Sermon – September 22/23, 2013

The Unjust Steward

Luke 16:1-9

18th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 20C)

September 22, 2013

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

When my wife and I lived in Indiana we were invited to a 4th of July celebration.  Some members from the church we attended held this picnic every year; it was important to them.  They asked everyone who attended to bring a dish to pass, so being a strongly German Lutheran community, there was no shortage of bratwurst and sauerkraut.  While the owners did not provide food for everyone, they did provide the entertainment.  They put on a fireworks display to rival ones you’ll see in some small communities.  Apparently, they had budgeted a set amount into their monthly expenses so that they could stockpile fireworks all year long.  They spent a few hundred dollars each month on fireworks, so that by the time the next 4th of July rolled around they had amassed a few thousand dollars’ worth of fireworks.  Then, they invited the congregation over to their farm to watch the show.

 Some people might call that kind of spending wasteful, but these people loved hosting the 4th of July picnic at their home, so they found a way to make their money work in such a way that the show could go on.  With that thought in mind, hear again the parable Jesus puts before us this morning.

There was a man, an account manager, who led a fairly comfortable life.  He had access to the master’s money, so he grew accustomed to skimming a little off the top.  A little bit here for a weekend getaway.  A little bit there to take his wife out to a fancy dinner.  And just a tiny bit more from over there to buy himself that nice new robe he wanted.  Then, one day, unexpectedly, the jig was up.  The master came to see his manager, for someone had complained to the master.  The manager was accused of stealing from the master, and he was required to turn over the financial reports, to turn in his receipts, and to give an account for where the money had gone.  The game was up.  The manager was soon to be unemployed.  He probably lived with the master or in one on one of the master’s properties, so he was going to be homeless as well.

What did he do when he knew his end was just around the corner?

He did what he could to save his own skin.  He had already embezzled, so he decided to cook the books even further in an effort to save his own neck in the long term.  He called in debtors and reduced their debts in an effort to gain their favor.  But in so doing, he showed how crafty and clever he truly was, for when the master found out, what was he supposed to do?  The people whose debts had been lowered were probably tenants who rented land from the master and used it for farming.  They would have rejoiced that their debts were lowered.  If the master came back to them and said, “No, that wicked manager lowered your debt without my consent.  Pay me the remainder of what you owe,” then he would have angered his tenants.  He may have had the legal right to do that, but to do that would strain the relationship between owner and renter, maybe even to the point where the renter would not take care of the master’s property anymore.  Maybe the master would lose the renters and gain a reputation as someone who is not true to his word.  Maybe it would hurt his future prospects for renting out the land.  The master had to save face, so he had to allow the reduced payments to stand.

Which is why he commends the manager for his shrewdness – his street smarts.  He was not happy that the manager stole from him again, yet he commended the manager because not only did the manager gain favor with the debtors, he did it in such a way that the master was ultimately powerless to stop.  When the manager saw that his neck was on the line, he used what resources he had to save it, and he did a pretty good job of it.

But, that’s not all that surprising, Jesus says.  For the sons of this age are much more crafty in dealing with their own generation than are the sons of light.  The sons of this age know how to spend their money for themselves.  That’s because the sons of this age live only for this age.  Not so the sons of light.  Not so you.  Not so me.  We ought not to use our wealth in that way.  We ought to use our wealth with an eye toward heaven.

Now, I know that this is the point in the sermon where you might want to tune out.  No one likes to hear a sermon about money because everyone feels the pressure of paying bills.  I don’t particularly like to preach about money because it’s not like I’m rolling around in it either.  There’s no Scrooge McDuck vault for me to swim in at my house.  No, there’s just mortgage payments, electric bills, gas bills, grocery bills, and all manner of other bills that are on the counter or on the horizon.  Beyond the bills lies the simple reality that the things of this life we enjoy, even the good gifts from God, tend to cost money.  You can’t enjoy a day fishing without first purchasing a license, fishing pole, bait, and whatever other supplies you need.  If you want to spend a day doing something special with your family, it costs money. And it is a good and God-pleasing thing when you use your money not only to feed, clothe, and house your family, but also to give them, as much as you’re able, the fun things of this life, to pay for their dance classes, to register them for soccer, to take them to the cider mill or a movie.

But here’s the thing.  Ultimately, how you spend your money will show what you truly value, and as Christians, as bought and paid for children of God, we are called to value more than the things of this life only.  We value the preaching of the Gospel, for without that preaching we would not have heard the news of our salvation.  We value the work of our Lord’s church because without the work of his church our heads would never have felt the cleansing water of baptism.  If the congregation here 100 years ago decided that St. John was no longer worth supporting, then we would not be here today.  But we are here today, because people 3 generations ago valued the preaching of the Gospel in this place.  They wanted to see the Gospel continue to be preached in this place.

The sons of this age spend their money on the thing they value most: themselves.  And maybe in an effort to be more memorable due to shock value, Jesus holds up their commitment to the cause as exemplary.  But his point is unmistakable: he tells us we ought to be as shrewd as they are in spending money on the things that we love, except that the thing we value most should not be ourselves.  We ought to value on the proclamation of his Gospel and the mission of his church.

For like the man in the parable, the money we spend from day to day is not our own, it belongs to our master.  That’s no small detail in the parable.  Regardless of how we use it, the money we have is not truly our own.  Our Lord has given it to us so that we might watch over it and use it as he intended.  The man in the parable failed in that task, choosing instead to use the money selfishly.  When he was called on it, he again used the master’s money selfishly again to save his own skin.  But that just shows us how much he valued his own skin.  His use of that money shows you what was important to him.  How do we use our master’s money?  How do we use the resources he has entrusted to our care?

The reality is that the church isn’t in the business of making money – we’re in the business of bringing the life giving word of God to souls who desperately need to hear it.  We all know that’s not free, and whatever worldly costs need to be covered for that to happen aren’t going to be covered by some new gimmick or sales pitch that the church comes up with.  I hear so many wonderful people speak so very highly of this congregation, of our music and our worship, and we should rejoice in those things.  But if those things are going to continue, then they must be supported by people who value our ministry and mission.  We are gaining new families to our school every year because they have heard good things about us and have experienced it for themselves.  New families are seeking us out because you families who are already in our school love it so much that they can’t help but tell others how wonderful it is.  But if our school is going to survive, it must be supported by people who value its ministry and mission.

And if we want to do more than merely survive, if we want to thrive, to continue hiring the best teachers, to continue providing the best Christ-centered education possible, to not only maintain but also to improve the building and resources available here, it can only happen if it’s be funded by people who support our ministry and mission.  If, God willing, St. John is going to bring the Gospel to the city of Fraser for another 150 years, it depends of you.  It depends on our members.  Our Father in heaven has given us the resources.  He has given us the opportunity.  The sons of this age know how to spend money on the things they love, on the causes they support.  What are we willing to spend here so that the word of forgiveness can continue to be preached in this pulpit and taught in those classrooms?

You know, it’s interesting that this parable about money comes immediately after the parable of the prodigal son.  In fact, Luke 16 is the end of a section where Jesus teaches first the multitudes of potential followers in Luke 14 that they must deny themselves and take up their cross to follow him, to Luke 15 where he teaches the smaller group of the Pharisees that he has come to seek and save the lost, to now Luke 16, where he warns his closest disciples that even though they are not the multitudes of crowds or the Pharisees, they too will face challenges in following him:  You cannot serve two masters, he says.  You cannot serve both God and money.  The fact that this parable is spoken to the followers of Jesus, and that we are the followers of Jesus, means it speaks directly to us.

Even more interesting is the fact that the Greek word Jesus uses to describe the manager’s waste of his master’s wealth is the exact word used to describe what the prodigal son does with his inheritance.  Jesus wants us to consider these parables together, for in each of these parables the one guilty of squandering and abusing the wealth given to him ultimately turns back to the giver for mercy.  We know how the prodigal son returned home to his father.  In similar manner, the manager in today’s parable relied on the master not to punish him doubly for lowering the debts after already stealing.  And that proved to be a good bet, for the master did take pity on the manager and spared him from the second punishment he deserved.

 

And so it is with us.  Ultimately, we are each of us guilty of squandering, wasting, and abusing the resources given to us by our Lord.  Even on our best days, we don’t spend enough time in his word.  We don’t use our talents in a godly way.  We desire to hold on to as much of our paycheck as we possibly can rather than supporting the work God has put before us here.  Each of us deserves to face a reckoning, to be audited, to turn in our receipts and give account for what we have done with what our Lord has given to us.

 

Thanks be to God that when such an audit comes, when Satan accuses us before our master on Judgment Day, when the ledgers detailing how we used our resources are laid open, the manager won’t be able to read the condemning amounts on the page, for they will be covered with the blood of his son.  Jesus didn’t hold anything back, but gave everything he had, his very life itself, to buy what was most precious to him: you.  This is our greatest comfort.  This is our greatest treasure.  Living by faith in this reality and sharing the news of this forgiveness with a dying world is what we are here to do.  We are to live in our baptism and work out our salvation with fear and trembling, putting our faith into action, for faith without works is dead.  And a working faith includes being faithful stewards with our Master’s gifts.

May God grant us such faith, that our use of all his gifts, both the spiritual gifts of the Gospel as well as the earthly gifts of wealth, would be pleasing in his sight, and would demonstrate to the world around us the immeasurable depths of his love for us.

Advertisements

Sermon – September 8th/9th, 2013

Count the Cost

Luke 14:25-35; Deuteronomy 30:15-20

16th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 18C)

September 8th/9th, 2013

St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

Choice.  There is a choice before you today, a choice of cosmic significance.  It is a choice whose consequences will last far longer than the consequences of intervening Syria or staying out.  It is a choice of eternal significance. It is a choice that will set in motion a series of events far more life changing than new regulations imposed by Obamacare.  It is a choice with eternal ramifications.  Robert Frost’s dilemma over two roads diverging in a yellow wood is nothing compared to the roads before you today, before you every day, as it is before every man, before every woman.  With heaven and earth as witnesses, before you today are good and evil.  On the one side life, on the other death, the one path filled with blessings, the other with curses.  Which will you choose?

 Are you uncomfortable yet?  Does all this talk of choosing make you squirm in your seat a little?  Are you thinking to yourself, “Doesn’t Pastor know that you can’t talk about decision in a Lutheran church?”  The dominance of decision theology on the American Christian landscape makes most Lutherans bristle at the word “choice” or talk of “choosing,” and rightfully so.  I know my theological Spidy Sence tingles whenever I hear Christians talk of choices in their spiritual lives. Yet Moses does not mince words.  As the Israelites’ days of wandering in the wilderness were drawing to a close, Moses stood before the people and laid out the situation.  Life in the promise land was before them.  When they took possession of the land, they would have a choice to make.  If they obeyed the commandments of the Lord their God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and statutes and rules, then they would live and multiply, and the Lord God would bless them in that land.  But if their heart turned away so that they would not hear God’s Word, if they instead worshiped the false gods of the Canaanites, they would surely perish.

Joshua placed the same choice before the Israelites a few short years later when their conquest into the promise land was done.  When all their enemies had been defeated and the land belonged to the Israelites, Joshua looked to the people and said, “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

The Israelites had a choice to make.  Serve the only true God, Yahweh, or serve something else.  But anything that is not the true God is nothing more than the imagination of people.  Anything that is not the true God is Satan in disguise.  The true God alone brings life, so anything else can only bring death.  The true God alone brings blessing, which is why the man who meditates on God’s Word is blessed.  He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields it fruit in season, and its leaf does not wither.  Anything else can only bring curses, making the one who trusts in it like the chaff that blows away in the wind.

The Israelites had a choice to make, and history shows that they made the wrong one.  You have a choice to make today, between life and death.  You will have a choice to make tomorrow, between good and evil.  The choice between blessing and curse is something you will face every day you walk this earth.  Each and every morning you wake up, the Joshua’s question is put before you: Choose this day whom you will serve.  Each new sunrise brings with it the two paths of Moses: the way of life and the way of death.  Which way will you choose?

On some level, it sounds like a stupid question.  I mean, given the option between life and death, who wouldn’t choose life?  Given the alternative of blessings and curses, who wouldn’t choose blessing?  Given the alternative between good and evil, who wouldn’t choose good?

If only it were that simple.

You have before you today life and death.  But remember that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  In him all things live and move and have their being.  To take Moses’ advice and choose life, one must choose Jesus.  It seems so obvious.  Yet Jesus has a warning for all those who would seek to choose him.  Jesus tells his would-be followers, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”

The thought of hating our family is a tough one.  But we have to hear these words as they were spoken by a first century Israelite.  This is not hate in the sense that the sight of your family fills you with loathing.  This is not hate in the sense that in order to be a disciple of Jesus the mere thought of your parents or children makes you nauseous.  No, Jesus doesn’t even allow us to feel that type of hate for our enemies, much less our family.  To hate in this sense means to recognize the lack of value in something.  To hate something in this sense means to recognize that it’s not good enough.  To hate something in this sense is to reject it in favor of something else.  Jesus is telling those following him that anyone who relies on anything else other than him cannot be his disciple.

The typical first century Israelite would have placed great emphasis on his family line.  Most of them assumed that their place as an ethnic descendant of Abraham guaranteed them a place in the kingdom of God.  Jesus tells them that they couldn’t be farther from the truth. Your ancestry doesn’t get you into heaven – Jesus gets you into heaven.  If you would choose life, you must first recognize that all earthly options are lacking, that nothing else comes close to what Jesus gives.  You must hate not only your ancestry, but even your own life.  You must recognize that anything you offer could never measure up to the debt you owe, that nothing you do could ever cover the sin that stains you.

No, to be a disciple of Jesus, one must take up his own cross and follow Jesus.  To take up your cross means to die, not in the sense that you literally kill yourself, but in the sense that you stop trying to offer things to God.  You stop relying on your own abilities and instead act before him as a dead person acts.  To follow Jesus is to get behind him, not as if Jesus were the line leader, but in the sense that we might get behind a politician or team or program.  To get behind Jesus in this sense means to be identified with him.  In short, what Jesus is saying is that anyone who does not recognize the lack of value in his own life and what he has to offer to God cannot be a Christian.  Anyone who wants to be his disciple must die to himself and identify with Jesus.

“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? . . . Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?”  The choice before you is one of eternal significance.  It is a choice of cosmic proportions.  “Weigh the options,” Jesus says.  “Consider the cost.”  Hadn’t you better see if you have enough resources to finish the project, like a builder who counts his money before building a tower?  Hadn’t you better make sure you’re not entering into a no win situation, like a king who sends his army into battle even though he is outnumbered two to one?  Count the cost of discipleship.

The point of these illustrations is not simply to warn us that the cost of following Jesus is high.  The point is not to simply warn us against making a hasty decision to be a disciple of Jesus.  The point is that neither the builder nor the king had what was necessary to complete his task.  When we count the cost of our task, when we count the cost of discipleship, when we count the cost of choosing life, we see that we are pitifully underfunded, and our tower to heaven will never be complete.  We see that we are woefully outnumbered, and we don’t stand a chance against the army of death.  That is why Jesus says that anyone who does not renounce all that he has, who does not renounce all that he is, cannot be a disciple.

So what do you offer to God?  With what do you seek to impress him?  With your humility?  Your devotion?  Your praise?  Is it your faithfulness in attending worship?  Why are you here today?  Are you here to give something to our Lord as payment for your sinful life, to make amends?  Or are you here to take up your cross in repentance, die to yourself, and rely on the salvation Jesus gives?  Why do you have your children enrolled in this school?  Is it to teach them to be good and moral?  Or to teach them how to take up their cross and die to themselves, to teach them to rely only on Jesus and what he gives.  What does it mean to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus, to be a disciple?

There are two ways before you today, but ultimately it’s no choice at all.  I could tell you that the Red Wings are for sale for the bargain price of 100 Million Dollars, but you don’t have that kind of money.  You couldn’t afford to buy a pro sports team.  That’s the point of what Jesus says in the Gospel today.  What is necessary is not that you count the cost of following Jesus so that you understand the gravity of what you are in for if you choose to live your life for him.  What is necessary is that you count the cost of discipleship to see that you are totally and completely helpless.  Go ahead, count the cost of salvation; you can’t pay it.  Look at the army you are facing; you can’t defeat it.  For it is not against flesh and blood that we battle, but against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil.  You can’t win that battle any more than Sauron’s army of darkness could defeat the army of the undead before the White City in The Return of the King.  It is a battle you just can’t win.  You don’t have the right weapons, and the weapons you do have are not able to harm your foe.

Therefore, renounce everything that you are, turn away from everything you could offer, and cling only to Jesus and what he has done for you.  For in him, the cost of your discipleship has been paid.  He considered the cost of our salvation.  He looked out at what it would take to build not a tower from earth to heaven, but a ladder from heaven to earth.  He knew what it would take to defeat the army of Satan and all his minions.  He considered what you would cost him, and declared not only that he could pay it, but that he would, that you are worth the price.  He took on human flesh knowing full well what would happen to that flesh, but he did it for you.  He lived a human life knowing exactly what he would suffer in that life, knowing that such a life would end in agony on the cross.  But he did it willingly for you.  The Lamb goes uncomplaining forth.  He counted the cost of your salvation, looked at your price tag, and then paid all that was owed.  He purchased and won you not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death.

There is indeed a cost to discipleship, but that cost is not ours to pay.  Jesus paid it.  And because he did, now we will with saints be numbered where praises never end, in glory everlasting.  Amen, O Lord, amen!