Wednesday, September 29, 2010

17 Pentecost, Year C, September 19, 2010

Jeremiah 8:18 – 9:1; Psalm 79:1-9 1 Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16: 1-13
About the Stuff, preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

One hundred and fifty.

That’s how many boxes of books were carried into my house by the moving company eighteen days ago. That’s just books, mind you. One hundred and fifty banker’s boxes worth.

Is that nuts or what? I mean, really…

Too much stuff!

There are a half dozen reality television shows on the air right now—some in the home improvement genre, others more in the style of a documentary, all dealing with the same subject: People whose “stuff” has gotten out of control, and is compromising their quality of life or even putting them in physical danger. Too much stuff—no place to put it, no way to keep it organized, it’s taking over!

Jesus is talking to his followers this morning about “stuff.” And how it can be used, or abused, or even deadly.

He’s telling them a remarkable story, sometimes called “The Unfaithful Steward.” The rich landowner discovers that his property manager has been up to no good, or at least he suspects as much. He doesn’t fire him on the spot—but he asks him to produce the accounts for a review, prior to his dismissal.

This manager sees what’s about to happen, and starts making his own arrangements. He calls in everyone on his master’s accounts receivable list, and invites them to rewrite their respective bills. The idea is that, when he is dismissed from his master’s service, all these people to whom he has given a bargain rate, will in turn help him out as occasion may arise.

Here’s the twist: Jesus tells his hearers that “the master commended the dishonest manager—because he had acted shrewdly.” Not for his ethics, but for his street smarts.

Oceans of ink have been spilled over this story, with commentators through the centuries tying themselves into knots trying to square the circle. The problem seems to be that God (signified by the master in the story) is giving the wink to some decidedly shady business practices.

But I think we’ve got to read this parable as more than a fable or a morality tale. Actually, we have to read ALL Jesus’ parables that way, but often we don’t because they’ve become such commonplaces, all the shock value has worn off. Not with this one!

Jesus has just finished telling the crowds three parables about Lost and Found, and the One who seeks and finds. The lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost child (a.k.a. the Prodigal Son.) These parables are actually more about God’s activity, in seeking the lost ones, than anything else. And now Jesus turns to his close friends, his inner circle, and tells this parable of the Steward, who is in trouble specifically for “squandering his master’s property.” (16:1) The Steward has been doing exactly the same thing that the Prodigal Son was doing, just a few verses earlier, when he takes his portion of the father’s estate “…to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living.” (15:13)

When the steward is caught in this squandering behavior, what does he do? Does he stop doing it, try to collect the debts and balance the books? He does not.

He keeps on squandering—even more than before. He “gives away the farm” or at least a considerable percentage of it, to those who will benefit directly from his actions.

I think Jesus may be telling this story at least in part for the shock value of it. He’s already told the religious leaders in earshot to get over themselves about feeling wronged because “them people” are being welcomed into God’s household; I wonder if he’s not compounding the effect by this story. “You think that last story was extravagant? Just listen to this!”

The writer of the Gospel of Luke (and the Book of Acts, which is Volume 2 of the story) is concerned with a few major themes, two of which are significant in this passage.

Theme 1) The surprising visitation of the Lord, which comes unexpectedly and turns everything upside down.
Theme 2) The use of possessions, wealth. “Stuff.”

When the Steward realizes that his Lord and master is about to visit a financial audit on him and turn HIS life upside down, he uses the possessions available to him (not really his own, however) to do something immediately beneficial to others, and only indirectly beneficial to himself. He’s not squirreling the money away in an offshore bank account—he’s handing out debt relief to those who need it!

Jesus tells this crazy story and then goes on to say a few words about “if one is faithful in small things, then so also they will be faithful in large things.” The last part of this morning’s lesson, verses 10-13, is a bit convoluted, but it moves the reader from the story Jesus has just told into the question of stewardship in general, and wealth in particular.

This phrase “dishonest wealth” in vs. 9 and again in vs. 13 at the end of this morning’s portion of the Gospel is the word Mammon. That word Mammon was understood to be a kind of personal name, the personification of money or possessions—of “the Stuff”. It stands for anything—money, possessions, personal relationships—that gets in the way of our relationship with God. So Jesus sets “the two masters”, God and Mammon, in opposition to one another. It is either this one or that one; compromise is not an option.

Jesus seems to be challenging those of us for whom “the stuff” has become our first priority to think again. To change our minds, change the direction in which we’re going. To repent, in other words. To commit an act of metanoia—you remember that word from last week. Turn around, you just missed your exit, go back and try again, please.

The Stuff is not God. Posessions, money, status, relationships with other people—as good and useful and important as all these things are—none of them will bring us the God-filled life that Jesus speaks of, when he talks about the Kingdom of God. But they are useful when we do the work of God with them. When we use what is available to us—as did the Shrewd Steward in the parable—in the service of the Kingdom of God.

We have a list of a few ways we can do that, right in front of us as we walk out of church every Sunday. It’s in the window in the vestibule, just outside those doors. The traditional corporal acts of mercy are on display, reminding us of our vocation as followers of Christ. Have you seen them there?

There are seven of them:
To feed the hungry;
To give drink to the thirsty;
To clothe the naked;
To shelter the homeless;
To visit the sick
To ransom the captives; and
To bury the dead.

Doing such things, and others like them, for the sake of people who are not part of our church family—who may be total strangers—is part of God’s invitation to us this morning. Such deeds remind us that our Stuff—however much of it we may have, a little or a lot—is God’s gift in the first place. The stuff is not ours anyway. It never was.

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