Sermon 10-20-13: “Rich Towards God, Part 2: The Shrewd Steward”

October 24, 2013

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The dishonest manager—or the “shrewd steward”—got a lucky break. He found out before it was too late that people mattered more than money, possessions, pride, or power. Our church exists for the sake of people: We sacrifice our time, energy, talents, and—yes—our money so that people in our community and around the world can experience for themselves the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As I say in this sermon, this sacrifice will hurt a little bit. But we do it because we remember what our Lord sacrificed for us. Like the steward in the parable, our Lord Jesus came to our house and sacrificed everything he had in order to pay for our debts—on the cross—which we couldn’t begin to afford to pay on our own.

Sermon Text: Luke 16:1-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Recently I decided that my son Townshend was now old enough to enjoy and appreciate James Bond movies. When I was his age I loved them, and I want him to love them, too. So we saw one of the recent vintage movies, with Daniel Craig, and it was O.K. But I wanted him to experience the real James Bond: Roger Moore. No, I’m just kidding. I love Roger Moore, but I’m referring, of course, to Sean Connery. So I bought the DVD of Goldfinger, and Townshend and I watched it recently.

And I was reminded of that classic action movie cliché in which the supervillain doesn’t just kill the hero—by shooting him, for example—getting it over with quickly. The supervillain instead devises some slow, elaborate, drawn-out way of killing our hero, which inevitably gives our hero the chance to escape. And that’s true in the movie Goldfinger: Remember the scene when Goldfinger straps Bond down to a solid-gold table, and Goldfinger intends to slice Bond in two with an industrial laser?

When will supervillains ever learn?

When will supervillains ever learn?

This laser is inching toward Bond’s body at a snail’s pace—which gives Bond about five minutes or so to try to find a way out of this predicament. When will these supervillains ever learn? “Do you expect me to talk?” Bond asks Goldfinger. “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!” And he laughs. But, sure enough, while that laser is making its way toward him, Bond does talk, and uses his wits, and eventually talks his way out of certain death. And when Goldfinger turns the laser off, well, his fate is sealed. We know the good guy is going to win.

This parable that Jesus tells is a little bit like this. Like the scene from Goldfinger: “What do you do when you’re facing a life-or-death crisis and time is running out?”

Well, the dishonest manager in today’s parable—sometimes called the shrewd manager or shrewd steward—may not have been facing a life-or-death crisis, but he was facing a major life crisis that threatened his livelihood. This man was like an accountant or CFO who was hired by the wealthy man—an absentee landlord—to keep his books and run the man’s estate—which meant managing his property, his tenants, his money. This steward made all the financial decisions, and he apparently made some foolish or dishonest ones. His boss finds out and tells him he’s going to fire him. But like the villain Goldfinger, he doesn’t “terminate” him right away. He gives him a little time: maybe two weeks notice—or some other amount of time—to tie up loose ends and get the books in order—which, of course, happens to be just enough time for the steward to save his skin.

“What am I going to do?” he asks. “I’m not strong enough to dig, and I’m too proud to beg.” So he hatches a plan. While he still has possession of the books, he goes to his boss’s tenants and starts forgiving or reducing the debts that they owe his boss. In one case he slashes a debt in half. In another, he reduces the debt by 20 percent. Either way, it’s a lot of money. Whether it’s jugs of olive oil or bushels of wheat, it’s as if the steward wrote each tenant a check for tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars!

Don’t you imagine that these tenants would be eternally grateful to have this steward come and reduce their debts like this? If only Bank of America or American Express would do that with our credit card bills, right? Don’t you think that they would be so grateful, in fact, that, in return, as an expression of their gratitude toward the steward, they would be willing to offer the steward free room and board, when he finds himself without a home, without a job, and without any prospects?

Probably so, and that’s exactly what the steward is banking on.

In a way, the shrewd steward is incredibly lucky: His desperate circumstances force him to do something that I imagine many of us—many of us men, especially—have a hard time doing: which is, sacrificing our career, our personal ambition, our financial success, our pride, our place in the world, for the sake of something greater than ourselves. The steward learned that all the things he had worked for all his life, all the things that money could buy, which gave his life meaning and purpose, in the end, weren’t nearly as important as love. He learned that people were more important than possessions, power, pride, or prestige. As the cliché goes, no one on their death bed ever said, “I wish I’d spent more time at the office”… but let’s face it, many of us still spend too much time away from people we love.

Like some of you, I was a big fan of the show The Office. Last year, during the show’s final season, a college friend of Jim Halpert persuades him to invest in a company he’s starting up, and Jim does so. Jim becomes both a partner and part-time employee of the new firm. It’s a sports marketing company. I don’t know what a sports marketing company is, but it represents a dream job for Jim, because it relates to sports, which he loves, and it involves working with NBA players and other professional athletes. Jim can’t afford to work at this new start-up full-time, so he arranges to split his time between Scranton, where he has a stable job he dislikes but which pays the bills, and Philadelphia, where his dream job is located. His wife, Pam, and his two young children are back home in Scranton—and the weekly commute between Scranton and Philadelphia, and the demands of this new start-up damage his marriage and his relationship with his kids. He neglects his duties as husband and father and begins missing out on important events in the life of his family.

Until finally, Jim does the unthinkable: he quits his dream job for the sake of his wife and family. Just gives it up. Just sacrifices it. All for the sake of love. How often do you see that? Honestly, I value things like money, possessions, power, pride, and prestige so much that I second-guessed Jim’s decision: Pam is being unreasonable, I thought. Why can’t she work things out at home so that Jim can continue to pursue his dream? Doesn’t she know how important this job is to him?

But I was wrong, and Jim was right: he made a sacrifice for love. It usually hurts to make a sacrifice. It’s usually hard to make a sacrifice. But love—Christ-like love—requires nothing less.

All that to say that if we decide to be more faithful to the Lord in the area of financial stewardship, it’s going to feel like a sacrifice. It’s going to hurt a little. It’s going to be hard. It’s supposed to be.

But we do it because, like the shrewd steward, we realize that people are more important than possessions, power, pride, or prestige. We the church are in the people business. We are in the business of sacrificing for the sake of love.

But all the sacrifices we make are always in response to the sacrifice that our Lord has made for us!

Years ago, Lisa and I traveled to Paris with her sister, Nancy, and Nancy’s husband Jones. Nancy and Jones live in Europe, and had been to Paris many times. So they put us up in this small, quaint hotel a little bit off the beaten path from the more touristy places. On the morning we were checking out of the hotel, I ventured down to the lobby, dreading the prospect of paying my hotel bill—not because it wasn’t totally worth the price, but because—except for what I learned while dozing off in high school French class—I didn’t know the language. And I felt intimidated trying to speak it. All week Nancy and Jones had done all the French-speaking, so I didn’t have to.

Until now. In my fumbling manner I tried to explain who I was and that I needed to pay my bill, and this beautiful blonde woman at the front desk raised her hands, smiled, and said something that sounded like this—I’ll try to get the accent right—“Blah-blah-blah blah-blah. Toot-sweet!” I apologized. I didn’t catch that. Could she repeat it? “Blah-blah-blah blah-blah. Toot-sweet!” And I wanted to say, “I don’t understand what you’re saying. Show me what you mean?” So I pulled out my debit card to pay for my room. She gave it back to me. “Blah-blah-blah. Toot-sweet!

Now I understood it: What she was saying was that my brother-in-law had come down to the lobby before me and paid for both his and Nancy’s room and for our room at the same time. I didn’t owe anything. My debt was paid.

The problem was, this woman was trying to tell me in words what had happened—tell me in words about this gift of love that my brother-in-law had given us—but I didn’t understand the language. I needed her to show me what she meant. When she gave me back my debit card, I understood.

Think of the steward in the parable. When he found out he was getting fired, did he think to himself, “I’ll go and tell these tenants with words how much my boss loves them”? “And I’ll go tell them with words how much I love them. And they’ll hear me say these words and be so grateful that they’ll open their homes to me.” Of course not! He had to show them, in a very tangible way, what love looks like. In action. Which he did by canceling some of their debts.

When Jesus Christ got hold of me back in 1984—on a youth retreat in Lynn Swann’s hometown of Black Mountain, North Carolina—and I accepted God’s free gift of forgiveness and eternal life and made a profession of faith, I don’t remember the words that were said in the sermon that the youth pastor preached on that Sunday. But I remember Jimmy and Beth Stewart, a couple of adult chaperones who volunteered their time to make the trip that weekend. They loved me and made me feel welcome. I remember Doug Kees, a college student who volunteered his time to chaperone that weekend. He loved me and made me feel welcome. I remember classmates and fellow youth, most of whom I didn’t know prior to this weekend. They loved me and made me feel welcome. I remember lots of hugs—these people hugged me a lot, and I liked it. I remember sharing meals with these people, and laughing a lot. I remember playing ultimate Frisbee in the large field out back. I remember playing foxes and hounds outside after sundown. I felt included. I felt a part of the group. I felt like I belonged. This is what love looks like. This is love in action. And it completely won me over.

And isn’t that what we’re really about here at Hampton United Methodist? Showing our community and showing our world what the love of Jesus Christ looks like. Translating the gospel into a language that people can understand. And people can understand love.

Listen: you want to know the surest, quickest way to win me over, to make me like you, to turn me into your friend? Love my kids! If you come to my house, for instance, and my son Ian invites you to play Star Wars Legos with him, and I see you get on the floor and play Star Wars Legos with him. You’ve got a friend in me!

Isn’t that what we’re doing in a couple of weeks with our harvest festival? Hundreds of children and their parents in our community will be coming to our church, not because they’ve heard what a wonderful pastor you have—unfortunately—but because we’re showing them what the love of Jesus Christ looks like—in action. They’re going to be welcomed; they’re going to get candy; they’re going to play games; they’re going to jump on inflatable things; and they’re going to make friends—and it’s going to cost them nothing. It’s a completely free gift that we give to our community!

And, guess what? It costs money to do this. It costs money to pay for events like the harvest festival or Vacation Bible School. It costs money to provide an affordable preschool that teaches kids that Jesus loves them. It costs money to pay nursery workers so that families with young children can feel welcomed and loved. It costs money to run the food pantry to feed the poor in our community. It costs money to provide clean water to people living in Kenya. It costs money to provide supplies to teachers and students in the Henry County Schools. It costs money to send teenagers on a retreat, so—like me 29 years ago—they can hear and respond to the gospel of Jesus Christ. It costs money to pay for materials for Sunday school and confirmation class. It costs money to pay for talented musicians like June and Oscar, Brenda, Danny, and Jennifer-Anne, who communicate the gospel through music. It costs money for alcoholics in our community, or families going through divorce, to have a comfortable place to come for mutual support and fellowship. It costs money. And that’s O.K., because Jesus tells us, “Make friends for yourselves using worldly wealth…”

As I said last week, I’m asking each member of this church to step up to giving a tithe in this year ahead, in 2014. Tithing means to give 10 percent of your income to support the work of God’s kingdom through this church. When I ask you to tithe, please know that I’m not asking you to do anything that my family’s not doing. We tithe, and we did so even through the lean years of my career change and going to expensive seminary and barely making ends meet. And if you are an astute Bible scholar, you may say, “Isn’t tithing more of an Old Testament standard of giving?” Well, yes… But let me ask you this: Do you think God expects less of us Christians than he did of Israel in the Old Testament? Tell that to Zacchaeus the tax collector, who gave 50 percent of his wealth away. Tell that to the Rich Young Ruler, from whom Jesus demanded everything. Tell that to the church in Jerusalem in Acts Chapter 2, who shared all their money and possessions in common.

No, let’s start with a tithe and take it from there.

It goes without saying that if everyone in this church tithed, we would have all the money we need to pay for all of the ministry that our church is doing right now—and so many other things that we haven’t dreamed of, but that God wants us to do if only we would be faithful.

But please remember: we don’t tithe mostly in order to pay our ministry bills. We tithe because we are grateful… We’re grateful like those tenants were grateful when their large debts were slashed in half or greatly reduced.

Except the good news is that our debts haven’t been cut in half or greatly reduced; our debts have been canceled. Like the steward in the parable, our Lord Jesus came to our house and sacrificed everything he had in order to pay for our debts—on the cross—which we couldn’t begin to afford to pay on our own

Next Sunday, I’m going to invite you to bring your financial commitment card to the altar. And this will be one important, tangible way of saying, “Thank you, Jesus, for paying a debt you did not owe, and a debt I could not pay.”

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