Sunday Sermon – September 22, 2019

Stewardship as Spiritual Maturity
Proper 20C: Luke 16:1-13
The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
22 September 2019

 

May the words of my mouth and the mediation of all of our hearts, be acceptable in thy sight.  O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

If you were confused by the Gospel passage as you were listening to it, you are not alone.  Many people who read or hear this passage for the first time think that it is suggesting that Jesus is endorsing dishonesty.  The verse that people key in on is this one: “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.”  Other translations have it that the dishonest manager had acted “wisely” or that he had acted “prudently.”

The misunderstanding happens when we think that what is being commended is dishonesty.  That interpretation does not make much sense, does it? Would the rich man decide to dismiss his manager for dishonesty and then turn around and praise him for cheating him? Doubtful.  So, what is going on here?

The quality of the dishonest manager that is being commended and admired is the manager’s shrewdness and ingenuity.  The dishonest manager demonstrated shrewdness by securing the friendship of his master’s debtors by making them indebted to him for reducing their bills.  In other words, when the dishonest manager realized that he was about to get fired and that he wasn’t fit for a life of manual labor and was too proud to beg, then he had to think fast about how to secure his own future so that he wasn’t going to be destitute.  So, being very familiar with how the world works and the minds and hearts of the people of his generation, the dishonest manager knew that his master’s debtors would owe him a debt of gratitude by reducing their bills. The dishonest manager knew that in the future, when he might need to ask them for a favor, that they would feel that they couldn’t refuse and would feel obligated to grant him the favors that he asked for.  

If we’re honest, it is not all that unusual to admire certain qualities of cleverness and ingenuity in people, even if the we condemn the ends for which they were used.  For example, think of how Sherlock Holmes often admires the creativity and cleverness of his evil nemesis Moriarty. Or, one might admire the creative way Lord Voldemort uses the trophy of the Triwizard tournament as a portkey to lure Harry Potter to the graveyard. Nero, Hitler, Stalin had goals and objectives that we condemn, but they had to be shrewd, prudent, and creative men in order to achieve the power that they did.  It would not be an understatement to say that they very much understood the ways of their generation.  

And, in the Gospel lesson this morning it is precisely this exercise of creativity, prudence and shrewdness that Jesus is encouraging his disciples to notice.  He is not endorsing dishonesty and cheating.  

Since the Gospel of Luke was written about 60 years after Jesus death, in about 90 AD, it is more than likely that the initial enthusiasm of the first followers of Jesus’ and the generations of the emerging church had subsided a little bit.  It is likely that Luke puts this parable in his Gospel to spur his readers on to think creatively about how to preach the Gospel and relate to the people of their age more effectively. This is what was meant when Jesus said, “For the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.”  

One of the points behind this remark is Jesus warning his disciples about spiritual complacency.  It is dangerous to think that once we, the children of light, say that we believe in Jesus as the Son of God and become baptized that our work is done.  It is easy to think that once we have done these things we have “punched our ticket to heaven” and that we can simply sit back, come to church occasionally, and enjoy the finer things in life until we finally die.  No. That is not how discipleship works. Believing in God, professing our faith in Christ, and committing our lives to being disciples is the first step on the journey of a lifetime. And, whether we are the disciples in the 1st century or the 21st century, one of the areas of spiritual complacency that constantly faces us nearly every step of the way, is how we understand the role of money in our lives and the ends to which we put it to use.

There are two key points to remember about money.  The first is that money is not evil in and of itself.  It is merely a resource which can be used for good or bad ends. Money can be used to help heal the sick, feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, and provide education.  It can help pay for electricity, repair leaks, and put fuel in our cars so we can travel to work. But, as we all know and have experienced, it can also be used to fill us with pride and satisfy our own greed. It can make us envious, angry, lazy, and gluttonous.  It can be used to manipulate and bribe others. And, money can be withheld to hurt people and to exercise coercive power. 

The second point about money is that it is only useful to us for our time on earth.  We can’t take it with us after we die. But, just because we can’t take it with us after we die, doesn’t mean that it we can’t make good use of it for the kingdom of God while we are here on earth.  Whatever resources we have, they are not ultimately ours. They are God’s. We are merely stewards of them. And, our attitude about money and the reasons why we pursue it and spend it says a lot about our spiritual life and the depth of our spiritual maturity. 

In his Eagle article this past week, in anticipation of our annual stewardship meetings that will start next month, Robert talked about giving as a spiritual discipline.  One of the things he pointed out was that we think about stewardship the wrong way if we think about it as “paying” for services provided by the church in the past. Like paying a bill.  Rather, Robert reminded us that stewardship is about giving to the future. Stewardship is a spiritual orientation about how we plan to live faithfully in the world. Stewardship as a spiritual orientation toward the future is an act of faith, hope, and love.  Faithful stewardship is putting those resources that we have been given into circulation for the kingdom of God, so that the message of the Gospel, the message of God’s love and God’s grace can be spread to all those who are in need of it.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon, when conflict arises in a church, for the injured parties to withhold their pledges or reduce it.  This is perhaps not surprising, since withholding a pledge is basically an act of retaliation. I am hurt by something done by the church, or the rector, or the vestry, or whomever, so I am going to hurt them back by withholding or withdrawing my money.  You may know of people who have done this, or you yourselves may have done this in the past. This act of retaliation, unfortunately, is actually misplaced. Withholding a pledge doesn’t hurt the rector or the vestry or any person in particular. Rather, withholding or reducing pledges as act of retaliation done in anger which reduces the church’s ability to provide opportunities for worship, cultivating discipleship, and reaching out to those in need.  

I was listening to the radio a few weeks ago and someone described anger and holding a grudge as drinking poison and hoping the other person will die.  Anger, when left unaddressed, is more damaging to us, mentally, physically, and spiritually, than it is to the person towards whom our anger is targeted.

Furthermore, retaliating by withholding or reducing a pledge is misplaced because it misunderstands what the point of spiritual giving is all about.  The amount of our pledge, when offered faithfully, should not be made as a signal to the rector about how much you approve or disapprove of him. If the rector or a member of the staff is dishonest with the pledges or commits fraud, then by all means they should be fired. But even this behavior should not in and of itself warrant a reduction in spiritual giving to the church as a whole as a form of punishment.  Because who is being punished exactly? When we give money to the church, we are not giving it to the rector to spend. Rather, the vestry, as the elected representatives of the congregation, are the ones charged as the stewards of stewardship, if you will. They are the ones who have the authority to approve the budget and give permission for the money to be spent. Not the rector. Not the staff. Not the treasurer.  So, withholding money from the church simply hurts the music ministry, the children’s ministry, our Honduras missionary ministry, our outreach ministry, and every person that walks in the door of this parish who is searching for healing and the reconciling love of God. In short, it hurts the church’s ability to achieve its mission. Which is, if you look on the front of your service bulletin: “The mission of St. John’s church is to worship God and to make disciples for Jesus Christ.”  

Instead of being an act that can be turned into a threat of coercive power,  faithful giving is an act of spiritual maturity and reflects the depth of our commitment to God.  Spiritual giving is an act of gratitude for all that God has done in our lives. When we give faithfully as an orientation to the mission of the church and the future, we are helping to provide others with the opportunity to participate in and share in the benefits of being part of a spiritual community and to be recipients of God’s love and God’s grace.  Each and every one of us are the beneficiaries of the stewardship and faithfulness of previous generations. And, the decisions we make with our money says a lot about the extent to which we recognize that and the depth of our own spiritual maturity than it does about anything else.

It might also be tempting, in the middle of a transition period, to be cautious and reserved about our pledges for next year.  Robert is leaving, and we have no idea who the next rector will be. Indeed, we’ll probably be halfway through the year before we know who the next rector will even be.  So, we have some choices to make as we consider our pledges for 2020. Do we take a wait and see approach? Holding back until we see if we like the next person or not? If we like the next rector, will we increase our pledge to signal our approval?  If we don’t like the next rector then will we vote with our feet and our pocketbooks, making him or her worry more about being popular rather than being an effective priest?  

Or, do we act against conventional behavior this stewardship season exceed what is being asked of us, reversing the negative trend of the last few years? Will we as a congregation pledge as a show of faith that we believe in and will work for the future of St. John’s, no matter who is called to be the next rector?  Do we want the next rector to have to worry about the budget and be concerned about the state of spiritual maturity of St. John’s walking in the door? Or would we rather have the next rector focused on how to allocate and apply those resources so that St. John’s can be creative, prudent, wise, insightful, and even shrewd in the way that it goes about preaching the Gospel to the people of this generation?

We all have some time to think about it.  The first stewardship meeting is in two weeks.  Pledges are due on November 1st.   But, whatever we decide to do either individually or as families, our actions will speak volumes about the state of our spiritual life, our hopefulness for the future of St. John’s and who our true master is.  Will it be God or will it be wealth?