Danbury United Methodist Church
September 19, 2010
Baptism of Gavin Michael Calo
Resources and Relationships
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Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel. Ephesians 6.1
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Okay, then. This is a very puzzling passage. Even Luke seems clueless as to what to do with this parable! He provides at least three interpretations at the parable's conclusion:
Š that the children of light (that’s us) should learn from the cleverness of their corrupt neighbors;
Š to make friends by all means possible, including dishonest wealth; and
Š that if one wishes to be entrusted with true riches, one must demonstrate honesty with ordinary wealth.
Those are all fine messages, but I’m not sure any of those follow directly from the parable. Rather, this seems to be the central question: is the manager a scoundrel or not? If he is, why is Jesus praising him?
I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love
Can't buy me love, everybody tells me so
Can't buy me love, no no no, no…]
Is it true that money can’t buy love? In this story, it sure buys something like love.
Here’s the story. A man was working as a manager for a very wealthy man. The quantities in question here are huge—900 gallons of olive oil, 1500 bushels of wheat. The people who owe money to the wealthy man are, themselves, very wealthy. The manager has been accused—not of dishonesty, but of incompetence, of squandering his master’s property. He’s been accused of not being a good manager. He gets called on the carpet and knows the gravy train is pulling into the station. The ride is over. Quickly, before the word gets out, he goes to his master’s debtors and cuts them deals.
Is it underhanded––what the manager does? Maybe yes. Maybe no. Commentators on this passage offer various explanations.
Š Perhaps the manager has overcharged these debtors and is now reducing their bills to what they should have been in the first place.
Š Perhaps the manager is cutting out his fee, an amount customary perhaps, but certainly substantial.
Š Perhaps he is deducting interest payments which, according to Jewish law, are strictly forbidden in the first place.
I won’t take you through the arguments for each point, because I don’t think it really matters. We don’t know how to interpret the manager's action, except that what he does makes his master's debtors into his friends. He is doing them a big favor, and they know it. They will have to reciprocate.
The manager is transformed by his crisis. Initially, he was incompetent. Now, faced with a personal crisis, he suddenly becomes forward-looking and resourceful. Properly motivated, he proves himself shrewd and decisive––not incompetent after all. And, in the process, he has succeeded in boxing in the rich man, who cannot rescind the discounts without suffering loss of honor and creating bad will among his debtors. There is certainly some irony here. The scoundrel assures his future success by doing what he was accused of doing in the first place.
Dishonest or not, this guy knows how to use what he has to serve a larger goal. He knows that what he does today makes a difference in what his future looks like. The manager is responsive to the situation in front of him. He does something about it.
And perhaps that is what the master is commending him for.
Today, with all of us here and good music and the lights on and everything as it should be, perhaps our sense of crisis has diminished. There have been several occasions even this year when anyone who was paying attention to our finances would be worried about our future. But then we catch up on our bills, and the pressure is off. I’m starting to think that we need to cultivate a sense of urgency—the kind of urgency brought on by a crisis.
Here’s something that I think should worry us. Three out of four American teenagers claim to be Christians. Sounds good, right? Here’s the problem: their Christianity doesn’t mean anything to them. Less than half practice their faith in any way, or say it’s important. And very few of them can talk coherently about it. They seem to have embraced a watered-down faith, one where God is like a divine therapist whose primary goal is to boost people’s self-esteem.
And why is this? It’s not some fad that teenagers are following. It is because neither their families nor their churches are teaching them what true Christianity is.
These are the conclusions of Kenda Creasy Dean, professor of Youth, Church, and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary. She has just published a new book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church. She describes the season she spent doing in-depth interviews with more than 3,300 American teenagers, ages 13-17, Catholics and Protestants, conservative and liberal, as “one of the most depressing summers” of her life.
Most of the teens think that God simply wants them to feel good, and to do good. As they understand Christianity, the central goal of life is to be happy, and people are supposed to be nice. God mostly stays out of the way except when called upon to resolve a problem. And these are the answers of the kids who go to church regularly!
It reduces the message of Jesus to a gospel of niceness—and if that is all we settle for, then no wonder the kids aren’t fired up. Because the purpose of the church is not to be nice. The manager in today’s parable wasn’t nice. Jesus wasn’t nice. And the church that follows him does not exist to perpetuate ourselves or make ourselves happy.
The purpose of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ, for the transformation of the world.
And anyone who has ever been transformed will probably attest that it was not a nice experience.
Where did these teenagers get their ideas about Christianity? From their churches and their families. Our job is to live out our faith and pass it on to the next generation. Look around here. How are we doing? Does it matter?
The teens who see only watered-down Christianity are not giving their lives to it. And that’s actually good news, I think. Kids are smart. They are insightful enough not to commit themselves to something that doesn’t matter. But if the gospel is fully presented to them, and lived out in all its radical implications, that gets their attention.
If we want to affect our children and teens—and others—or anyone else—we need to demonstrate a faith that makes a difference. A faith that transforms us and informs our choices. A faith that compels us to feed the hungry and stand up against injustice—in ways they can see and participate in. Lord knows I love Bible stories, but we need to introduce them to the living God, not just tell them stories from the Bible.
The gospel of Luke is deeply concerned with both resources and relationships. This parable about the dishonest manager follows Luke's series of parables devoted to Jesus' companionship with sinners (all of chapter 15) and inaugurates a series of passages concerned with money (chapter 16). It comes right after the Prodigal Son and right before the Rich Man and Lazarus. Both are about resources and relationships—about money and people. The prodigal son goes off and squanders all his resources, and still discovers that his relationship with his loving father is intact. The rich man, who we will hear more about next week, is condemned to eternal torment because he did not use his resources to build relationships with the poor. Resources and relationships.
We have been given resources—how are we using them? We have time and money and talents. How are we using them to reach people? The dishonest manager used every resource at his disposal to make relationships that would save his life. How are we using our resources to secure eternal life for ourselves and the world?
This is a crisis. The next generation isn’t learning about the truth faith. How are we going to respond? There’s no time to lose. In a few minutes we are going to baptize a baby. We’re going to make promises to Gavin and his family. How do we intend to keep them? Since I’ve been here I’ve done eighteen baptisms, fifteen of them pre-confirmation-age children, twelve from around here, from ten different families. There’s only one of those families we see in church regularly. What are we doing for the other nine families?
For the last five months I’ve been serving on a task force appointed by the Bishop to plant 30 new churches in our conference in the next two years, and to revitalize churches throughout the conference. (Among other things, there’s going to be money for churches that need to start a new worship service.) At our meeting all day on Friday, several of us were feeling uncomfortable by the speed of our progress. We’re whole-heartedly rolling out programs without knowing how or whether they will work; on October 23 I’m going to lead an all-day class for 30 people who are being trained to plant churches, and the class hasn’t been written yet. I can’t say I’m thrilled about this. I don’t usually work this way; Methodists don’t usually work this way. We usually think about things for ages, and then study them and then write up a proposal, then do a pilot…
But this is a crisis—and a crisis requires action. Like the shrewd manager, we need to take action, to use our resources to build relationships beyond those doors. Not everything we try will work, but we need to get to work and try.
Our annual charge conference, when we elect our officers and committees for the coming year, is on October 21, and we’re already starting the nominations process. If someone should call you to serve, please think and pray about your answer. If nobody calls you and you’ve got an idea, speak to me—I’m the chair of the committee.
Let’s use our resources—our
time, our talent, and our treasure—to build relationships. Let’s get to work and try.
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. 2 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.’ 3 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. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 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.’ 8 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. 9 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.
10 “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. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 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.”