Sunday, September 22, 2013

Sermon for Proper 20

St Joseph of Arimathea, Hendersonville, TN -- Luke 16:1-13

If you were to inquire of anyone who has lived with me or worked with me closely, you will probably learn that I am—to an extraordinary degree perhaps—a creature of habit.  I am most comfortable when the incidental details of my life are routine and predictable. The things I eat for breakfast are on about a four day rotation. I like the various icons and alerts on my electronic devices set up in a certain way, and I get out of bed at precisely the same time every workday morning. I realize, of course, that I am not the only one who has likes and dislikes, quirks and pet peeves. We all do, to one extent or another. Most of the time, we look at these as little things. That’s why we don’t want anybody to mess with them; we don’t want to have to be thinking about them. I want a car that starts every time I turn the key, with vents that blow cold in the summer and warm in the winter, and otherwise keeps quiet and doesn't call attention to itself. We tend to look at the “little things” as mere infrastructure, material details, as the skeleton on which real life is hung, not as something that has substantial significance and meaning in its own right. The “little things” are so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives that we overlook them (or get irritated when they don’t let us overlook them). They are trees, but my life is a forest, and it’s the forest I’m really interested in.

Realizing that the little things are indeed little things can lead to either of two quite different responses. Some people become puritanical. If caffeine and alcohol are little things, then I’m not going to have any coffee or beer. If clothing is a little thing, then I’m going to live in a community where everyone wears the same uniform. If automobiles are little things,then—who needs one?—I’ll just use a horse and buggy instead.

Others come to the opposite conclusion from the same realization. Life is an eternal frat party. If alcohol is a “little thing,” then what does it matter if I drink to excess? If my body is just a material detail, a little thing, then what does it matter who I sleep with? If transportation is just part of the infrastructure of my life, then I may as well drive a BMW and fly first class, right? If money is but a little thing, then…hey, I’ll see you at the nearest casino!

I hope you realize I’m about to tell you that both these attitudes—the puritan and the party animal—fall short of the mark. In fact, I’ll let Jesus tell you, as if he were speaking to us in the second decade of the twenty-first century, rather than to his original listeners in the first:

There was once a loan officer who did most of his work in the field, at his customers’ places of business. He enjoyed the travelling part of his job, especially the fact that he had an expense account. One day, the internal auditor took a closer-than-usual look at this loan officer’s receipts, made a few phone calls, and discovered that a great many of them were forged. The guy was living high at the expense of the company’s bottom line. So when the crooked loan officer checked his voice mail, he heard that the bank president wanted to see him in the home office first thing the next morning. Well, he knew that he was too old to find a job at another bank, and too proud to live on unemployment. So he had to think of something fast. He dashed off to a half dozen of his best accounts and had each of them sign new loan documents cutting their original interest rate in half, and, for a couple of them, discounting the principal amount as well. The cusomers were, needless to say, very happy with Mr High Living Loan Officer, and more to the point, likely to look kindly on him in his approaching hour of need. The next morning, of course, the bank president fired him, but he did so with an admiring grin on his face: “You old son-of-a-gun, that’s some golden parachute you went out and got for yourself!”

At the end of this parable, Jesus commends the corrupt loan officer, not for his dishonesty, but for his shrewdness. And he suggests that his own followers should be as wise and prudent and shrewd with the “little things” in their lives as the corrupt employee was with the little things in his life, only to a worthier end. In fact, Jesus seems to be implying that the little things can in fact become tools in the development of such wisdom and prudence and shrewdness. Those who show that they can handle the little things well give evidence of their trustworthiness to take care of the truly big things.

But what does it mean to be “faithful in little” in order to be found worthy to be “faithful in much?” There’s one word that sums it up, a word that we tend to hear with some frequency at this time of year, and that word is stewardship. Good stewardship starts with the realization that everything I have—every coin in my pocket, every dollar in my bank account, every hair on my head, every blank space in my appointment calendar, the person on the other end of every phone call I made, every breath that I draw—has been given to me, not outright, but in trust. I am a steward, and I will one day have to turn in my receipts to the only auditor whose opinion ultimately counts, and they better not be forged. Good stewardship continues with the wise and prudent and shrewd use of the entrusted resources toward the expression of the values and the fulfillment of the purposes of the Kingdom of God, and, lest I be accused of not being specific and clear, the primary concrete token of Christian stewardship is the tithe—10% of our income given, no strings attached, to the ministry of the local parish church at which we worship.

Now let’s work it back the other way. Tithing is good stewardship, good management of the “little things.” Good stewardship expresses the wisdom and shrewdness appropriate to Christian discipleship.  And good Christian disciples are joyful, purpose-driven, confident about their future, and at peace with God. They are faithful in little, and therefore given the opportunity to be faithful in much. If you can find a better deal out there, take it!

Amen.

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