Sunday, September 19, 2010

You're fired!

The Shrewd Manager

Jeremiah 8: 18 – 9: 1; Luke 16: 1-13
Woodmont United Church of Christ, Milford, CT
September 19, 2010

You’re fired: the dreaded words everyone fears in today’s economy (or on the ever-popular reality show, “The Apprentice”). These words have the power to send anyone’s life into a tailspin. Back in the 1980’s or ‘90’s people might have joked with their answer to “What are you going to do now?” by responding, “You know, do some gardening, learn Chinese, play some golf, fix up the summer house.” But nowadays no one is laughing. And more often than not, the answer to the question is a dead serious “I don’t know”.

Many of you know what it is like to be laid off, been fired from your job, had to take fewer hours for the same pay, had to quit because persons were making it difficult for you to continue working, or had to leave work to stay home with your children or to take care of an ailing parent or spouse. Maybe you’ve had to leave work for two or more of those reasons. Maybe you’ve been the one who’s had to do the laying off or to fire someone.

Work provides security in so many ways. First, there’s the income. Some jobs pay more than others, but any job pays better than none. And usually, there’s more than just ourselves depending on that income. What we earn today pays not only for what we need but for any past debt and for the future as well. Second, there’s the feeling of pride, of having a place to go, a person to be. For good or ill, our work becomes part of who we are, how we see ourselves. Who would we be without our work? And then there are the benefits that are on a scale much like our salary. Work has become a safety net with some very wide holes that continue to shift under our feet. We worry that one day we’ll slip right through one of them.

This morning’s gospel lesson sounds like a story from the business pages of the newspaper. Someone from management has been taking from the till and making off with it. The owner of the company has heard from others about his manager and plans to fire him. The manager, thinking only of himself and his future, uses the shrewd mind that got him into this mess and ingratiates himself with his boss’s debtors by discounting what they owe the boss. It all makes sense until we get to the end. The boss commends the manager because of his shrewdness. And then Jesus tells the disciples to “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

In these days of BP, GM, AIG, Lehman Brothers, Goldman-Sachs and many others we don’t want to hear about how the government is helping them dig their way out of a very big hole. They dug their hole; let them stay there for a while. But just because some folks did something wrong, we can’t write them off as bad people. We’re all a mixed bag of good and bad, of varying degrees. All of us have fallen short of the glory of God; otherwise our world wouldn’t be in the mess it’s in.

When we get upset about this dishonest manager being commended for his shrewdness our sense of entitlement kicks in. “I’ve worked hard, been honest, and I don’t get commended.” We sound like the older brother in the parable about the prodigal son, just before this one. God’s grace sounds like cheating, as though some are getting off easy for their sin. The truth is we have all benefited from God’s generosity. The truth is we all have benefited from the ill-gotten gains of others. We all live mostly comfortable lives with enough to eat, a roof over our heads, some money in the bank, and all kinds of material goods in abundance wherever we shop, never mind where they are made, by whom, and at what price to the environment. What Jesus is asking us is: What are you going to do with this grace, with your ill-gotten gains? Keep them or use them toward the eternal home, that is, the kingdom of God?

Jesus came to point a finger, not to blame, but to get us moving. The words “You’re fired” are strangely more compelling to us than “Follow me”, but both carry with them a sense of urgency. Both send us the bold message that it’s time to let go of the way things are and find another way, using the shrewd mind that got us into whatever mess we have found ourselves in.

There once was a man, a very rich man, a millionaire in fact, who came home one day to find out that his wife was ready to leave him. In response to his wife’s wake-up call, he packed up his family in the car and they headed toward Florida. On the way they met up with some friends in Georgia who then introduced the man to Clarence Jordan of Koinonia Farms. After having lunch with Clarence, the man and his family stayed on the farm for a month. He then sold all that he had, gave it to the poor, and started an organization called Habitat for Humanity. The man was Millard Fuller.

An addict has ruined her marriage, her health, her career, her friendships, and her bank account. But when she walks into a twelve-step program she can start over again, repair the breach she has made between herself and others and God, and make another life out of the dust of her old one.

Pope Benedict XVI has become known for his expensive attire: red Italian leather Prada shoes, Serengeti sunglasses and ermine trimmed capes and hats. Anne Burke, the leader of the review board set up by the U.S. Catholic bishops to oversee their policies on priests accused of pedophilia, has written to the pope suggesting he wear a simple black cassock for the remainder of his papacy to demonstrate penance for the priest sex scandal.

How we spend our money and our lives makes a direct impact on the kingdom of God. I heard it once said that there aren’t any bad people, only bad, sometimes catastrophic decisions. Jesus is telling us that it’s never too late to change our decision, to decide for the kingdom of God rather than for material wealth and our own security.

Are we going to sell all we have and give it to the poor? Probably not. Are we going to give away our possessions and live an aesthetic life? Maybe, maybe not. But maybe our rich God understands. Maybe our God is merciful as well as just even when we give a lame attempt at serving. Maybe God is waiting for us to use our imagination even just a little when it comes to the kingdom of God, that future that’s planned for all of us.

Perhaps we’re not another Millard Fuller or Mother Theresa. But we could begin to do things differently. While we’re buying ourselves new clothes we could be buying new clothes for the thrift shop. Why should the poor get only our hand-me-downs? Instead of trading in the old car we could give it away to a charitable organization. Instead of going out to dinner, we could write a check for the same amount to the food bank. What would happen if we all raised our pledge by just a dollar week? We have about 60 pledging units in this church. You do the math.

Is God disappointed at our half-hearted attempts at discipleship? Maybe. But maybe God looks at our serving the way a teacher looks at a student’s work: some mistakes but that’s 70% of learning. God looks for progress and for learning from our past ways.

God is also shrewd with us. God is no fool. God is willing to accept even our feeble efforts as a sign of our faithfulness rather than nothing at all. God is looking for a goodwill effort; are we with God or not? We are not working our way into the kingdom but then are we willing to go with God’s flow toward that kingdom or are we working against it?

So whatever you’re doing now for God’s kingdom…you’re fired!

Now what are you going to do?

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