the Marines, and it became personal.  As a Marine Dad, I became part of the Marine family, and began attending Marine funerals; in the last year, I’ve been to two.  So I do this not just for myself, but for all those parents of soldiers throughout the country, who love their son as much as I love mine.

Have we accomplished anything?  Nothing!  Every day in frustration I search for signs of hope.  Nothing.  It gets bigger, not smaller; more soldiers get committed, not less.  And it goes on longer into the future, with no end in sight.  Why are the children of this age shrewder than the children of light?

And so it was with appreciation recently that I read the story of a Vietnam Dad, who at that time also felt powerless.  You know what he did?  Every day he went to the White House and lit a candle, just for a few minutes.  Feeling like he was not able to do anything, he did something.  More and more, that’s the way I feel.

Must the children of this age always be more shrewd than the children of light?  If we heed this parable of the crooked manager, and make the most of what we got, I think not.

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