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Sunday, September 18, 2016 |9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Perhaps churches should learn to think unconventionally, to be prepared to make new friends across traditional barriers, to throw caution to the winds and discover again, in the true fellowship of the gospel, a home that will last.
There has been a whole lot of ink used by people like me trying to figure out how to speak of this parable—a story in which Jesus seems to hold up as an example the shrewd yet dishonest finagling of a person trying to get out of a mess he created for himself. Early church father Augustine remarked about this parable, “I cannot believe that this story came from the lips of our Lord.” Preachers and scholars throughout history have said similar things.
Even Luke, the Gospel writer himself, seemed to be a bit scandalized and embarrassed by what Jesus said. Solid scholarship has shown that Jesus’ parable likely ended with the first part of the eighth verse—the part that says “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” Jesus probably stopped the story with that claim. But Luke did not seem to like that ending so he kept adding verses to try and get a good moral out of the story. Luke, like many of us, desperately wanted to find a redeeming message in Jesus’ parable. Otherwise what do we do with it?
What do we do with this strange, disrupting story from Jesus? Perhaps it would help us if we looked at the parable from the contextual perspective of where it fits in Luke’s narrative. In chapter 15, the great chapter containing those fantastic parables about the lost and found—the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost boy—Jesus is defending his ministry to his opponents. But in chapter 16, where today’s story is lodged, Jesus is defining his ministry to his disciples. This is insider talk—talk meant to be heard by people like us, people who follow God in the way of Jesus. So, with that in mind, let’s listen again to what he tells people like you and me:
The CEO of a corporation is told that a trusted manager has been negligent, dishonest, and cooking the books. So the CEO calls him into her office. “What is this I hear about you squandering and pilfering our resources?” she bellows. “Get out of here! You are fired! Turn in your work cell phone and laptop. Security will walk you out.” The manager now is in full-scale crisis. “What am I going to do?” he cries. “This is worse than what happened to me in the great recession! I’ve lost my job, but I have no other marketable skills. I am too weak for manual labor, too proud to stand in line for SNAP benefits, too embarrassed to park myself at the corner with a sign asking for help.”
The manager paces the floors of his Streeterville apartment as he thinks and frets, worries and ponders, schemes and stresses—and then a brilliant idea pops into his mind! He runs as fast as he can to each and every one of the company’s clients and reduces their accounts payable. “How much do you owe us?” he asks one of the major clients. “You have been such a good customer. Just cut it in half.” “How much do you owe?” he asks another one. “That much, huh? Tell you what: Discount it 20 percent as my personal favor to you. We appreciate your business.”
In other words, this guy ingratiates himself to every customer, scratching each and every back so that, when word gets out that he has been tossed out, they will scratch his. He feathers his nest so that when his pink slip is in full force, they will remember his kindness, take care of him, give him something to do, and a place to live. Meanwhile, back in the C-Suites, the CEO hears rumors about what that manager did in response to his termination. His actions were so ingenious that she could not help but be impressed by his astute behavior. Perhaps there was still room in the organization for him after all. The end. (A reworking of Tom Long’s text in “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2007, p. 53)
That’s the story about ministry that Jesus tells his disciples. That is the example he holds up for his followers. Other than feeling scandalized, what on earth would Jesus want us to get out of that?
Tom Long claims one challenging insight we can glean from this parable is found in the second half of verse 8. Jesus says, “I wish the children of light, I wish the people of God, I wish the ministers and members of the church were as shrewd for the gospel as the wheeler-dealers out there in the world are shrewd for themselves.” In other words, there are people who get up every morning determined to figure out how to maximize the profit for their shareholders, focusing every ounce of their energy to make more money for themselves, working in overdrive to keep moving up and up and up the corporate ladder.
“I wish disciples,” Jesus says, “would be just as determined, focused, and energetic for building up the Body of Christ, for participating in God’s building of the beloved community, as they are in building up their business or careers.” Long claims this conclusion might be one reason why Jesus tells the story—to help us disciples think more critically, more shrewdly, about where we focus and what drives us. Into what and for what do we, disciples, pour out most of our energy, intelligence, imagination, and love?
But we cannot stop with that question. I wonder if another reason Jesus tells us this parable is to prompt us to ask even more particularly about in what or in whom are we investing and using the power of money. Now, I know we have not had the Annual Appeal kickoff Sunday yet, that time of year during which you start hearing from me about making a pledge to the 2017 operating budgets of Fourth Church and Chicago Lights, that time of year when I regularly emphasize just how critical it is that you make a pledge or a gift because every single dollar actually does matter to the witness of this place.
Our amazing endowment does pay the bills for operating our facilities—electricity, cleaning, water and the like, about twenty percent of the Fourth Church operating budget—and for that we are very grateful. But all the rest of it—our ministry and mission, what we can do and be as a church in our community and in the world—all the rest of it depends on your generosity and mine. If we don’t give, the vibrant life and transformative work that God does through Fourth Church and Chicago Lights does not happen. But don’t worry: those sermons, those letters and emails from me, will come in the near future. I know you wait with eager anticipation.
Yet even though today is not the kickoff to the Annual Appeal, we cannot escape the way this parable talks about the power of money. One reason we cannot escape talking about money is because this is the Gospel of Luke and Luke loved to talk about money. Luke loved to talk about money because Jesus loved to talk about money. Jesus talked more about money than he did about heaven and hell combined. Eleven out of thirty-nine parables are about money. One out of every seven verses in Luke’s Gospel is about money (Kelly Benton, “Money Matters” sermon, http://bit.ly/2dgacQH). So even though our Annual Appeal has not officially kicked off yet, we have got to talk about money today. Specifically this parable encourages us to think more deeply about the ways we use our money, in what or in whom do we invest, and what happens as a result.
Just look at the manager in the parable. When we look at his behavior through the lens of how he used the money and in what he did invest, we see a rather interesting change occur. In the beginning, we can assume the manager had been using money in a dishonest way in order to only enrich himself and to only invest in himself. But after he was fired, the manager shifted gears and began to use money in order to enrich others and to invest in establishing relationships of mutual benefit. Preacher and scholar Sam Wells goes so far as to claim that this manager’s crisis caused a shift in his priorities away from exploiting people for a living to making friends with them instead. Wells preaches the manager’s actions show us that he realized friends and relationships were ultimately more important than the money or even the job (Samuel Wells, “It’s the Economy, Stupid,” Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2007).
And perhaps Wells is right. Perhaps the manager did have a real “come to Jesus” moment and his life totally changed. Perhaps he was driven to invest in others, not just himself, out of a sense of generosity and a desire to do justice rather than by anxiety and a desire for self-preservation. Regardless, though, even if Wells is too optimistic and the manager’s motivation was more actually murky than pure, the results were the same. People’s debts were lessened and their anxiety was diminished. God still worked out God’s good through that manager’s actions, even if his motivation was more selfish than altruistic.
Martin Luther once wrote that our God is a God who can ride the lame horse and carve the rotten wood. To me that means that even if the manager was acting more like a lame horse and rotten wood than he was acting like a pure and shining light, God still used the new investments the manager made in his former clients for God’s ultimate work of setting the oppressed free and making all people whole. What seemed to be most important to Jesus was in what, or in whom, did the manager invest. How did that manager end up using the power of money? Was his investment only for his own good, or did his investment also pay off for the common good, the beloved community, the kingdom, the reign of God?
Now, since we are talking about using the power of money to make astute, faithful investments, and since the stewardship season is quickly approaching, I want to tell you just one way that your church is following the manager’s example, one way your church is using the money you give to make some fairly shrewd investments—investments that enrich others, investments that help us live out our God-given purpose to be a light in the city. There are lots of stories that illustrate this, but I will offer just one today because it just happened.
This past Tuesday I had a conversation with a member about a new ministry she and her husband are helping create within the life of Fourth Church. It is the ministry of offering showers for those who sign up. We are doing this in partnership with our Meals Ministry. Since this is new thing for us, we are trying it for a particular length of time to see if it is indeed a needed service and if it works. Tuesday was our first day for the project. And what a day it was.
As our member described the day to me, she used adjectives like “miraculous” and “incredible.” She told me how afterwards people made sure to report to her what an awesome gift it was for this congregation to provide a safe space for them to get cleaned up, to feel human again. One woman said she had not felt that good in years.
Our member then relayed to me an interaction she had on her way to the church. She saw a woman who is a frequent guest of this congregation. The woman was signed up to take a shower this past week but due to a change of circumstances was unable to do it and asked if she could be first in line for next week instead. Of course, our member responded. Then the woman asked our member if she was a part of this congregation. “Do you also belong to that church?” she asked. “I do,” our member responded. The woman started crying and said, “You need to know I would not be alive if it were not for that church. You do so much to help. I am so thankful.” Our member, also in tears by that point, felt humbled and deeply grateful for that interaction. Because of it, she realized that sometimes we are not all that aware of just how God is at work for God’s good, even through those of us who feel more like lame horses and rotten wood most of the time. But perhaps we should not be so surprised.
The truth is that some of the money you invest in the ministry and mission of Fourth Church and Chicago Lights keeps the doors of the sanctuary open each and every day; pays the salaries of the social workers in our Chicago Lights Elam Davies Social Services Center; enables our Meals Ministry to offer not just food for the body but also safe space for the spirit; provides for worship and classes and other opportunities through which we can learn how to more fully embody the love and hospitality of Christ: things that woman had clearly experienced in this place and through you.
Make no mistake about it: the money you regularly invest in your church enriches these kinds of relationships and helps us all to live out our God-given purpose. The money we give to the life of this particular faith community is a shrewd investment that makes strangers into friends into family. And like I said, that is just one example.
So regardless if this parable makes us uncomfortable or not, if we agree with Augustine that it should not have touched the lips of our Lord, here is one truth it reveals: it matters in what or in whom we invest what we have—our energy, our imagination, our intelligence, our love, our money. Jesus calls on disciples to figure out if we are using what we have to enrich only ourselves, to build up only ourselves, to secure only ourselves. Or are we using what we have to enrich others too, to build up friendships and relationships, to help our congregation live out our collective calling to be a light in the city, to proclaim God’s justice, to do our best to embody Christ’s love in everything we do, even on those days when we act more like lame horses and rotten wood? Because just like God did with that dishonest manager, regardless if our motivation is murky or pure, God will still use our investments for God’s good. God will notice our shrewdness and will use even us for God’s building of the kingdom, for God’s re-creation of the world, for God’s healing of the cosmos. I cannot think of a better investment for us to make! Amen.