Monday, September 20, 2010

Speaking Truth

Sermon for 9.19.10
Jeremiah 8.18-9.1; Psalm 79.1-9; 1 Timothy 2.1-7; Luke 16.1-13.

Please pray with me from today’s psalm: Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake (Psalm 79.9). Amen.

From today’s Epistle: “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone.”

There are words of hope and comfort for us at the end of the sermon, but first I have some slogging to do. Please bear with me!

Our psalm this morning announces that the world has trashed the inheritance given us by God and defiled God’s holy temple. These words refer to conditions in ancient Israel, but I think most of us would agree that God’s gifts to us are not fully loved and that God’s holy laws are often broken, even though these gifts and laws are our sacred inheritance. In Luke, we have the story of the estate manager who cleverly uses his last days on the job to swindle his master. At the end of the passage, we are told bluntly that we “cannot serve God and wealth.”

Scandalous use of inheritance, scandalous use of responsibility. These readings are asking us to think about a wiser use of blessings, of our gifts, our time, talents, and service. No wonder they are sometimes used to launch a discussion of annual giving and the dreaded “M” word. Rather than doing that, let’s consider that such passages are asking us to think about speaking truth to a misuse of power or a misuse of assumed power. As such, the readings certainly ask us to think about stewardship—and that leads us straight to what is most important, namely our relationship with God.

Let’s start with that manager who is the steward of his master’s estate. The money and the deals he’s working with are not his. They have been delegated to him by a superior who expects that he will make the best returns possible. (You can see where Jesus is going with this so far.) But the steward has been caught in dishonesty and is being sacked. He doesn’t seem to desire confession, repentance, or contrition. In fact, he continues his dishonest behavior, brokering deals with debtors, while he has the power, to insure that he will have friends on the outside later. The final twist is the master’s commendation of his shrewd behavior. I’d bet that the master is pretty shrewd himself. Even though his steward’s behavior has cost him assets, it seems that he is intrigued and impressed by the other’s sheer, gutsy cleverness.

People really struggle with this parable, as you can imagine. Why is dishonesty being applauded? And then why do the next verses condemn dishonesty? And in what way does all of this build to a warning that money pulls us away from God? Does it always?

Maybe a number of sayings of Jesus were combined in this passage by disciples who didn’t want to lose a single word. It would be wonderful to be able to hear Jesus’ tone of voice. Maybe he was being sarcastic or ironic when he used the word “dishonest.” Maybe he was critiquing the economic system of his time with its exploitation by the wealthy of the poor or even middle class. Maybe Jesus was suggesting that there was no way to be honest in a system that was so brutally unjust. Maybe Jesus was speaking truth to power.

Here there is a bridge to our understanding of stewardship: We know about dishonest wealth in our society and we know about its effects on the poor and even not so poor. There are also those who must be considered ethically disadvantaged. How do we assess our actions now that we have no excuse for not knowing how they affect others, in sweat shops for example, on the other side of the globe? Jesus may even have been pushing further by showing us how a clever manager could undermine the landlord’s means of building his wealth. He’s a kind of Robin Hood, speaking truth by stealing from the rich to give to the poor. In God’s kingdom, after all, aren’t debts forgiven (“Forgive us our debts”) and aren’t slaves the equal of masters?

Maybe Jesus was sharing insights about means and ends. Maybe this is the way that Jesus was speaking truth to power. Think of an Andrew Carnegie: his wonderful philanthropy and the strike-breaking that helped build his fortune. Through the dishonest steward, Jesus may be asking us whether we are willing to say that part of our life can be peripheral to the Kingdom. What means do we use to accomplish good ends? What are our motives for the relationships we build? How are these relationships limited by the people we are willing to acknowledge as worthy of friendship?

And so we come to that famous rule: You cannot serve God and Mammon. That is true if by extreme love of wealth, we are pulled away from the serving love of others that witnesses to our love of God.

This truth leads to the beautiful passage from the letter to Timothy in which we are urged not only to prayer but to prayer for everyone, starting with those in high positions and moving right down the line. Lord knows we need it—all of us.

Sooner or later, prayer will draw us to the knowledge that God, revealed through Christ, wants every broken soul healed and loved. This is the true starting point of stewardship: using our heritage, our gifts and graces, our time, talent, and service to love as fully as possible; to bring the healing of comfort, support, and the power of God’s new life to everyone. That everyone includes each of us. Bringing healing to others brings it into our own hearts.

We are stewards, entrusted with life, companion creatures, and the world we share with all other life. Neither life nor planet is ours, although we seem to have a great deal of power over both. They are loans from God, given us to care for and enjoy in the very best ways we can. In creating us and all that surrounds us, God loved and loves us fully. So much so that God’s own goodness is also our most fundamental being. It is that which makes us, and it makes us whole.

The Anglican Bishop of South Africa and Nobel Prize winner, Desmond Tutu, writes that understanding our heritage of goodness “changes the way we see the world, the way we see others, and, most importantly, the way we see ourselves. The way we see ourselves matters. It affects how we treat people. It affects the quality of life for each and all of us” (7).[1] Treasuring the heritage that Bishop Tutu describes is stewardship.

And stewardship of God’s gifts goes further. God not only made us like God’s self but for God’s self. God’s Holy Spirit is within us and we are temples of that Holy Spirit. That means that the spirit of peace and of healing is within us also. We can call upon it. Doing so will fill us and our world with hope and joy. And there’s no telling where that will lead!

Let us pray with the words, once again, of Bishop Tutu:
My child, I made you for myself.
I made you like myself.
I delight in you….

You run everywhere looking for life,
Searching for the life of life.
All the while I am here.
I am as close as a prayer.
I am breathing in your breath….

Listen! For I have carved in you the heart to hear.
Listen and know that I am near.
I am as close as a prayer.
I am breathing in your breath.

Before you speak the word of worry or worship I hear you.
Before you sing your delight or moan your anguish I speak.
I am here.
I am as close as a prayer.
I am breathing in your breath….

With each breath you choose, my child, for you are free.
Will you breathe with me the breath of life?
Will you claim the joy I have prepared for you?
Will you seek me out and find me here?
Will you whisper the prayer?
Will you breathe in my breath? (16-7)


[1] Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness and Why This Makes All the Difference (New York: Harper One, 2010).

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