Monday, September 24, 2007

"Faithful in Little" Sermon

After struggling all week, maybe even wrestling all week with this text- here you have it:

Luke 16:1-13

Parable of the Dishonest Manager

September 23, 2007

Fourth Sabbatical Sunday

Being Faithful in Little

I once had a friend who broke the cardinal rule of girl-friendships- she ditched the girl friends to hang out with a man! I mean, you think you know someone! I don’t know if you know how female friendships work- but women are close- they share secrets, they care for each other when one is sick, they vow always to value the friendship of the women close to them. Then she meets a man and starts missing important girl bonding activities. It reminds me of the time that my husband introduced me to his close friend, another guy named David. I liked David right away, he was kind and sweet- and also interesting with his many tattoos and his motorcycle riding. I thought I had Dave figured out- and then I found out he was an Oakland Raiders fan- which was a bold shock to this die-hard Kansas City Chiefs fan! It hurt me to find out that Dave rooted for the team of our most bitter NFL rivals. I mean, wow, you think you know someone!

I wonder if you might have had a similar reaction to this parable this morning. I mean, we’re more than halfway through the Gospel of Luke at this point and so we’re getting warmed up to what Jesus is like. We know he heals the sick. We know he’ll share a meal with just about anyone. We know he commends unusual people for their faithfulness; a Samaritan for instance. We know that he is hard on people who do not share their wealth with others, and people turn a blind eye to the needs of the poor. Jesus values honest and ethical behavior, right?

Then there comes this strange parable of a dishonest manager. A man who is self-serving, who does his job so poorly that he is about to be fired and then covers his own behind so that he will have somewhere to go when he has no work. He cheats the property owner out of the full amount he is due, by slashing the debts of people he goes to collect from. Kind of a slimy guy- right? We know what’s coming to him- judgment! But judgment turns out not to be the case for this manager. First, he is commended by the boss in the story. Then Jesus seems to lift up his actions as an example of how being shrewd can be a good thing! I mean, just when you think you know someone, Jesus throws in this little parable on us and makes us question everything we assume about his stories.

This story confronts us, it challenges us- frankly it kind of makes me want to skip over it and go back to a more familiar story like the prodigal son in the chapter just before it. But if we are to be faithful, we will study all that Jesus has to teach- even when the lessons are challenging, even when at first glance we don’t understand. Jesus seems to think that we could learn something from this dishonest manager, so let’s dig a little deeper together and see what we can turn up.

The manager might not be such a terrible guy, but it is clear that the owner is not happy with his work. The owner lets the manager know he’s about to let him go. So the manager begins to plot. “What can I do now?” he thinks to himself, “I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m too ashamed to beg.” From his desperation, a plan arises. He will go to those who owe his boss money, and reduce their debt in hopes that they will be gracious to him after he is fired. The plan works better than expected, instead of having to rely on the hospitality of the debtors, the manager is commended by the boss for his shrewd behavior.

Just when you think you know what kind of person Jesus would make the hero of a story, he lifts up the story of a dishonest manager, I might even go so far as to say lazy manager. This is who we should praise? This is who we should learn a lesson from? It appears that Jesus is telling us that being shrewd can be a good thing. Jesus explains the parable by saying, “for the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light.” Jesus is telling us here that it is ok to be shrewd for the Kingdom of God. It is ok to use our resources wisely for God’s purposes. He could have used a nicer word than shrewd, though, right? I mean savvy at least, let’s be savvy, let’s be wise with the resources God has given us.

Money is not the only resource that we can use shrewdly for God’s purposes. What about the brains God has given us- can we use our minds shrewdly to study the scriptures? Can we use the gift of our time to be present with people who need us, like children, or family members, or church friends? Can we use the gifts of teaching, or visiting, or music, or writing notes, or building houses to advanced God’s kingdom on the earth? If we have resources that we are not using for God’s purposes- then we, like the dishonest manager, are being wasteful and lazy.

Jesus throws in another beautiful little gem into this parable. He says of our character, “whoever is faithful in little is faithful in much.” Another translation puts it like this, “whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.” This means that they are no trivial acts in this life. Every penny we spend, every choice we make, every time we smile or scowl at a stranger, it matters. There are no insignificant acts. I want to tell you the stories of a couple of people whose trivial acts made a difference. These are people who used the resources they had available to them to work for the good.

First I want to tell you about a man named Paul Watson. Paul was a greeter at First Christian Church in Blue Springs, Missouri where I grew up. Paul stood just outside the sanctuary doors, and allowed the warmth and love of God to radiate out from his very soul as he handed you a bulletin and proclaimed an enthusiastic, “good morning!” Paul was a greeter for the Kingdom of God. I do not mean that Paul took his turn one Sunday every three months or so to greet people. No, instead, Paul took up residence at the door- he was a brilliant part of the landscape- we took his presence for granted the way we take for granted that if we look out the windows this morning we will see the rolling Tennessee hills.

Paul’s service to God’s community did not stop at the front door of the church. Paul had another special ministry. Each person in our congregation who had a birthday got a special postcard from Paul with well wishes for a great year. When I got mine in the mail each August I would think about Paul and wonder why he picked the particular image he did on the front of the card. I would also marvel that he would know exactly how old I was without me ever telling him. The children of the congregation were not the only recipients of this postcard ministry, so were the new mothers, the men who wore suits to church and, the older members who could not longer make it to church on Sunday. Everyone got a postcard from Paul, everyone was a recipient of his love and care. When Paul moved from Blue Springs when I was in college, it was like a little piece of the church’s heart went with him.

Paul was not an extraordinary man, either in stature or ability. However he used the gifts that God had given him to be faithful in small things. In the grand scheme of things it was a small act for him to stand at the door of the church each Sunday. Writing a postcard to our church’s member is not an act that altered the whole world. However, Paul was faithful in little. He was there, each Sunday, and each birthday and taught us more about what God’s love looked like as he cared for each one of us. Paul used his resources to brighten up our church and to the glory of God. By being faithful in little, Paul was faithful in much.

I want to tell you another man’s story this morning. This man is actually a little more like the dishonest manager. He did not set out to use his gifts to serve anything but the building up of his own wealth. Some of you have seen a movie that depicts this man’s actions. In 1939, this polish businessman found himself in a similar position to the dishonest manager, he was failing at his business and wanted to make a change. He was a member of the Nazi party and in the business of manufacturing mess kits for the German military. With the help of a savvy Jewish business advisor- he acquired an underground loan from wealthy Jewish men. The loan came in exchange for black market goods the men needed in the ghetto, and business started to pick up. In order to cut costs- he began hiring Jewish workers as slave labor. Labor was cheap because the Jews had been relocated away from their homes to a ghetto in Krakow. This was at the beginning of what we would come to know as the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis and their allies. Our shrewd businessman would use the Jews as his labor force- since he wouldn’t have to pay them anything, and only had to pay fees and bribes to the Nazi officials for their use.

The factory he has built is running well and the Nazi’s are pleased with his success. Meanwhile a work camp is built where the Nazi’s continue to use Jewish slave labor- killing anyone who opposes their methods. Over the course of the movie, the business man begins to be aware of what is happening and how many people are being killed. He begins to value human life over business profits. At his own personal risk, he finds ways to hire hundreds of Jews to work in his factory, saving them from certain death. Eventually, he uses all the resources he has to save as many Jews as he can from death at the hands of the Nazi’s. Oskar Schindler saved over one thousand Jews from death by putting their names on his list, and allowing them to work in his factory rather than be sent to one of the death camps. The movie, Schindler’s List, portrays the true story of a man who was faithful in little, even if his motivations were greedy in the beginning. Schindler used all the resources he could to save lives. His small acts saved over a thousand lives. Whoever is faithful in little is faithful in much.

Whatever our motives are when we start out, however small our gifts seem, I hope that it can be said for each one of us that we are “faithful in little.” Because Jesus notes that “whoever can be trusted in little, can be trusted in much.” I hope that we will also learn from this challenging scripture that it is appropriate to use all the resources we have wisely, even shrewdly to build up God’s kingdom. No gift or resource is to small to make a difference if used shrewdly for God’s purposes. May we all be faithful in little, and be shrewd with what God has given us.

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