Sermon for Year C, Pentecost Proper 20
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
September 22, 2013
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
The Parable of the Unjust Steward.
The story you just heard Jesus tell has been disregarded by preachers for a long time.
To some, it doesn’t make sense enough superficially to warrant inclusion in their preaching;
In fact it is not readily grasped,
And it requires some turning of the soil before it can be understood at any real depth.
No wonder that Rudolf Bultmann, who was a giant in biblical studies in the last century,
Called the Unjust Steward the “problem child” of parables.
I mentioned some of this on Facebook this week hoping to get a little insight
Into any strategies that my friends and colleagues might have for preaching it.
What I got was a Litany of Avoidance:
Stories of how people had worked hard over the years
To get around having to preach on this parable when it came up!
So, why avoid it?
Well, really just for one reason. What would seem to be self-evident at first.
The parable (again, superficially) gives what appears to be pretty bad advice:
To live as a crook, perhaps, and to be glad about it, even if you get caught,
Because cleverness is what wins the day --
Shrewdness, dishonesty, loyalty only to one’s self --
And underhanded dirty-dealing is apparently endearing to God.
And if that were all true, then perhaps we would be on safer ground
To leave the Unjust Steward with his forgiving master and go concentrate on something else.
There are, however, some vital questions kicked up by a careful reading.
Some vital questions, deeply connected to our lives.
Some questions that we absolutely need to entertain.
When, for example, was the last thought you gave to your personal finances,
And do you let God in on that process,
Or are you trying to keep God out of it because it’s somehow not worthy of God’s time?
Perhaps in this regard we are more like the steward than we care to admit.
How often do we think about money?
Would it be safe to say that it happens fairly often?
This morning? Right now? (Power of suggestion!)
Is it safe to say that very often our thoughts are consumed by what is not right, not good
About our finances? About how things have fallen short?
About how we’re gonna have to scrap, scrape, and save every penny,
Or else go into debt, or else just get by, or spend it well, or whatever the concern is?
In my experience, it doesn’t matter whether one is or is not the checkbook-manager of the family,
Although, clearly, managing the money boosts the level of concern and worry;
And not being the money-manager of the family can make you feel guilty
That the other person has been so heavily saddled with --
Well, let’s just be kind and say saddled with such a creative burden.
Some families have more than one money-manager, so the headaches are shared,
But concern and worry are still concern and worry; a headache is a headache.
Some families have investment-trackers and checkbook-trackers,
So there’s what-shall-we-do-this-month? anxiety
That’s paired up with how-in-the-world-are-we-ever-going-to-be-able-to-retire? anxiety.
Some families are one person looking after him- or herself,
Where everything rises or falls on How Well I Can Do This,
Whether Or Not I’m Gifted At It,
And the anxiety comes to rest on the only person it can.
None of this -- let us be crystal clear -- none of this is fair.
It is, however, the way things are. For now.
For now, for the moment, Money owns us...
And of course, at the same time that’s not true at all, is it?
Better to say money holds sway over our attention.
We give it primo real estate in our brains,
And it gets all the free programming it wants during prime time.
But it doesn’t have to be this way -- it shouldn’t --
And the deeper reality is, that it doesn’t own us --
God owns us, and gives us freedom in the process to cast our attention where we will --
But so often in that freedom we let money own us anyway.
Please note that I am not preaching “at” you or me or anyone in particular;
I’m preaching to us -- me and my household included -- with ultimately good news.
I pray I’m not shaming, not moralizing; I just want us to be loosed of this burden!
The Jesus of the Gospel of Luke is all about turning the world upside-down,
Setting the captive free,
And I’d say that with respect to this issue, it’s time!
We need liberation! Someone come and cut these chains!
Whether we have a lot of money or some of it or little of it or none of it,
It exerts an influence over our lives that cannot be estimated.
What I’m saying is, it doesn’t have to.
I know, I know: “In a perfect world ...”
But I guess I’m kind of tired of waiting for perfection to come;
I want to live the life that God intends for me to live --
Fully and fearlessly -- and I want to live it now. Not later.
Now I think we’re dancing around the jugular vein,
Because for those of us who want to live fully and fearlessly,
In the assembly of the Beloved Community that is the Church,
But who still feel owned by our concern over money,
The only decent response in our little community of faith is as follows:
The Church is meant to be a gracious and life-giving Alternative to Rome,
And when I say Rome I mean the prevailing powers-that-be;
In this case, money;
The Church is supposed to be something that participates in upending the established order --
Not to make everything crazy, but to make things better, and fairer.
In the Gospel of John, on the night of his betrayal, Jesus tells his disciples,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives.
Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
In this day and age, we are the agents and followers of Jesus.
We are his hands, doing his will, and his feet, going where he leads us.
For the Church as a collection of Jesus-followers
Or the Church together as is the Diocese of Iowa,
Or for the Church represented as St. Thomas, Sioux City --
In every instance, the way to give not as the world gives
Is to be a place and a people who fearlessly and fully talk about money.
And not always with a hand out waiting for a donation for church.
Just being a place where it is okay to talk about money.
In the year 2013, in the United States, there may be
No bigger or better Alternative to Rome and the status quo.
Let me tell you. Let me show you.
You already know some of this story,
But a lot of it you may not; so it’s my privilege to be able to share it with you.
For years St. Thomas had been feeding its budgetary needs from its endowment.
I, and others, thought it was time to put a stop to that before there was no endowment.
In February I asked the Finance Committee to prepare a five-year solution
To get us out of that pattern, toward what I called fiscal solvency.
Hard work was done, alternative budgets prepared and presented, the bishop consulted,
Every member asked for their input and prayer.
Finally it went back to the Vestry. Some hard decisions were made.
Throughout that time, I kept holding to this one thought:
That the only way to make a vine stronger is to prune it back.
But I could see the distaste on everyone’s faces, and I could feel it in my own gut:
We don’t like to talk about money. It’s hard. But okay: If we absolutely have to, we will.
Here’s what all of that did: it made a space for the Holy Spirit to get in and work.
And I learned another lesson:
When we share openly and honestly,
Then people respond generously.
Two examples of generosity.
A donor stepped forward -- said, “I will give St. Thomas $12,000,
And if you can raise that same amount, I will give it again.”
In other words, Raise $12,000, and I will triple that amount.
And it happened. Fast.
As of Friday of this week, $14,318 had been pledged in our challenge match,
And $10,235 of that total had already been received as cash on hand.
I hope you feel like celebrating this with me!
Last Sunday night we began a conversation about how all baptized ministry is ministry, period.
About the dangers of professionalizing church work.
We looked at the changes we had figured into our budget for 2014, and we said,
Well, look -- we’re going to have to cover some of these ministry gaps with baptized people.
Only it wasn’t some accident of time or circumstance; God spoke to many of us;
And, it was with some trepidation that I asked for people to identify themselves
To be trained for some truly important tasks
That would help us keep going in the new budgetary reality:
Worship Leader, Liturgist, Preacher, Administrator,
Pastoral Leader, Musicians, Facilities Manager.
It was not a question of filling a gap with a warm body;
It was, and is, a question of calling and fit --
The readiness to enter into discernment and training and deeper prayer.
Some said, “Let me think on it.” And they meant it.
Still others said, “It’s time for me to step up.”
Ten! Ten St. Thomas people. And only the beginning, I pray.
I hope you feel like celebrating this with me.
Could this be a sort of a Pentecost?
To adapt that old phrase, maybe we didn’t know we had it in us.
But God knew. And the Spirit stirred us up fresh.
I’m now convinced of the grace of it, and overjoyed for this occasion,
Because it just shattered to pieces the long-held superstition
That it’s not okay for churches to talk about money,
And I want to know why St. Thomas couldn’t have had this conversation a long time ago.
But now I’m asking myself this even more important question:
Why not everyone? Why not all of us?
Why can’t all of us be set free from the grip and the sway that money holds over us?
Why can’t St. Thomas be an Alternative to Rome in this specific way?
I mean, having begun a good conversation here -- an honest conversation -- a real one --
Why can’t this be the one place in the world where we could lay before one another
And name before God all our worries about money:
To see how real they are, but also to include in our fellowship all that troubles us?
Why couldn’t we be that?
I can’t think of one reason why not.
And I can’t imagine what that might do. God knows.
I know this much:
Honesty makes for generosity.
Generosity shapes relationships for the better.
Now that’s a notion that could upend Rome altogether.