In God we mostly trust: A Sermon on Luke 16

Grace Church, Great Barrington

Sunday September 21, 2013

“In God we mostly trust.” Luke 16:1-13

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. 2So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3Then 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. 4I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7Then 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.’ 8And 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. 9And 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. 10“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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No 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.” 

I want to try something a little different here- I hope you’ll grant me this liberty as your preacher this morning, seeing as your very wise pastor has scheduled me here for what is generally considered the most confusing parable in the Gospels. I’m a guest, and this is an experiment, so just go along with me. I want you to pull out your wallet and find a dollar bill.  I know, no one caries cash. If you can, find a paper bill and take it out. If you can’t find a bill, grab a credit card or a coin. My work is to preach. Your work is to hold onto that bill for the entire sermon. That’s all. Now, what does that bill proclaim? I know you’re Episcopalians, but pretend you are Baptists and you can talk back to me in a sermon. In God we trust. May it be so.

Let us pray….

This is a sermon about money which will NOT include an ask for money. Seriously. We have a dangerously bad habit in church of only talking about money when we want some more of it. We know that Jesus talks a lot about wealth and poverty, taxes and titles, debts and debtors- but we mostly talk about money during the liturgical season known as Stewardship.  In the Gospel of Luke, the parables before this are the lost coin and the prodigal son.  The parable after this is Lazarus and the rich man. We are smack in the middle of an extended set of stories by Jesus about money and our relationship to it. (are you still holding onto that bill?)

And what can only be considered a work of genius by your pastor, I am here to explain to you a passage that just about everyone acknowledges is miserably complicated and universally dreaded in the 3 year rotation of scripture known as the Revised Common Lectionary. One commentator said that even Luke seems unsure what to do with this story. The theologian Rudolph Bultmann called this parable “a problem child.”  First, it’s not entirely clear what is going on: Why is the money manager fired? Are the charges against him true? When the manager goes to cut the debt of those who owe the rich man money, is this an act of wisdom, kindness or blazing self-interest?  Why are we to make friends with the use of dishonest wealth?  What if you gave that dollar bill in your hand to the person behind you- is that what Jesus wants?

We struggle to follow what’s going on in this parable, then we ask WHY Jesus is telling this story! It seems like the manager only reduces the bills of those who owe money so that the manager will have some people to stay with when he gets fired. Is Jesus praising this self-preservation? I don’t have the answers for much most of these questions, but let me add this: Don’t force this to be a perfect overlay faithfulness to God.  Parables don’t have to explain everything; They can teach us something without teaching us everything. And Luke in particular loves a good complex story where the social order is turned upside down. If the most this parable can teach us is that our relationship with money, God and God’s people is wicked complicated, than I think we are being faithful to the text and honest about how confusing this story is set in an economy and social context entirely different from our own.

The most familiar line comes at the end at verse 13  “13No 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.” Both demand allegiance. Money exerts power over us. When we have too little, we struggle to feel secure.  When we lose it, we feel adrift. When we have much, we think about it too. That dollar bill in your hand seems to exert power over us, to squeeze tighter, to pay attention. Money demands our focus; Money demands our attention; Money demands our time. We are told again and again, we can’t just let money sit there, squirreled away in a bank account, we have to manage it.  We all become money managers. Money has to be moved, invested, insured, split, taxed, counted, accounted, strategized, pre-paid, banked, borrowed, leveraged, loaned, most of all, increased.  We are like the money manager, moving money that is ultimately not ours, with the illusion of control. Money and the lack of money takes us space in our heads, in our calendars, in our hearts. You know the anxiety of not knowing if you’ll have enough to retire, or send your kid to college, or pay the rent or buy your medicine. You know the anxiety of wondering if you can afford to repair the church building. You know how much space in our minds money occupies. You know that as a nation we act like there is no such thing as enough.  As Americans, this is one of our particular spiritual ailments. Are you still holding onto that bill? Did you start making a list of the bills you still need to pay or the things you need to buy? And when we are thinking of money that demands such attention and commands such fidelity, we are not thinking of God.

In God we may proclaim trust, but in our money we invest. Our money did not always proclaim our fidelity. Our national motto was almost something different entirely on that dollar bill you hold.  In the early 1860’s, in the midst of the religious turn during the Civil War, Americans started to write to the Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase. The first letter came from Rev. M. R. Watkins, a “Minister of the Gospel from Ridleyville, PA, ” asking for the words “God, Liberty, Law” to be placed on our currency, saying “This would relieve us from the ignominy of heathenism. This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed. From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters.”   Secretary Chase had his director of the Mint in Philadelphia James Pollock respond. Pollock wrote, “Dear Sir: No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins. You will cause a device to be prepared without unnecessary delay with a motto expressing in the fewest and tersest words possible this national recognition.” And so we went about trying to craft a national motto.  Pollock proposed “OUR COUNTRY; OUR GOD or GOD, OUR TRUST.” We’ve always had this American impulse to claim Our God, Our Country. To stamp our name and ensure it is ours. And that we would do so on our money simply points to the endless complexity of our complex relationship with God and money. “In a time of immense national chaos, IN GOD WE TRUST first appeared on the 1864 two-cent coin. And in a time on immense national anxiety during the cold war and the state affirmed atheism of USSR, Eisenhower signed the  1956 joint resolution declaring “In God We trust” our national motto and printing it on our paper bills where it’s been ever since.  We may claim our trust in God with every dollar we spend in America, but  our actions as a country betray this trust. We now live with the income inequality between the rich and the poor at the widest point since 1928,The Economist reports that “The most unequal country in the rich world is thus becoming even more so.”  For all our proclamations on our currency, we seem way more interested in worshipping the almighty dollar instead.

After all the complex maneuvering by the money manager, we get the line in verse 8. “8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;” The master, or in Greek “Kurios” or Lord shows up again in the story and affirms the money manager lessening the debt of the people.  Yes, it may be self-serving, but the money manager is lessening the debts of the people. Scripture is pretty consistent; releasing people from debt is a good and holy thing. And for all of the complexity in understanding this parable, this much is clear: the money manager’s future depends upon the people ‘beneath’ him. Our future as “One nation under God” depends on the people ‘beneath’ us. This obscene gap in income inequality matters not just because we are now letting people in the richest nation in the world go hungry while the House of Representatives cuts food stamps, but because ultimately, our sustainability, our economy, and yes our salvation, depends upon those ‘beneath’ us. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Proclaim release to the captive, proclaim the year of jubilee. You cannot serve God and Wealth. Even as we grip those dollar bills in our hands tighter and tighter as our own anxiety grows and grows, the economy of God upends all of our of our presumptions.

gideon's gardenOn our best days, at our most holy, Church is the place where the screwed up simultaneous over and under-valuing of money in our world is set right. There have been times in the Church’s history, when units of measure were not standardized that the Church was the trusted authority to proclaim weights and measures. This is the place were we calculate true worth. God’s economy is different from ours. Grace is not cheap but abundant, simultaneously free and precious. But in very really and tangible ways, at our best Church aims to set right our relationships with money in ways that are healthy and holy. I see you doing this. You are growing precious food at Gideon’s Garden and giving it to people who could not afford locally sourced, sustainably grown, organic baby spinach greens. The first fruits of creation are being given to God’s hungry people. You should be so proud. This is an act of setting our relationship right with God and wealth. Monastic communities try this, where all things are held in common. Shoot, even Berkshire county tries this with the local currency the Berkshares! Church is where we try, try, try to taste the foretaste of that new economy. In the first reading today, you heard Jeremiah mourn “for the hurt of my poor people I am hurt” and wonder “is there no balm in Gilead?” In God’s economy, we declare “there is a balm in Gilead.” You are modeling so much of this different way of being in relation to money. I wonder what places in this church God is asking you to trust him more with your money, or his money or this money that you are borrowing.My hope is this: when you pull out that dollar bill, a credit card, your Paypal account, I want you to proclaim “In God, I trust. This money, I borrow.” Will you say it with me? “In God I trust, this money I borrow.” We cannot raise our arms in praise if we are clinging to the money in our hands. We cannot serve God and wealth. In God may we trust this day and in the days ahead. Amen.

Published by RevEverett

I'm a pastor in the United Church of Christ here in Boston. I serve as the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches. Cycliss, seamstress, my book is "Holy Spokes: The Search for Urban Spirituality on Two Wheels." NJ by birth, MA by choice. Opinions are my own. Love abounds.

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