Shrewd for the Kingdom: A Sermon for 15 Pentecost, Proper 20

Today’s parable from Luke’s gospel has historically been one of the most difficult ones to interpret. Scholars, preachers, and faithful readers of scripture alike have struggled to make sense of the Parable of the Dishonest Manager. Beth Quick reminds us that we are not to read parables as allegories, where each person and part of the story has a one-to-one relationship to something specific. Parables like today’s make it difficult to fit the pieces nicely into the puzzle.

Jesus told parables to communicate what God’s reign - the Kingdom of Heaven – is like. Again, Beth Quick says that parables “tell us something about how things are or will be when we do things on earth the way God means for us to.” When he was baptized by John, Jesus announced that the Kingdom of Heaven was near. So we must remember to always frame Jesus’ public ministry within the proclamation of a new era of God’s reign on earth. And the parable of the Dishonest Manager is indeed a kingdom parable.

In today’s lesson, Jesus and his disciples are still on their journey to Jerusalem, and as they draw closer, you can feel Jesus’ intensity - and perhaps even anxiety - begin to rise . So the parables we have been hearing the past few weeks have been preparing Jesus’ followers – then and now - for God’s reign on earth as it is in heaven. And for those of us in positions of earthly power and influence, the parables have perhaps been difficult to hear.

And while today’s lessons from Amos and Luke may not be easy for us to understand or digest, they are another example of how our scripture lessons line up providentially well with our life as a parish church. Today marks the official beginning of our annual stewardship campaign, where we seek pledge commitments towards the mission and ministries of Christ the King. So how fitting is it that we get two lessons today about money?

In the parable of the Dishonest Manager, Jesus is pointing out to his disciples that that they should be as shrewd at handling what has been entrusted to them as  the rich man and the dishonest manager have been with what they’ve been given. In other words, I don’t think Jesus is saying that they too should be dishonest in their dealings with others. I think he is calling for his disciples then and now – the “children of the light” – to take the calling to follow Jesus as seriously as others take their worldly callings.

In prison and drug and alcohol recovery ministries, a common mentoring approach is to challenge the person seeking to turn their lives around is to be as shrewd, industrious, and persistent in making good choices as they were in making poor choices. In other words, most addicts simply find a way to get what they need. They will beg, borrow, and steal – and put their lives on the line - to get their next fix. And sometimes, the ingenuity they use to get drugs is quite impressive. So when working with addicts, counselors would praise them for their persistence, creativity, and drive. But then they’d say that the addict now needs to use that same persistence, creativity, and drive to get and stay sober. And then they’d need to use it to get and hold a job, and to achieve and maintain stability in their lives. The shrewdness is there – it just needs to be re-channeled towards good, healthy choices instead of poor, dangerous choices.

Oftentimes, the parables deal with extremes, and that is a rhetorical device Jesus used so that he could effectively draw the listener in, and so that the impact of the story is significant. Most of us today do not live in the realm of the extreme like the characters in Jesus’ parables. We are all lost and wayward in some way or another, but not as lost and wayward as the Prodigal Son. That being the case, we have to be careful not to hear these parables and think, “Wow, that is a great story. Thankfully it doesn’t apply to me. I’m not that lost, or that dishonest or that selfish. The power of the parables is that they are for all of us.

And applied to our current context of stewardship season, I think that today’s parable is a lesson first and foremost about wisely managing our resources – as individuals, as families, and as a church. Jesus calls us to be shrewd, industrious, creative, and driven with the resources with which we have been blessed. After all, our resources are really God’s, not ours. As scripture tells us, “All things come of thee O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.”

Speaking from personal experience, Emily and I took Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University course a few years ago and learned a lot about managing our the resources with which we have been blessed. But that was before we had Julian and Madeleine. Having children was a huge financial wake-up call for us. After all, we had enjoyed a two-income, zero children marriage for about six years. The wake-up call came when we enrolled them both in preschool. The combination of tuition, aftercare, babysitters, and all of the other expenses – food, clothing, and medical care – ended up making a huge impact on our financial bottom line. So this past year, we called our Financial Peace University coach and told him that we needed help. So for the past several months, we have been meeting with him once a month to go over our budget and hold ourselves accountable to one another and our financial goals. And since we began meeting with him and going over our finances every month, we are actually donating and saving more money than before we had children. Our incomes didn’t change – our priorities and habits changed. Our coach helped us be shrewd in the management of our income and expenses. And we found a way to make it happen, and I must say, it feels better than ever.

What I admire about the Financial Peace program is that the first budget priority is to give 10% of your income away – preferably your church. And everything else flows from there. Again, it is about reordering your priorities and habits. One thing that ensures that Emily and I keep our financial commitment to the church is that we have our pledge on autopay through the church database. So at the beginning of every month, the first thing that gets paid is our church pledge. We aren’t seeing what is leftover at the end of the month and then giving to the church. We are not tipping the church at the end of the year for a job well done. Our commitment is first to the church. And again, everything else flows from there.

And with that commitment, we are trusting that the vestry is also being shrewd managers of our money. Just as we are called as individuals and families to be wise and generous with our gifts, so too is the church called to do the same. We are, after all, Christ’s body in the world. We are representatives of Christ, and how we manage and share the gifts we’ve been given should reflect that. And I can confidently say that our vestry does exactly that. Just as Emily and I do with our financial coach once a month, the vestry meets once a month in part to go over the finances with our treasurer, Clinton Berry. Furthermore, Clinton comes into the office every Tuesday and meets with our Bookkeeper Michelle to go over the books. Being the church treasurer is probably the hardest job someone can have at the church, because no matter how much money comes in, there is always more mission and ministry that can be done. And it is the treasurer who has to make sure that our bottom line is being effectively communicated to the rector and vestry.

So what about the parable? How do my own personal financial management as well as the church’s financial management relate to today’s parable? Remember that parables “tell us something about how things are or will be when we do things on earth the way God means for us to.” Imagine our local parish, our local community, our state, our nation, and the world if every Christian made their church their first priority with their time, talent, and treasure. The effect of such gracious generosity would be absolutely astonishing. I may be naïve, but I truly believe that many of our local, national, and worldwide problems would be greatly diminished if Christians led the way in re-ordering our priorities as it relates to time, talent, and treasure. I am regularly amazed at what we are able to accomplish here at Christ the King without 100% participation from our parishioners. Imagine the impact we could have if everybody in our parish made an annual pledge to the mission and ministries of our church! And then imagine again if everybody tithed, which is giving back 10% of your income. Again, the effect of such gracious generosity would be absolutely astonishing.

The kingdom of heaven isn’t characterized by money or business or budgets. Whenever the kingdom is finally realized, I can assure you that there won’t be finance committee meetings being held. And we won’t be talking about money and budgets. That is because in the kingdom of heaven, everybody’s priority will be to offer gratitude and praise towards God. And everything will flow from there, and everyone’s needs will be met. Until the kingdom is fully realized, let us model kingdom living for the world, and with gratitude in our hearts, structure our giving of time, talent, and treasure in a way that reflects our gratitude and love.