Saturday, September 29, 2007

Urgent: Make Friends! Use extreme measures When Necessary. Luke 16:1-9

Preached at Joint Presbytery Meeting, Sierra Blanca and Santa Fe in Las Cruces. Sept 29, 2007

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. 2So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” 3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” 6He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” 7Then 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.” 8And 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. 9And 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.

La Palabra de Dios. Te Escuchamos, O Dios.

So Marty Bruner called me long before I knew anything really about anything and asked if I’d be willing to preach for this presbytery meeting. “Sure,” I said. Wait when is it? During this time, I’m thinking what an honor, why am I being asked to preach at Presbytery already? Well, here’s my chance. My chance to just let it all out…let everyone know exactly what I think about how things are going…the state of affairs in the church and in the world. Any text to choose from…any message I feel I must share.

It wasn’t until later that I found out that:

One, it’s fairly common practice to ask newer minister members of presbytery to preach at presbytery meetings.

Two, coming down to Cruces could be a lot of fun, even crossing over into Juarez, unless you have to get a sermon ready, preach.

And three, the preaching came at 8:30 in the morning. That’s really early, for me at least.

But it’s all good. My first year has kind of been like a hazing process, doing all kinds of things that I don’t necessarily want to do; but that others think would be good for me to do...or not so good. My stomach was on fire my first few weeks in Santa Fe because everyone wanted to take us to their favorite place for New Mexican Food. It’s all good; I’ve learned that in these early days of ministry I have to stay on my toes. I have to figure out what’s going on. So part of figuring stuff out is reusing sermons. This passage from Luke was the lectionary passage from last Sunday. Raise your hand if you preached or heard a sermon preached on Luke 16 last Sunday? How did it go?

But why this text for presbytery? A parable about a corrupt manager who loses his job; and then in desperation uses dishonest tactics to save his neck, and is subsequently commended for his behavior? Given all that is going on within our church; why not a sermon about loving each other; one about unity; maybe even a sermon about marriage given the steps that are being taken between the presbytery of Santa Fe and Sierra Blanca. But I was inspired to preach this text, especially after the interpretation of it by homiletics professor Tom Long who preached at our baccalaureate service from Columbia Seminary (two preachers from CTS preached at this presbytery meeting). He was preaching to inspire leaders in the church and this was the parable he thought appropriate. He pointed out the reality that the seminary had been graduating ministers for centuries; that the Presbyterian church has been in existence for centuries, and that really when we consider our task to work and serve in any church, be it as an elder or a minister, that in reality, time is short. I was ordained in February of this year, in the blink of an eye I will be among those retiring, or listed in the necrology report. The Psalmist reminds us: “They flourish like a flower in the field , [and then]….the wind passes over it and it is gone.” Our lives are finite; we are not God; at some point things will end even for the newest commissioner, even for the most recently ordained; a reality that hopefully doesn’t lead to despair, but instead to urgency. We have a limited time, so what are we going to do?

This parable of the “Unjust or Crooked Manager” gets right at this. It’s a scenario we hear time and time again—corporate scandal—Enron, the New England Patriots. In our story, the wealthy CEO hears of his dishonest negligent manager’s behavior; so he calls the guy in: “What have you been doing, sleeping on the job all day? You didn’t think I would see how you’ve been mishandling my business: “You’re fired!” These words pierce our very souls, cause nightmares or insomnia, and can lead to crisis. What was the guy to do? He’s been in upper management for most of his career; he can’t do any physical labor, his back would probably give out and get blisters on his hands; and there’s no way he’s going to beg. So he gets in survival mode; think fast; he’s got a plan. What clients have outstanding debts? He calls them into his office one by one before it is taken apart: “Hello good and loyal customer how much do you owe?” Why, for being such a loyal customer, I’ll do you a favor, cut your debt in half; I’m in that kind of mood. Have a good day, Next. Oh hello…you…how much you got left to pay? You and me, we’re good friends right? Let’s turn that 100 into eighty, Ey, good buddy. Next!

You get the idea right.

This guy, whose already been negligent and dishonest, continues in his dishonest ways to save his own neck; he knows the rules of the game, he knows that if he scratches their backs now, they will surely scratch his back later. Didn’t Jesus disapprove of this kind behavior when he got after the Pharisee for inviting the wrong people to his party? So what does Jesus think about this kind of behavior now? Surely he’s going to tie it all together by saying how wrong it is to lie, cheat, and steal followed by: “Then the Lord rained on the crooked manager sulfur and fire out of heaven.”1 But no, the dishonest manager is commended! Give ‘em a high five!

The text isn’t clear if it is the CEO or Jesus who commends him. It says: “His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.” It doesn’t make sense for the CEO master to commend this guy for stealing from him. But, it doesn’t make much more sense that Jesus is commending this kind of behavior, does it? But Jesus’ words that follow provide some insight into this perplexing puzzle. “I wish the children of the light, the people of God, those who would follow after Jesus, were as shrewd for the gospel as the money, power driven wheeler-dealers of the world are shrewd for themselves.”2 You see; there are people in every generation who spend every minute of every day trying to figure out how to get ahead, how to earn a buck; do whatever it takes to get to the top.

My college roommate was unbelievably motivated to get good grades. While I was off hanging out with friends he was studying. While I was sleeping he was studying. During finals week, he drank a cup of coffee every hour and averaged 2 hours of sleep for four days straight. I remember him sleeping out in the hall of our dorm with a note on his sleeping bag that said, If you walk by me at 5 o’clock in the morning and I’m not awake, please wake me up. He was crazy…but he got good grades.

How many wake up early morning to follow the stock market and do some day trading—MSNBC with streaming tickers on 24/7? Wake up and try on a dozen different outfits: which will be the right one? Wake up in the morning scheming how the Rockies can get into the playoffs? But that is the behavior Jesus is commending. The idea of it, at least.

Jesus says, “I wish the people of God would have that kind of determination, that kind of focus and energy, enthusiasm and shrewdness for being the community of beloved disciples participating in God’s mission in the world.” Is this what that ordination question is about? We all made the same promise when we took our ordination vows. Just a few months ago I stood on the floor of the church that raised me and nurtured me and pledged:

I will seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.

What would happen to our churches, to the national church, to the world if we were about doing God’s mission with the kind of passion and energy that the crooked manager had when his life was on the line. Urgency, Shrewdness. A matter of survival. People would probably think we were a bunch of Jesus freaks. But let’s not complicate the mission. Why freak people out? It’s not necessarily about talking the right kind of good Christian talk, or being seen in the right kind of places, Shrewdness for being the community of beloved disciples; eyes open and a heart to serve. Prayer, and genuine concern and love for others. Knowing when it’s time to row, when to raise the sails, and what to do when the boat is sinking.

A young woman shared with her congregation about her experience of God…a testimony of sorts. She talked about how she had grown up and been baptized in that church; she pointed at the baptismal font, “There, I was baptized there. “I don’t remember it; I was a baby, but my father loved to tell me about the day I was baptized, what I was wearing, how I reacted to the water, the people there that day, friends and relatives; and he would always end the story by exclaiming, “Oh honey, the Holy Spirit was in the church that day!” “I remember as a child, being restless in worship,” she continued. “I would wonder, ‘Where is the Holy Spirit in this church?’” She pointed to different places in the sanctuary, “Is the Holy Spirit in the rafters? In the organ pipes? In the stained glass windows?” Her voice softened, “As many of you know, I lost both my parents in the same week last winter. In the midst of that terrible week, I was driving home from the hospital, having visited my parents, knowing that I might never see them alive again, and I stopped by the church, just to think and to pray. “Sarah Lopez was in the church kitchen, getting ready for a supper, and she saw me sitting all by myself in one of the back pews. She knew what was happening in my life, knew about my parents, and she took off her apron and came and sat beside me, holding my hand and praying with me. It was then that I knew where the Holy Spirit was in this church.” Sarah Lopez could have left her apron on and gone about her important work; people were counting on her for the supper; people would have continued to think highly of her, a faithful and obedient churchwoman. But she was shrewd, her eyes and heart were open, and she had good enough sense to act with urgency;

the grieving young woman sobbing in the sanctuary” was much more in need of loving care than was the kitchen.3

Jesus said: “I wish the children of light were as shrewd as the children of this age.” Words of great challenge; followed by words that are really confusing: “Followers, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”4 Say what? Dishonest wealth to make friends. Now some of us are better at making friends than others; all of us could probably use a little something extra—a little more than just our charming personalities and brilliant smiles- to make friends with people; for people to like us. But dishonest wealth? For crying out loud, we’re good Christians after all.

This is clearly about money; Jesus is very concerned about economics. But what does Dishonest Wealth mean? Perhaps a more helpful translation could be “the money of this unrighteous age.” “In other words, it is not money that is corrupt, it’s the culture that is corrupt. And Jesus is not talking about dishonest money versus good money. He is talking about all money, every last penny of the currency of our culture. Jesus wants us to take all of the money we have,” and all the things we can do with our money and “make friends for ourselves with it.”5

Here then is the heart of the matter. The world will eagerly tell you how to use your money shrewdly. If you have money,” we’re told to invest it, buy real estate, “put it to work in the marketplace. It takes money to make money, …so take a little pile of dough and make it rise.

And that is very shrewd advice, indeed, unless, unless, unless this world, with all of its glittering empires, is passing away. What if the truth, hidden from the savvy investors of Wall Street, prudent real estate advisors, is that this world and all of its glory is dying right before our very eyes, and a new world, God’s very own world, is being born? Then a new wisdom would come about. The shrewd among us would invest what we have not in this world but in the world to come.“6

Isn’t this what Jesus is telling his followers? “Make friends for yourselves by means of the wealth of this world that is passing away, invest in the world that is to come, invest in what will truly endure.”7 What if we imagined the wealth of this world like monopoly? When you start the game you’re given a certain amount of cash, and you’re supposed to invest it, buy property, and try to stay out of jail. You may end up with a lot of cash, and a lot of property, but in the end, the game ends, the money is useless. This is what the currency of this world is like in light of what Jesus is saying, right? It’s like having monopoly money, you can buy park place and boardwalk, but in the end it doesn’t mean anything. And “when we think about this parable in relationship to the church and its ministry, it becomes clear that this is about more than simply cash—not just about money, its about everything!”8

Use the stuff that is available, the resources, however much or little we have in our individual churches, in our respective presbyteries, in our denomination to make friends with this world;

make friends with as much energy, imagination, creativity and shrewdness as the dishonest manager. What do we have as individuals who seek to follow Jesus? Jobs that don’t pay what we might like? Not enough time in the day? What do our respective presbyteries have as we seek to love God and others? Under funded camps, declining memberships, churches that have to be closed? Some might say, we don’t have much, what can we do? But, WWSMD? What would the shrewd manager do? Wouldn’t the shrewd manager see the current state of affairs in our churches and be scheming, conniving, dreaming different ways to make friends with the world. For the shrewd manager making friends was a matter of survival. How do we use the stuff? Do we help folks out with gas money or food? Do we try to give employment whenever possible? Do we host AA groups or community events in our buildings? How do we use the stuff to make friends with this world? Do we consider different styles of worship? Do we use technology—websites for our churches, podcasting, blogs or Social networking sites like facebook to preach good news? Do we use our imagination, creativity and energy and love?

Our eyes and ears must be open, our hearts and minds ready; the holy spirit may use us by whatever means necessary to make friends. And Jesus has already told us earlier in Luke 14 what kind of friends we’re to make. The poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the lonely,
those who are suffering, those who need healing, those who need radical love in their lives;
those who may never be able to repay the favor given to them; this includes people in here and people out there.

Why? Jesus seems to be suggesting that this is part of a the job description, and we’re to be diligent, determined, shrewd, didn’t you read that in the fine print?

Why? Jesus seems to be suggesting, in typical table turning fashion, that it will be those friends that we are to make, who might not be able to return any “favors” we offer, who will be standing on the inside, opening the doors of welcome in the eternal homes.

I heard Tony Campolo, professor of Sociology at Eastern University in Pennsylvania, tell a story an experience he had during a conference in Hawaii years ago. (some have heard it?) He checks into his hotel and tries to get some sleep. Unfortunately, his internal clock wakes him at 3:00 a.m. The night is dark, the streets are silent, the world is asleep, but Tony is wide awake and his stomach is growling. He gets up and prowls the streets looking for a place to get some bacon and eggs for an early breakfast. Everything is closed except for a grungy dive in an alley.

He goes in and sits down at the counter. The greasy guy behind the counter comes over and asks, "What d'ya want?" Well, Tony isn't so hungry anymore so eying some donuts under a plastic cover he says, "I'll have a donut and coffee." As he sits there munching on his donut and sipping his coffee at 3:30, in walk eight or nine provocative, loud prostitutes just finished with their night's work. They plop down at the counter and Tony finds himself uncomfortably surrounded by this group of smoking, swearing hookers. He gulps his coffee, planning to make a quick getaway.

Then the woman next to him says to her friend, "You know what? Tomorrow's my birthday. I'm gonna be 39."

To which her friend nastily replies, "So what d'ya want from me? A birthday party? Huh? You want me to get a cake, and sing happy birthday to you?"

The first woman says, "Aw, come on, why do you have to be so mean? Why do you have to put me down? I'm just sayin' it's my birthday. I don't want anything from you. I mean, why should I have a birthday party? I've never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?"

Tony sat and waited until the women left, and then he asked the guy at the counter, "Do they come in here every night?"

"Yeah," he answered.

"The one right next to me," he asked, "she comes in every night?"

"Yeah," he said, "that's Agnes. Yeah, she's here every night. She's been comin' here for years. Why do you want to know?"

"Because she just said that tomorrow is her birthday. What do you think? Do you think we could maybe throw a little birthday party for her right here in the diner?"

A smile crept over the greasy man's chubby cheeks. "That's great," he says, "yeah, that's great. I like it." He turns to the kitchen and shouts to his wife, "Hey, come on out here. This guy's got a great idea. Tomorrow is Agnes' birthday and he wants to throw a party for her right here."

His wife comes out. "That's terrific," she says. "You know, Agnes is really nice. She's always trying to help other people and nobody does anything nice for her."

So they make their plans. Tony says he'll be back at 2:30 the next morning with some decorations and the man, whose name turns out to be Harry, says he'll make a cake.

At 2:30 the next morning, Tony is back. He has crepe paper and other decorations and a sign made of big pieces of cardboard that says, "Happy Birthday, Agnes!" They decorate the place from one end to the other and get it looking great. Harry had gotten the word out on the streets about the party and by 3:15 it seemed that every prostitute in Honolulu was in the place. There were hookers wall to wall.

At 3:30 on the dot, the door swings open and in walks Agnes and her friend. Tony has everybody ready. They all shout and scream "Happy Birthday, Agnes!"

Agnes is absolutely flabbergasted. She's stunned, her mouth falls open, and she almost falls over. And when she sees the birthday cake with all the candles she totally loses it: sobbing and crying.

Harry gruffly mumbles, "Blow out the candles, Agnes. Cut the cake."
So she pulls herself together and blows them out.
Everyone cheers and yells, "Cut the cake, Agnes, cut the cake!"

But Agnes looks down at the cake and, without taking her eyes off it, slowly and softly says, "Look, Harry, is it all right with you if...I mean, if I don't...I mean, what I want to ask, is it OK if I keep the cake a little while? Is it all right if we don't eat it right away?"

Harry doesn't know what to say so he shrugs and says, "Sure, if that's what you want to do. Keep the cake. Take it home if you want."

"Oh, could I?" she asks. Looking at Tony she says, "I live just down the street a couple of doors; I want to take the cake home, is that okay? I'll be right back, honest."

She gets off her stool, picks up the cake, and carries it high in front of her like it was the Holy Grail.

Everybody watches in stunned silence and when the door closes behind her, nobody seems to know what to do. They look at Tony. So Tony gets up on a chair and says, "What do you say that we pray together?" And there they are in a hole-in-the-wall greasy diner, half the prostitutes in Honolulu, at 3:30 a.m. listening to Tony Campolo as he prays for Agnes, that her life would be changed, and that God would be good to her.

When he's finished, Harry leans over, and with a trace of hostility in his voice, he says, "Hey, you never told me you were religious. What kind of church do you belong to anyway?"

In one of those moments when just the right words came, Tony answers him somberly: "I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for prostitutes at 3:30 in the morning."

tarry He thinks for a moment, and in a mocking way says, "No you don't. There ain't no church like that. If there was, I'd join it. Yep, I'd join a church like that."9

What kind of church do we want to be? Are we willing to be shrewd, to use the stuff of this world, whatever we’ve got, to make friends. This is what really matters. Will we seek to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love? Our lives are so brief... “they flourish like a flower of the field…the wind passes over it and it is gone.” in the blink of an eye, I will be retiring or found in the necrology report. But don’t despair, instead act with diligence, shrewdness, urgency. It may be a matter of survival. Make Friends for Christ: “In the end, only that will endure.”10

1 Leviticus

2 Adapted from T. Long’s paraphrase of this verse.

3 Adapted from T. Longs “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, 52-57.

4 T. Long, “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, p 54

5 T. Long “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, p 54.

6 T. Long “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, p 55

7 T. Long “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, p 55

8 T. Long “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, p 55.

9 Adapted from the way I remember it being told and the retelling of the story on:

10 T. Long “Making Friends,” Journal for Preachers, p 57.

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