Like University UMC, First UMC in Grand Rapids, my previous appointment, has a large number of retired clergy in the pews, largely due to the presence of Clark Retirement Home – a United Methodist retirement community – down the street. One of my favorites was Leon Andrews, a retired District Superintendent with a perpetual twinkle in his eye and spring in his step. Every once in a while, Lee would greet me after the worship service with a deadly serious look on his face. He’d point his index finger at me and declare “Last time you just preached ; now you’re meddling!” The first time he did it I was terrified...until I realized he meant it as a compliment. The word of God should feel like meddling.
So now I’m warning you – I’m going to meddle.
Let’s begin by taking a deep breath. The subject of today’s sermon is money. Do we need another deep breath?
Money is one of those subjects that is not brought up in polite company. Most of us avoid talking about it as much as we can, whether we’re around the dinner table, the water cooler, our Facebook pages or the Lord’s Table. We don’t talk much about how we make it or how we spend it, and we almost never talk about how much we make. It’s the embarrassing relative we avoid discussing...until we need it. And then, one month out of the year in most churches, we ask you for it.
Today we’re going to talk about money... but no one’s going to ask you for it.
My assumption, as we approach this meddling topic, is that most of us have a complicated relationship with money. Some of this has to do with the families we grew up in; some of this has to do with our current situations.
Some of us are living paycheck to paycheck, others of us aren’t getting paychecks.
Some of us have enough money but never feel like we do – there’s always something more to buy or fix or upgrade.
Some of us give to the church out of a sense of guilt, and no matter what we give, the guilt never ends.
Some of us would like to feel less controlled by our money, but don’t know how to go about doing that.
I am assuming that most of us – maybe all of us -- have complicated relationships to money. I am also assuming that most all of us – maybe all of us – struggle to make faithful decisions about our money. How we use our money is intimately connected with our priorities, our values and our faith. This is true in all areas of life, not just what we give to the church. It is the rare individual who feels absolutely confident in the way they spend, save and share. Most of us want to do right, we want to use our money wisely, we want to be faithful...but it’s not easy.
So we might turn to the Bible. We might turn to the 16th chapter of Luke, the first 13 verses. And here we would find this very odd story. Prof. Alyce McKenzie wrote that this parable about the dishonest manager reminds her of her days as a youth pastor when she and the youth group members would play a game called “Watermelon Rugby.” They rubbed Crisco over a watermelon and played touch football with it. You could never catch the watermelon, you just grabbed at it while it slipped out of your grasp.
In ancient Palestine, the manager (the steward) was the middle man between the landowner and the tenants and merchants on his land. He transacted the exchange of goods and services on behalf of the landowner – things like collecting the rent or buying and selling grain or oil. It was expected that the manager would try to get an additional take for himself in these transactions. As long as the landowner’s profits kept rolling in, and the manager didn’t get too conspicuous in his consumption, it was fine for him to benefit from each deal.
A manager enjoyed a relatively high standard of living, but he was completely dependent on the goodwill of his master, the landowner. When the manager in this parable is fired and says “What will I do now? I’m not strong enough to dig and I am ashamed to beg,” we might think he’s just trying to avoid honest hard work. But the fact is his situation really is dire. And no one else is going to help him out – his master has fired him; the tenants and merchants regard him as the enemy. He has to solve his own problem.
So the manager calls the debtors in one by one. One by one he reduces what they owe the landowner. The debtors are pleased – now they owe the master less. Surprisingly, the master is pleased too – even though he’s lost some cash, he takes pride in this shrewd manager who has made him look good in the eyes of his debtors. The text doesn’t say so, but we can guess that he hires the manager back.
What makes this parable so confusing is that the behavior being praised here is obviously dishonest. The Gospel writer Luke also seems confused. The well- known Biblical scholar of the early 20th C, C. H. Dodd, says that Luke’s confusion is evident because after he tells the parable, he tries three different ways to get it to make sense.
First he says that children of the light should learn from their corrupt neighbors, “the children of this age.”
Then he says that followers of Jesus should make friends by means of dishonest wealth.
Lastly, Luke adds that if one wishes to be entrusted with true riches, one must demonstrate faithfulness in ordinary wealth.
The result is that Luke doesn’t clear anything up at all, he just adds to our confusion. Apparently having a complicated relationship with money is not something new to our generation.
What are we to do with this parable that praises a scoundrel like this manager? A man who has given away property that was not his to give away?
First, it’s important to notice that this story begins a series of passages concerned with money, all of them in chapter 16. Immediately after this, Jesus responds to the Pharisees who, the text says, were “lovers of money.” “You justify yourselves in the sight of others,” he tells them, “but God knows your hearts....” After that he tells the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, in which the Rich Man finds himself punished for eternity for having ignored the needs of his sick, poverty-stricken neighbor. (Bill will be tell us more about that next week.)
The point for us is that, just as money is a complex issue for us, it’s a complex issue in the Bible, too. The Holy Scriptures contain more than one view about it. The view presented by the Parable of the Dishonest Manager is not that his dishonesty is praiseworthy, but his shrewdness. Financial savvy is not to be despised; indeed, it should even be esteemed. According to the Gospel of Luke, we cannot be so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good.
Knowing how to manage money can produce good gifts, gifts with the potential for blessing others and oneself. The problem arises
When wealth is not just used, it’s worshipped.
When its transitory nature is forgotten, and it becomes relied upon for security.
When instead of money serving our faith, we allow our faith to serve our money.
For all the confusion of this parable, the text is very clear on this point: No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
So how might we be shrewd in our use of money without allowing it to take God’s place? Let me tell you two ways your church does that. We do it in the way we care for those who need financial assistance, and in the way we plan for the future.
Every church I’ve ever been part of has to figure out how to respond to requests for financial assistance. As close as we are to the highway exit and to the bus and train station, University Church is an obvious source of help for folks who are traveling through. But the people who work most closely with the transitory, homeless, and very low-income populations tell us the last thing we should do is hand out cash. Not only don’t we know if the cash is actually helping in the way we hope and intend it to, we also have no way of directing the recipient to other services that will do more than offer short-term, “band-aid” assistance.
So we direct all requests to a clearinghouse agency in Lansing. Christian Services is an interdenominational, non-profit group that receives requests for help with housing, utilities, transportation and medical needs, etc. over the phone. They do the leg-work that no one on our staff has the time or expertise to do – checking out the backgrounds to the requests they receive, and making sure all possible sources of assistance, short and long-term, are being used. They give us recommendations on the best way to help others, and by doing that help us to be good stewards of the money we have to give.
Giving to those in need is one faithful way to use money. But it’s not the only way. We also strive to be shrewd managers of the church finances by planning ahead -- through our Endowment. Started six years ago by Rev. John Ross Thompson, the University Church Endowment Fund stands now at about $200,000. The entire fund is made of seven smaller funds so that donors can give to the kind of work they care most about – like Missions, or Education, or the
Memorial Garden. The whole thing is cared for by the United Methodist Foundation which invests our funds along with those of many other United Methodist churches in Michigan in keeping with our denomination’s Social Principles.
The result is that twice a year, the Endowment Fund Committee is able to give out grants from the interest that the Endowment Fund earns.
We support new ministries like the work of our Faith Community Nurse; we fund special education programs for our children, help to send our members on mission trips, and train new leaders; we care for our facilities and support mission programs in the Lansing area. We spend only the interest, not the principal, ensuring that our church will be able to continue this shrewd and faithful use of our money long into the future.
It’s only September – it’s not Stewardship season yet. But that season will come around next month and before you know it you’ll be hearing about tithing and percentage giving and most of you will receive a letter from me and the Finance Committee Chairperson asking you to think about what you’re going to give to the church next year.
It’s tempting, during any Finance Campaign, to focus on the 10% that the Bible says we should give to God. In this day and age, when the average American gives less than 5% of their income to all charities, 10% to the church looks mighty good. But the problem with this idea of tithing is that it lets us slip into thinking that 10% of what we have is God’s, and the other 90% is all ours, to do with as we please.
But either God is God of everything, or something else takes God’s place – more often than not, money does. I realize I’m meddling here, but I’m going to ask you to think not just about the money you give but about the money you don’t give, too.
Does the way you use your money reflect your trust in God?
Do you care for it wisely, so that you can give to the needy in effective ways?
Do you think about the future, and make plans for what will happen to your resources after you have died?
Whether you are managing a little or a lot, you are the steward of your money. What you do with it reflects your priorities, your values and your faith. You can pretend that isn’t true, politely avoid the topic, and hope for the best. Or you can be a shrewd (and honest!) manager, using what you have to further the master’s kingdom.
Alyce McKenzie. Watermelon Rugby with the Shrewd Manager: Lectionary Reflection on Luke 16:1-13. Posted September 12, 2010 http://www.patheos.com/blogs/faithforward/2010/09/watermelon-rugby-with-the-shrewd- manager-lectionary-reflection-on-luke-161-13-september-192010
Karoline Lewis, Rolf Jacobson, Matt Skinner (commentators). Sermon Brainwave #313 - Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Audio podcast]. Posted September 15, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=435
David Lose. God & Money. Posted September 13, 2013. http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1515
Greg Carey , Commentary on Luke 16:1-13. Posted September 19, 2010. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=675
Robert B. Kruschwitz. Wealth: Hazmat or Good Gift? Parables from Christian Reflection:A Series in Faith and Ethics. 2006. 37-43.