Sunday, September 23, 2007

Shrewd Stewardship

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, NY
September 23, 2007--The 17th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 16:1-13

It’s not a word we hear very much anymore: shrewd.

And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.

Let me begin with my main point this morning: God wants us to be spiritually shrewd. And he wants us to be especially shrewd in how we deal with the thing that most gets in our way of God: our possessions. He wants us to practice stewardship with spiritual shrewdness.

The connection is right there, literally, in the text, although this [NRSV] translation covers it up. The word for “manager” could easily be, and often is, translated “steward.”[1] “Dishonest manager” in the old King James Version was “unjust steward.”

Personally I delight in the three or four parables Jesus tells like this one that are very hard for us to figure out because the main character is an anti-hero,[2] the opposite of the kind of person whom God would seem to want us to imitate. When he tells these parables he seems to be toying with us. I don’t think it “seems” that he is; I think he is toying with us!

Why? He does so for many reasons, no doubt, but among them to keep us from falling into the trap of trusting in our own goodness to save us. Avoiding that trap is a major piece of work for us religious types, so major—the trap so enormous—that we have to learn to be very shrewd to avoid it.

These difficult parables underscore two very important principals for interpreting the parables in general. First of all, Jesus told them as stories primarily about God. We, in typical human fashion, want to make them primarily about us, but they are only about us after they are about God.

Second of all, the parables are almost always meant to unsettle our easy notions about God and how God acts. If Jesus had one singular driving internal force it was his conviction that people, even religious people, especially religious people, did not “get” God.

This is why, when asked why he kept speaking in parables, Jesus basically responded, “In order to confuse people.”[3] He wanted to confuse people’s religious sensibilities, to turn their easy notions about God on their heads.

So how is this a parable about God? Well, there are really two main characters in this story: the master and the unjust steward. In this case I think the master is a stand in for how we think God should act and the unjust steward is actually how God does act. We think that God acts like the master: carefully keeping track of the books and demanding an accounting from us when we are being dishonest or unjust or unrighteous (all fair translations of the adjective describing “steward”). We all assume that someday God is going to say to us in a heavy parental or boss-like tone, “Give me an accounting of your stewardship (management)!”

But God is actually like the unjust steward, who finds ways to cook the books, get the debts forgiven, and get on with life. If you think about it, Jesus himself acts just like “the unjust steward” in how he saves the world. It isn’t fair by the world’s standards. It isn’t even just by the world’s standards. St. Paul says, at one point in Romans, that God acted “unnaturally” in extending salvation to us Gentiles.[4]

You have heard me say (as Mary Ann reminded you last week) that God’s love for us is “pathetic.” Let me add to the “insult.” God’s love for us is also “unjust,” “dishonest,” even “unrighteous,” by our easy religious standards.

Or, to put it another way, as the parable does, it is “shrewd.” It is spiritually shrewd, smart. How so? For this reason: the capacity to be shrewd about something usually involves being able to think below the surface, to set aside our initial reaction to something or someone, and to come at a problem from a different direction. So God, rather than go with his gut and condemn us for our unrighteousness, our inability ever to do enough to please him, says, “OK, they will never be perfect on their own, so I think I will offer them my own perfection as a kind of cloak, and I think that if they will wear the cloak, they will actually become more perfect themselves, as they experience my love for them.

And that is, of course, one way of talking about the story of Jesus. Jesus was God’s spiritual shrewdness incarnate.

So how does this apply to us, now that we have some sense of how it might apply to God? Particularly, how does this apply to our life as stewards of God’s creation? How does this apply to how we relate to our possessions, those things that so compete for our attention, often at the expense of our relationship with God?

Basically I think it means that we have to be spiritually shrewd whenever we deal with the topic of money or possessions in the church or anywhere else. And that means we have to discipline ourselves not to be reactive, not to let our guts lead us, and to be willing to look at it from a different angle and ask the question, “What is God up to here that may not be what I think so at first?”

So, money gets mentioned in church. This time of year it always does, and this year more so than usual here because of the contemplated Capital Campaign, and, of course, that just raises all of our fears that more is being asked of us than we can possibly give. Each one of us sees that $300,000 goal and immediately begins thinking, “I can’t do that,” which quickly translates into “we can’t do that.”

Now if you go with that initial reaction then you’ll head one of three places: you’ll give out of loyalty, probably tinged with a heavy dose of guilt, or you’ll try to figure out how we can do this more cheaply, or you’ll pull a Nancy Reagan and “just say no.”

But if you are spiritually shrewd you will notice that initial reaction and say. “OK, that’s how I feel, but what is a different way of looking at this?” Set the reaction aside and say your prayers and exercise your mind.

Is this really a matter of whether or not God loves me? No. Is this really a matter of whether I am a full member of the church or not? No. Is my decision about this going to have anything to do with my standing with God or with the church? No. If I give, does the amount I give actually have anything to do with how much God loves me or how good a member of the church I am? No.

Than what is it about? It is not about the quantity of my giving (we are so afraid that the church—and God—works just like the rest of the world, that size matters). It is about that good, old fashioned Anglican quality: participation. At the very beginning of our tradition, as we were trying to define this “middle way” of ours, Richard Hooker gave us a metaphor. He said our life in the church is not about how good or righteous we are, it is about our participation. It is, literally about “showing up.”

I think that translates to stewardship in this way: it is not how much you give, it is about how much you share.

This great truth dawned on me in Vancouver while John and I were on vacation in August. I came across a quote from a “First Nations” person, as they call Native Americans there.

It has never been about what you don’t have. It’s about what you do have and what you can share.[5]

We are so afraid that it is about what we don’t have. We are so afraid it is about the amount. We are so afraid that we will not measure up in the eyes of God or of the church or of one another. And we desperately need to have the spiritual shrewdness to say, “No, that’s not what this is about.” It is not about how much I can give, it is about how much I can share. It is not about how much we can give, it is about how much we can share.

Sharing is the value here, not giving. And that means that the poorest among us and the wealthiest among us has the same standing. It is not about the size of the gift, it is about its quality, the attitude with which it is given.

Let us learn from God and be spiritually shrewd about everything in life, including our stewardship. It matters how we think about things. It matters how we think about God—that’s why Jesus told us these parables that get us all confused. It matters how we think about our life and our life together as a Christian community.

We have to deal with money in our life and in the church—even Jesus knew that and it hasn’t changed over the past 2,000 years. But we should not let ourselves think about it like the world around us wants us to think about it. It is not about the size of the gift; it is about the quality of the sharing. It is not about showing off, it is about showing up.

[1] The Greek word is oikonomos. A variation of the word occurs seven times in the parable.
[2] Usually counted among these are “the Unjust Judge (Luke 18:1-8) and, at least in the Jewish eyes of Jesus’ day, the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). I would also add the Friend at Midnight (11:5-8). Interestingly enough, these are all found only in Luke’s Gospel.
[3] Matthew 13:10-13, Luke 8:10.
[4] Romans 11:24.
[5] The quote is from a member of the Musqueam people, Vivian Campbell, and was on display with other quotes in the Museum of Anthropology.

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