Monday, September 19, 2016

Eighteenth after Pentecost

Proper 20C-1  Luke 16: 1-13

I don’t usually give titles to my sermons, but if I were going to do that this morning I would call this one, “The Two Economies.”  The Two Economies.  When I taught History and Government for a couple of years before seminary I had a 12-week unit for 10th graders, an Introduction to Economics.  A subject always interesting, and especially in an election year.   When we talk about “economics” what we’re talking about begins in the most basic way with an understanding of what is valued in any particular individual or society, what is of importance, and then of how individuals and communities organize their behavior--thoughts and feelings and interactions with one another--in reference to what they value.

 Jesus is talking about economics here in the Parable of the Unjust Steward, Luke 16, verses 1-9—as he was also in the three Parables that he has just told in Luke 15, as we looked at them last Sunday—the Parable of the Lost Sheep, the Parable of the Lost Coin, and the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is sometimes to keep the pattern going also called the Parable of the Lost Son.  The economies highlighted in the first three parables contrast with the world of the parable we’ve heard this morning, and we keep them all in mind as we move to the second part of this morning’s reading, in verses 10-15, as Jesus speaks to the question of whether it’s really possible to serve “two “Masters.”   

A few years ago I saw a bumper sticker that I thought captured something of the spirit of the roaring 1990’s, at least in certain high-visibility corners of our western culture.  It said, “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.”  An implicit irony, intended to elicit a smile while still calling our attention to a system of value rigorously centered on consumerism.  Toys.  Fancy cars, fancy houses, wide-screen t.v.’s,  designer purses, shiny jewelry, exotic travel.   How do I know I have success in my life?  Check out what’s in my driveway . . . .

As a contrast, I remember sitting with my great friend and teacher, the late Ken Bailey, brilliant New Testament scholar, our Canon Theologian here in the diocese for many years.  He was talking about the passage in the 21st Chapter of the Revelation to John where John has his vision of the heavenly Jerusalem.  The city brilliant, shimmering, shining, its walls and gates dazzling with the glitter of the rarest gems and jewels, its streets paved with gold.   He read through the verses, paused just so we could take it all in, the daydream of a resort destination more extravagant than any ever seen in a full-page, full-color ad in the New York Times Magazine, and Dr. Bailey said, “here’s the point:  in God’s Kingdom, gold is just the same as asphalt and glittering jewels are just all dumped in together with gravel to be mortar for the bricks.   Everything that seems to us so precious—there, it’s just nothing.  Of no importance.  No value at all.”  Turns out it’s the presence of God that gives the city its glorious glow.  The rocks are just rocks.

So two contrasting economies.  Two Masters.  The economy of this world as it is, we might say,  and the economy of the Kingdom.  On the one hand.  The shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine to seek after the one.  The woman who caters a dinner dance for half the county to celebrate her finding of a lost coin of only modest value.  The Father who puts aside pride and status and even the privilege of his righteous grievance, to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation in his family.

And then, on the other hand.  Jesus goes on to tell the story we heard this morning about a manager who hasn’t been very good at his job.   The owner of the business has finally had enough and one afternoon sends him an e-mail.  Come to my office first thing tomorrow morning.  As soon as he reads this the manager knows his goose is cooked.  The axe is about to fall.  And he goes into a panic.  He’s got a mortgage, two kids in college, a leased European sedan.  He and his wife already have their non-refundable tickets for a European spring vacation, and they’re up to their eyeballs in credit card debt.   Per the bumper sticker:  they’ve been financing a lot of toys.  What to do?  And then suddenly an idea hits him.  A brilliant stroke!  He pulls the Accounts Receivable file and calls a couple of his big customers and offers them major discounts on their outstanding invoices.  They’re delighted, of course, they thank him profusely, and he is meanwhile crossing his fingers that this newfound good will may open a few doors for him if he’s out pounding the pavement and looking for a new job in the next month or so.  The twist comes at the end of the story, when the owner of the business goes online and sees what the manager has done.  We expect him to be outraged—but quite the contrary!  The next morning comes, and the manager is welcomed into the owner’s office not with a pink slip, but with a smile and a handshake--and a promotion!  “That’s exactly the kind of outside-of-the-box thinking we need around here to take our business to the next level,” the owner exclaims.   “I’ve been looking to hire somebody who could be a real game-changer around here, somebody who could think on his feet--and here you are right under my nose.  Somebody not afraid to take risks, to push the edge of the envelope.  The world is full of paper-pushers, but you’ve really shown me something different.  You’re a guy with real potential, and I for sure don’t want you going out to work for my competitors!”

In any case, what Jesus says here.  You know, there are an awful lot of people around here who have become very successful  in the “he who dies with the most toys wins” economy.   Like the characters in the story.  They’ve got the game all figured out.  Experts.  We expect to read about them both soon in the cover story of Business Week or Barron’s.  They know with crystal clarity which Master they’re serving, and they’re good at it.  And Jesus looks at the crowd, at his disciples, at the Scribes and Pharisees.  “How about us?  What would it be like—just imagine!—if folks around here were to be as skillful in transactions of grace and mercy and love as these guys are with dollars and cents!  Turns out to be an uncomfortable moment yet again for the Scribes and the Pharisees, and we’re going to see that really come to a boil with next Sunday’s reading.  They’re supposed to be the ambassadors of God’s Kingdom in the midst of God’s people, but apparently they’re much better known right now at the local jewelry store’s Rolex desk  than they are, say,  in the local soup kitchen or food pantry.   Apparently they know more about how to make small talk at cocktail parties than they do about sitting and praying with their neighbors in times of need.  So they’re getting fidgety.

Looking at this question is actually the deeper spiritual and theological invitation of the ordinary year-to-year work of the parish “annual stewardship campaign.”  Or should be, anyway, when we do it right, which I’m not sure we always do either here at St. Andrew’s or most places in the wider church.  But what we would be doing, if we were doing it in a way that is shaped by Scripture.  Thinking about our lives in terms of Stewardship for the New Economy.  The economy of heaven.  And I think our Vestry is leading into a very substantive conversation this year.   I’m certainly looking forward to hearing my good friend and colleague Adam Trambley when he joins us as keynote speaker at the kickoff dinner on October 7.  The central point not about raising money to fund a church budget—although while we live in this world budgets will always need to be funded.  But the disciplines of tithing, of the offering of first fruits our time, our talent, and our treasure, are more importantly exercises to assist us in navigating the transition from one economy to the other--to build up our spiritual character, to help us become more and more acclimated to the economy of heaven.   

Jesus isn’t talking about just tweaking the present system.  You wouldn’t need a Cross for that.  Just write a book, have your TED talk go viral on social media.  He’s talking instead about something as old as the first hour of creation, yet for us now also so radically different as to seem entirely new: an economy of grace-- where the currency of compassion and forgiveness, humility and obedience, and joy and generosity will begin to replace the gold and jewels and glittering prizes of this world, a fragment of bread and a sip of wine a banquet far above any earthly feast--working a deep change in us, to prepare us in heart and mind to see and know and love and dwell forever the brightness and the beauty of the City God has prepared for us in himself, in Jesus.  Again the Collect for today:

“Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love things heavenly.  And even now as we are placed among things that are passing away, to cleave to those that shall abide.”   

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