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Sermon, September 22, 2019

“Yeah, Go Ahead and Cheat, Steal”

Old Testament Scripture: Jeremiah 8:18-9:1

My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: "Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?" ("Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?") "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!

New Testament Scripture: Luke 16:1-13

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."

Sermon: “Yeah, Go Ahead and Cheat, Steal” Rev. David Hawkins

What a strange story we heard today from the New Testament.

A steward of a rich man, the one responsible for the economics of the household realizes that he is about to be fired because he hasn’t been doing a good enough job of managing the rich man’s holdings.

Now, I don’t know how each of you would respond to this news, but this guy takes an unusual step, at least as far as I am concerned. Instead of going to the rich man and pleading his case, or maybe even simply accepting the consequences of doing a not very good job and resigning, the steward goes to the people that owe the rich man money, and he writes down their debt. If they owed $1000 before, now they owe $500. If they owed 100 bushels of wheat, they now owe 80.

And he does this, not because he had cheated them before, and was trying to make it up, not because he felt the rich man was unjust in his business dealings, but because he wanted to ingratiate himself with them, in hopes that when the rich man fired him, he would have some friends on the outside that owed him, that would give him a hand when he called in a favor.

Now, while this isn’t necessarily the step I would take, and I’m sure that none of you would ever take it either, I guess I can imagine that some folks might think this was a good plan. Make hay while the sun shines. Get your fingers in the pie before the pie gets taken away. Take care of yourself, because nobody is going to take care of you. You’ve got to get what you can, while you can.

And the weird thing is, the rich man, when he hears about the plan, is impressed with the steward’s deviousness. He applauds it. He respects it. While the story doesn’t say so, it looks as though the rich man decides to reinstate the steward based on his deceitful behavior.

And not only that.

Jesus himself seems to laud the steward’s behavior, and says to his listeners, go and do likewise. Cheat, steal, do whatever you have to do to make other people like you, in order that they will be there for you when times get tough.

It’s the strangest parable ever.

And I’m not real sure what to do with it.

Now, I'm not the only who has been stymied by this parable. As I was digging into it, I was struck by how many of the different commentaries on this text began with the words: "This is a very difficult passage to figure out." One after another, these brilliant theologians and pastors and Greek scholars scratched their heads and threw up their hands with a sigh.

"We don't know what it means," they said.

Have you ever heard that saying, "Fools rush in, where angels fear to tread?"

Well, I'm about to rush in. Come with me, if you feel brave.

See, the problem is, I think that in a weird way, this passage makes sense to me. And that's frightening.

The steward of the house has been accused of squandering the master's money. He is accosted by the master, who requires an accounting. With some quick thinking on his feet, the steward tracks down some of the folks that owe the master money. And he, um, adjusts downward their debt. And, it's no secret why. He's hoping that in the end, when he's fired, he'll have some place to go.

So, now it appears that he has cheated the master twice: first by mis-managing the money under his responsibility, then by reducing the debt owed to the master by other people.

One would think, given the moral dimensions of this story, that there would be a hard word or two from the master. One would think that the next scene would might even include the master throwing the steward out into the outer darkness, where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. That’s how the story normally goes.
One would think.

But, no.

Far from giving the steward his just deserts, far from laying down the law, far from even denouncing the steward's actions, the master compliments him for his shrewdness. He seems almost proud of the steward.

In fact, so does Jesus! He lifts up the steward's act of dishonesty, and compares him favorably with those he calls "the children of light." Jesus even goes so far as to advise his listeners to emulate this criminal, to go out and make friends with people by dispensing dishonest wealth.

Wait, what?

Come again?

Has the master lost his mind? Has Jesus? How does this fit into the whole Ten Commandments thing? How does the Master's approval of the steward's underhanded dealing square with ideas of justice, and fairness, and honesty, and truth, and accountability?

How can this be in the Bible?

OK, take a breath with me. We're about to rush in where angels fear to tread.
The first thing that came to me as I was reading this was that I have a tendency to equate being a good steward with being a banker.

The problem is, stewardship and banking are different things.

Bankers keep. Bankers safeguard. Bankers put money into vaults, into safes, into savings accounts. I'm not saying this to cast any aspersions on bankers. That is their job. If they don't do this, they are not fulfilling their end of the contract. And that can have consequences.

I remember a story not too long ago about a banker at a local bank that forgot this mandate, and started to wander in and out of the vault, taking large chunks of money with him. He was fired, of course, because a banker is supposed to protect the money, to safeguard the money, not stuff his pockets with it and walk out as though it belonged to him.

So, bankers guard, they keep, they put things in safes and vaults, and they keep it there.

Stewards, on the other hand, have a different job. They actually are called to spend money. In an effort to make more money, of course. But that’s their job. Investing the boss’s money, in order to make more. When we hear the story in a different part of the Bible of the steward burying the talent of gold the master has entrusted to him, he is fired because he didn’t spend it.

He forgot his job. He thought he was supposed to be a banker, and not a steward.

And so, stewards and bankers have different jobs. One is to invest, the other is it safeguard. It’s one of the reasons that The Glass-Steagall act was created, during the great depression to keep banks from inappropriately investing depositor’s money. It keeps the bankers and the stewards separate, it reinforces the differences in their jobs.

And this difference is an important one. One of the reasons we suffered the catastrophic economic crash of 2008 was because many of the prohibitions of the Glass Steagall act had been repealed, which meant that commercial banks could act like investment brokeredges, and this led to the people who were supposed to be safeguarding money betting their customers’ deposits on high risk and in some cases wholly theoretical financial instruments. Who could have seen this coming? Only everybody?

But greed is hard to fight, which is why it’s a good idea to be clear about who the bankers are, and who the stewards are, and keep those jobs separate.

And sometimes, as stewards of the treasure God has given us, we make a similar mistake. We don't remember our job description as stewards. And consequently we don't do a very good job of managing the treasures entrusted to us.

I wonder if we find this passage so difficult to parse because we don't understand who the master is. We are paralyzed in our examination of the text because we have an understanding of the steward's job description that is shaped more by our earthly standards, than by the standards of the kingdom of heaven. We are stumped in approaching the parable, because we think we know the words that Jesus is using, but we really don't.

What if we began with a different kind of master, a different concept of stewardship, and a different understanding of how the world really works?
Let me begin to tell the story again, using a different filter, a different lens through which to see what Jesus is saying.

There once was a father, who had many children. He was a generous father, and provided for their welfare in many ways. There came a time when the father needed to be away, and he gave some of his children all the money they needed to provide for the others.

He left a long list of how that might look, and gave exact instructions to provide for the care of the least of his children. He told the stewards that upon his return, there was to be nothing left of the money.

Now, imagine the master’s response, when he comes back to find that that money has not been spent, and that there are members of the family who are hungry, who are homeless, who are poor and lack the basic needs for the survival.

That is the difference between a banker and a steward in the kingdom economy of heaven. The economy of heaven is to invest and invest and invest, and invest some more to point that there is nothing left to invest.

Jesus came to flip the world upside. The first will be last, the servant great, and the meek will inherit the earth. Jesus reminds us to count the cost of following him, because it might just cost everything.

The kingdom of heaven does not make sense, and it certainly doesn't follow the rules of laissez faire economic theory. In this kingdom, God doesn't help those who help themselves. He helps people who need help.

When we look at this parable in this way, we immediately can tell that the relationship between the master and steward has changed. He is no longer an employee. He is a member of the family. The job description has changed. The expectations have changed. Everything has changed.

Because in this story, the master does not need the money. He does not want the money. The money was given in order to be given. Not kept. The steward's job was to manage the money, certainly, but to manage it in a way that was in accordance the master's wishes, not the guarded and selfish ways that have come to dominate our worldview.

The way that the steward wasted the money was not by spending it on himself, although that might have happened. He squandered the money by not spending it in the way the master wanted. And the Master lets him know it. He reminds him that the money is not his, and because he forgot that, the master is going to take that responsibility for that money from him.

Jesus has changed our concept of Master, our understanding of the role of steward, and the wise, the shrewd use of money.

And now, he begins to mock the way we think about grace.

When the steward begins to spend the money in the way the master wants, by releasing debtors from their debts, well, the master commends him. And so does Jesus, praising the steward's use of this dishonest wealth.

And of course it's dishonest. What we have, has been given to us. It is not ours. We came by it dishonestly. We didn't earn it, no matter how much we think we did. We don't deserve it, no matter how hard we work, no matter how pious we are, no matter our class, our citizenship, our education, our family heritage. It is not ours, it never was, and it never will be.

Any use we make of the gifts placed in our hands is by definition dishonest, because those gifts are not ours. And because they are not ours, they are not ours to use in ways that do not honor the giver of them.

No matter how we slice it, we are spending something that doesn't belong to us.
It's when the steward realizes this, and reconciles his dishonesty that he is commended.

We all freely admit theologically that the earth is the Lord's and all that's in it. But sometimes, we forget what that really means when it comes to giving ourselves, our labor, our grace, our forgiveness, and our money.

When we think that our talents are to be saved, to be hoarded, to be buried under a rock, we have forgotten the reason they were placed into our care in the first place.

We are stewards, not bankers. There's a difference.

We are called to invest in people, not stocks, or department stores.

We are called to give out of our abundance, not to hang onto what we think is ours.
We are called to remember and respond to the source of all our gifts.

But, this church already knows this, I think.

We have given well over $250,000 in scholarships over the last few years, helping hundreds of people of all ages realize their educational dreams.

We invest well over $10,000 a year in our community and denomination to help with local and international development, crises, and charity. This is in addition to the church's regular tithing to our denomination in our per capita giving.

In the last couple of years, we have responded to international and local emergencies, in scope both large and small with thousands of dollars in aid, benevolence, care packets, and material donations of food and medical supplies.
We are able to do that because of those in the church who have realized that what they have is not their own, but God's, to be used in ways that fit in with God's investment strategy. Any other use of it would be dishonest.

Over the next couple of months, the Session, those elders which you elected to lead the church, will be gathering, praying, and discerning the will of God regarding the future of this church, especially in terms of how we invest the gifts that God has given us for his use.

During this season, we are given the chance to consider the ways that we might all might join in that conversation. We are given the opportunity to examine the way we think about the spiritual and material talents we have been entrusted with.
In short, we are given a chance to take a moment, and look in our wallets, and in our hearts, to see what's in there, and to remember who it really belongs to. Not to hold on to the treasures of the Gospel, not to bury it, not store in a vault somewhere, but to spend it, lavishly, on people who have not earned it any more than we ourselves have.

This next year holds a lot of promise for this church. I believe that God has blessed us all with a beautiful building, an enthusiastic core of teachers, a visionary session, a dedicated group of volunteers, and a music program that is willing to try new things, explore new forms of worship. We have all the ingredients we need to make a difference in this community, and in our world.

And that’s the sort of job that is worthwhile doing.
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