September 19, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading

Luke 16:1-13
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. 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.’ 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. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 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.’ 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. 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. “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. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.”

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Sermon: Can We Change the Subject!

The story Jesus tells us this morning and the meaning he draws from it in Luke’s Gospel has long puzzled preachers and teachers and students of Christian Ethics. After reading it, I was tempted to say “This??? Is the word of the Lord???” rather than the usual “This is the word of the Lord!” As we all know, a tone of voice can tell you as much about someone’s meaning as the words they speak.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the benefit of hearing Jesus’ tone of voice as he tells this story. Maybe he told it in a really sarcastic tone of voice, which would give quite a different take to a line like: “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth.”

Or maybe there are some subtitles that are lost in translation. Some translate that line as “make friends for yourselves by means of worldly wealth,” so it simply becomes a straightforward appeal for charitable behavior.

There are many interpretations of the passage we read this morning that take the edge off it; but it’s more interesting, don’t you think, as a story that goes against the grain. For in the discussion of how it goes against the grain we have to grapple with issues of ethics and priorities and the proper use of money – and that’s a subject that’s pretty touchy and sensitive for the church to address, a subject we avoid because some people easily take offense and don’t want anyone poking into their business, especially if they think that the person who is poking is trying to get them to reach into their pockets and part with their cash.

So, let’s not change the subject. Jesus tells a story about a shrewd manager. This manager, or steward in the usage of the old translations, is called on the carpet for squandering the master’s money. You’re fired, the master says, and so the manager goes out to create some friends for himself by selling off the master’s debt at cut rates.

How much do you owe my master?’ the manager asks one account. The answer came back, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ The manager says, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’

Now how much of this is the master’s money being discounted and how much is the manager’s own commission has been one subject of controversy, but to build the tension of the story, let’s assume it was all the master’s money – and so we expect, if the master hears of this, he’s going to be really angry. He’ll do a lot more than fire the manager, he’ll drag him into court.

But no, Jesus says, here’s the twist - the master is not angry; the master admires the shrewdness of the manager and commends him.

For you Godfather fans, it’s like Michael Corleone admiring Tessio for switching allegiance to the Tattaglia family after the death of the Godfather. Michael eventually has Tessio killed, but you sense he commends him for making the smart move, saying to Tom Hagen, “Tessio was always smarter than Clemenza.”

But that’s a bit outside the universe of our normal ethics – a behavior we permit ourselves to admire in the movies, but wouldn’t want in our real world. On a kinder, gentler note, the story that Jesus told reminds me of the admiration inspired by the teen-aged Frank McCourt when to raise money to get to America he goes to work for a money lender. A few weeks ago on CSPAN they rebroadcast an interview where Brian Lamb asks McCourt about this episode in his book Angela’s Ashes:

LAMB: How did you get (to America)?

Mr. F. McCOURT: Oh, boy, that's another story of thievery. I got a job with this old woman writing. She was a money lender, a loan shark, Ms. Finucan. And she hired me to write threatening letters to dilatory customers. I was to threaten them that if they didn't pay up they'd go to jail. oh, and I threatened with all kinds of things. I let my imagination run wild. And I was very successful.

LAMB: And you tell the story about how your mother would hear from her friends that gotten these threatening letters.

Mr. F. McCOURT: Yeah. And that they all said it was a horrible thing. Who would write a letter like that to their own class of people? A person like that should have their fingernails pulled out and be boiled in oil. I was listening to all of this and I just felt awful that I had to write these threatening letters. I felt I felt so powerful at the same time that my letters were so effective.

LAMB: But right before you came to America, though, you slipped in somewhere and took a little money, didn't you?

Mr. F. McCOURT: Well, she died. She used to send me out on Friday nights for a bottle of sherry to the pub, and when I came back she was dead in the chair. So she had her purse and I stole from her purse. And she had money upstairs in the trunk under the bed along with a ledger.

LAMB: You took money there in the chair?

Mr. F. McCOURT: Her purse had dropped to the floor. And I verted my eyes from her because I was terrified. But still the main thing in my life was to get to America. And I think I would have robbed somebody's grave to go there. I had to get out of Ireland.

Now, what was not mentioned in this interview, but is an important note to the story, is that McCourt took the ledger listing all the money owed to Ms. Finucan by her poor neighbors from under the bed and hurled it into the river, so that all the debts were washed away, canceled, forgiven, and through this you sense that he too has been forgiven for the fear he caused his neighbors with his imaginative collection letters.

In the end you admire McCourt for redeeming himself, but you first admire him for his energetic initiative in relentless pursuit of his goal --- and that, for some commentators, is the point of the story Jesus told: people in this life who want something, even something of minimum and passing value, know how to get the job done – why are those who have their eyes on the abundant and eternal riches of God’s kingdom not equally energetic, inventive, and imaginative in their pursuit of that goal and that wealth?

In addition to that, we hear two more lessons that Jesus seems to draw from the parable. Which of these three points, if any, was actually attached to the story when Jesus first told it is a subject of great debate. One scholar has suggested that these may be notes for three separate sermons – that they show how from the earliest preaching, preaching even before the Gospels were written down in the form we have them – the church was puzzled about the moral of the story.

Let me remind you of the three points:
* “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
* “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; And…
* You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Luke fleshes out these points in stories about Good Samaritans and a rich man and poor Lazarus, and lost coins, lost sheep, and prodigal sons. I’d like to briefly apply all three to the issue of the homeless shelter that is now before our community. And this really comes in the form of three questions:

1) How come the people who are unwilling to accept a civic and moral responsibility to help the poor are so clever at blocking the efforts of people who want to get this done? Why are they are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation?

2) There aren’t that many homeless in New Milford – it really isn’t that big of a problem. If we can’t be faithful in solving this small matter, why do we think we will be faithful in larger matters?

And 3, can we dethrone money as the issue that trumps all others when it comes to charting our course for the future in New Milford? Can we serve God, or at least the justice of God, rather than money?

The theologian William Stringfellow wrote: When money is an idol, to be poor is a sin. I sense that view of the poor is alive and well in our town. Our solution in the past has been to give people bus fare to get to Danbury rather than provide a warm space for a night’s rest. If God were the master and we were the managers of his love, would we get a commendation for that job performance?

The story of the dishonest manager raises more questions than it answers, but sometimes it is questions that lead us to examine our priorities and our ethics and challenge us change course and catch up with a God who is waiting even now to cancel our debts and set us free to live in the abundant love and mercy of a kingdom that has no end.  Amen.

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