Then Jesus said to the disciples, ‘There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.” Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.” So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?” He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.” Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?” He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.” He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.” And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.*
‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.’
When Jesus taught in parables, the meaning wasn’t always clear. Oftentimes those who heard Jesus walked away confused, scratching their heads and trying to understand what he said. Sometimes it seemed as if the parables were meant to be misunderstood, and the parable that Jesus tells in our scripture reading from Luke this morning feels a lot like that. It’s a parable that raises more questions than it answers. For instance, why does it seem as if this very shrewd and dishonest manager is the hero of the story? He is praised for his underhanded manipulation of bank accounts, and his behavior is questionable at best. Aside from that, is there really a “moral” to the story? If so, what is it? Doesn’t Jesus essentially commend us to make friends through dishonest dealings and the manipulation of our wealth? What are we to make of all this, especially during this season of stewardship?
If we are to take any “moral” away from this parable, I think that it must hinge on the sayings that follow it. “No one can serve two masters,” Jesus said. “For you 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.” That word that is translated “wealth” in our reading is an Aramaic word, mammon. Some English versions of the Bible don’t even bother to translate it. They read, “You cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon does mean “wealth”, but it’s wealth in the sense of accumulated wealth. It’s wealth that you hold on to. It’s all of the possessions, the stuff, and yes, especially the money with which you construct your life. Mammon is very important to all of us.
Now the interesting thing about the word mammon is that it comes from the same root as the word amen. The two words even sound similar as a result. Inherent in that word is a tension between wealth and worship. On one side is the mammon, the stuff of life, the wealth, and the property, and the money that we want to hold onto and use for ourselves. And on the other side is the amen, the worship of God the Creator and Redeemer in Jesus Christ, a worship that is defined not by what we accumulate, but by what we give away. It’s tempting to try to live right there in the middle, seeing if we can hold onto our wealth, our money, our stuff, while at the same time reaching over toward worship.
God knows I’ve tried to do that. While preparing this sermon I spent a lot of time wondering how I am supposed to preach on a text in which Jesus says, ‘You can’t serve God and wealth’ when it seems like I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to prove him wrong. I’m owning up to that struggle this morning because I think that place in the middle between wealth and worship is where we all live. We are called as Christians to put our complete faith and trust in God so that we can freely give, but at the same time our insecurities, and our fears, and our anxieties drive us to accumulate more wealth, more money, and more stuff.
When we read Jesus’ parable of the dishonest manager, I think we are getting a glimpse of someone who is living right there in that tension with us. You can see him shrewdly calculating how to benefit himself if he should happen to get canned. He needs the help of others or else he will end up on the street, and so he begins reducing the debts that people owe to his boss, the rich man. The irony here is that the very thing he needs to do in order to build a network of support for himself is disregard everything he’s ever known about being a good manager. As a result, even though he is acting out of a sense of self-preservation, he ends up doing incredibly kind and generous things by canceling the debts that others owe right and left. He is letting go of all of that wealth that is due his master, and in a strange way he is exhibiting a kind of grace that forgives debts rather than call them due.
Jesus sets this up as a model for how his followers are to act. Following the parable Jesus calls them “children of light”. Light is often used as a symbol of God at work. The first words that God speaks in scripture are, of course, “let there be light”. John’s gospel frequently contrasts darkness and light, proclaiming in a few famous verses that the light has come into the world, but the darkness has never been able to put it out. Jesus himself also said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” We, in turn, are called to be light in the world. In some ways we will be like a lighthouse, shining in the world so that others can find us and come to us in the midst of their darkness. In other ways we are called to be like searchlights, shining outward into the world, going into the darkness with the light of Christ’s love. Light is God at work. It’s us at work. It also makes things grow like the kingdom of God. When we proclaim here that we are growing God’s kingdom, we are claiming our identity as children of Light.
This church has always aspired to be a “light” shining in the community. This church represents the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the good news of God’s unconditional love. It also represents what is central and essential to living faithfully as a follower of Jesus Christ. We strive to live a life shaped by the good news, a life of grace, and forgiveness, and love, and generosity. We strive to live a life whose meaning comes, not from getting but from giving, and whose answer to the questions before us is found in the one who gave his very life for our salvation. This church represents the call of Jesus Christ to place him at the center of our existence, to take up his cross and follow him, to find way to faithfully use our resources of time, energy, creativity, and money. This church is a way for each of us to practice what we hold most dear—by teaching, serving, loving, and especially giving.
Last year this church had the privilege of participating in a program called Sacred Places. As a part of this program we were invited to use a number of tools and resources that could help us better understand who we are, what we have, and what we do. One of these resources was an online calculation tool. It asked us simply to select four programs of the church, then enter in a number of things about those programs like volunteer hours, space committed, number of people served, etc. After we entered all of the data, the program would calculate the value of those programs to the community in dollars. Another way to state that is that it told us how much it would cost the community to replace those programs if suddenly we were no longer here. The average of churches nation-wide who had completed that online resource was $116,000. On average, that’s what churches found the value of their four selected church programs to be to their communities. $116,000. That’s pretty impressive, isn’t it?
The four programs that we chose were our Weekday Preschool, Hot Meals, Vacation Bible School, and Scouting. We figured those four programs should get us pretty close to the national average of $116,000. Boy, were we wrong! It turns out we were off. By a lot. Those four programs alone returned a value to this community of $430,000 per year. If suddenly we were no longer here, that’s how much it would cost the community per year to replace what we do. And that’s only four programs! That’s pretty good, right? Well, we started thinking. What about all of our other programs? What about AA, and Father’s House Church, and the Annual Church Bazaar, and Room in the Inn, and Wonderful Wednesdays, and Sunday School? What if we figure out the value of everything we do here?
Sure enough, the online resource tool only asks for four programs, but you can add additional programs if you like. So we did. We plugged in everything we could think of, from the smallest program of the church to the largest. It turns out that the public value of everything we do as a church is more than one and a half million dollars per year. Think about that for a second. Our budget for this year is only about $650,000. That means that every dollar that you give to this church is like giving more than two dollars to the community. Think about that when you’re filling out your pledge cards for the upcoming year. That’s exciting!
But it’s also challenging. In this day and age there’s the very real possibility that we “children of light” will start flickering and wavering. There’s the danger that our want to hold on to our wealth will get in the way of our relationship to God. Our mammon serves as a poor substitute for our amen. That is really what Jesus is warning us about today. He’s telling us to let go of our wealth so that there can be worship. That’s the struggle that we fight every single day.
A couple of years ago when A.J. was about four years old, I remember walking into our living room to see him spread out in the middle of the floor with two piles of coins. He loves to collect coins, and he had more pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters than any four year-old should. On that particular day he had separated all of his money into two piles, and was very deliberately examining one coin after another, then placing each one into a pile. I couldn’t figure out what criteria he was using to separate the coins, so I asked him. He placed his hand on the first pile and said, “Daddy, this is the shiny money.” He then moved his hand to the other pile and said, “And this is the dirty money. That’s for the church.” At the time he still had a bit to learn about giving, but he’s come a long way since then. He’s learned that we are so very blessed in many ways, and are very thankful to God for what we have. And that’s why we give.
A lot of times, this season of the church year – stewardship season – raises more questions than it answers, and that is as it should be. Will we have enough money to continue this program or that program? Will we be able to support our staff in the work that they do on behalf of Christ? What is a truly sacrificial pledge? Does God really expect a 10 percent tithe? Is 5 percent good enough? How about 1? Or should I even measure my giving in percentage points? How do I balance my giving to the church and my giving to other institutions that work toward the common good? And when I’m handed the plate during the offering, what should I put in there? Just last week A.J. sat through the entire worship service and put an offering envelope in the plate as it passed him by. After worship someone gave it to me, and when I looked down at it I saw that he had written $10,000 on the “amount” line, and checked the box that says “special offering”. He explained later that that’s how much he wanted to give the church, and “Daddy,” he said, “I want to give the church my special money.”
This season as we listen, and talk, and pray, and fill out our pledge cards for the coming year, we are certain to have a lot of questions. We might not be able to answer all of the questions. What we can do is pray that our gifts, our time, talents, and resources, would reflect the light of God’s grace, love, and mercy. We can pray that through our giving, the light of Jesus Christ would shine more brightly right here in this place.
Brothers and Sisters, Jesus said it himself. We cannot serve God and mammon. But we can choose to serve God with everything we are and everything we have, so that the light of Jesus Christ shines more brightly in Mint Hill. Let us strive to let go of the mammon, so that we and our community might hold fast to the amen.
What could be more special than that?
Thanks be to God. Amen.