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Sermon for Sunday 22 September 2019

First Reading                                        Amos 8:4-7

4Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, 5saying, “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, 6that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?” 7The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob: “Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.”

Psalm                                                          Psalm 113

1Hallelujah! Give praise, you servants of the Lord; praise the name of the Lord. 2Let the name of the Lord be blessed, from this time forth forevermore. 3From the rising of the sun to its going down let the name of the Lord be praised. 4The Lord is high above all nations, and his glory above the heavens. 5Who is like the Lord our God, who sits enthroned on high, but stoops to behold the heavens and the earth? 6He takes up the weak out of the dust and lifts up the poor from the ashes. 7He sets them with the princes, with the princes of his people. 8He makes the woman of a childless house to be a joyful mother of children.

Second Reading                         1 Timothy 2:1-15

1First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, 2for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, 4who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. 5For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, 6who gave himself as a ransom for all, which is the testimony given at the proper time. 7For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying), a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. 8I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling; 9likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly attire, 10but with what is proper for women who profess godliness — with good works. 11Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. 12I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. 13For Adam was formed first, then Eve; 14and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. 15Yet she will be saved through childbearing — if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.

Gospel                                                        Luke 16:1-15

1{Jesus} also said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was wasting his possessions. 2And he called him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Turn in the account of your management, for you can no longer be manager.’ 3And the manager said to himself, ‘What shall I do, since my master is taking the management 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 removed from management, people may receive me into their houses.’ 5So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he said to the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’ 6He said, ‘A hundred measures of oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and sit down quickly and write fifty.’ 7Then he said to another, ‘And how much do you owe?’ He said, ‘A hundred measures of wheat.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, and write eighty.’ 8The master commended the dishonest manager for his shrewdness. For the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. 9And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal dwellings. 10One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. 11If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? 13No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” 14The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all these things, and they ridiculed him. 15And he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts. For what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”


Recently, I read a story that I found very touching.  I have no idea whether it’s true or not; it probably belongs in the category of an “urban legend”… but whatever the case, it makes a good point.  The story is about a man who was driving home from work one day in rush hour traffic when suddenly his car began to choke and sputter… and then the engine just died.  Fortunately, the man was able to coast into a service station.  He tried the engine again, but now it wouldn’t even turn over.  As he pulled out his cell phone to call for roadside assistance, he sees a young woman come out of the gas station convenience store.  As he watched, it looked like she slipped on some ice and fell into a gas pump.

The man quickly gets out of his car and goes over to check on her.  As he approaches her, he realizes that she hadn’t slipped, but had slumped against the gas pump and was crying.  She looked tired and anxious and as she had slumped over, she had dropped a nickel.  The man picked up the nickel and handed it to her.  At that moment, it became clear what was going on:  the crying woman, the well-used Suburban crammed full of stuff, three kids in the back, one in a car seat, and the gas pump reading $4.95.  He asked her if she needed help.

She said: “I don’t want my children to see me crying.  The gas pump was blocking their view.  She said she was driving to California.  Her boyfriend had left her two months ago and she hadn’t been able to make ends meet.  In desperation, she had called her parents.  They lived in California and said she could come live with them until she could get back on her feet.  So, she had packed everything she owned in the car… and with very little money in her purse was trying to make it to California.  The man said: “And when you slumped against the gas pump, you were praying, weren’t you?  Obviously, you were because God heard you and sent me.”

With that, the man took out his credit card and swiped it through the card reader on the pump, so she could fill up her SUV completely and while it was fueling, he walked over to the McDonald’s next door and bought two big bags of food, some gift cards that they could use later and a big cup of coffee.

The young woman gave the food to the kids in the car, which they attacked like hungry wolves.  Next, the man gave the young woman his gloves and a gentle hug… and then he said a quick prayer for their safety on the road.  As he wished them well and turned to go back to his car, the woman asked: “What are you… some kind of angel or something?”  The man said: “At this time of year, angels are really busy, so sometimes God uses regular people like me.”  

Now, this might surprise you, but when I pondered this story, it reminded me of “The Parable of the Unjust Steward,” in our gospel reading, because we see here that God can use regular people… and sometimes, He’ll decide to use some less than angelic people.  The unjust steward was just that… unjust, a person that was less than an angel in his dealings with his employer.  He’d been accused of misusing his master’s resources… and it cost him his job.  However, refusing to give up, he comes up with a plan for how he will survive in the coming days.

The unjust manager contacts his master’s debtors and said to one: “You owe a hundred measures of oil.  Take your bill and write fifty.”  To another, he said: “You owe a hundred measures of wheat, take your bill and write eighty.”  And, strangely, amazingly, incredibly, the parable ends with the master commending the steward for his shrewdness.  As you read this parable, you might be thinking, what on earth is this parable all about?  This less than effective manager abuses his position, defrauds his employer, and in the end, is lifted up as an example?  Well don’t feel bad, scholars have debated this parable for years.

But before I get to the debate, we do need to recognize that this parable follows five other parables told in chapters 14 and 15.  Four of these parables, the wedding feast, the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son all tell us about God.  These parables teach us that God is generous and patient, that He is persistent, and that He is also forgiving.  But Jesus turns the tables now and wants us to focus on humankind.

In today’s parable, it’s important to note that the manager shows no sign of remorse for his actions; he doesn’t ask for forgiveness, nor does he show any sign of wanting to change.  The unscrupulous manager simply shifts his focus to figuring out a way to continue his livelihood away from the Master.  Sounds like a lot of people today with the attitude, it ain’t wrong if I don’t get caught or, as long as I don’t go to jail then I’ve done nothing really bad.  So, what are the scholars arguing about?

Some scholars say that Jesus is warning us against money or the desire for money; this is of course reinforced with Jesus’ statement in verse 13, “you cannot serve God and money.”  Others will say it goes beyond money to include material things; we’re to never put our stuff ahead of God.  Instead, we’re to put our faith in God first and foremost and He will supply our needs.  Still others say that a main focus of this parable has to do with how we use our money; we’re to use it for good, not bad.

Still others will emphasize that this is a contrast parable, an “If Only Parable,” and the meaning in this story could be expressed like this.  If only Christian people were as eager, as ingenious, and imaginative in their attempt to serve God and do good as worldly people are in their attempts to attain money and comfort, then the church would be stronger, and the world would be a better place.  Still others insist that the parable is about stewardship and the responsibility:  we’re all called to be good stewards for our master.  For me, all these explanations carry at least some bit of merit.

The worship and misuse of money and things do indeed turn them into idols and the First Commandment is clear about where God is to be placed in our lives.  Yes, we should look to God alone to supply the things we need.  And I certainly agree with the assertion that we need to be as eager and ingenious and imaginative about how we serve God as we are about how we get along in this life.  And I do believe we need to be good stewards of the gifts, talents and resources that God has given us.  So yes, this parable does cover all these areas.  But there’s still more things that this parable teaches us. 

First, this parable also reminds us that God’s patience does have a limit.  While the three previous parables assure us that God is persistent in His efforts to seek out and save the lost, this parable teaches us that at some point we will be called into account.  Just four chapters earlier in chapter 12, Jesus reminds us that we are to be ready for action, to keep our lamps trimmed so that when the master returns, we’ll be ready to greet Him.  Then recall if you will, that clear back in Genesis, God said, “I will not always strive with mankind (6:3).  And in this case, He limited our life span to be 120 years.  But there are also words of encouragement here as well. 

Jesus goes on to recognize and encourages us to be faithful with the small amount we are entrusted with; by doing this we will then prove to be trustworthy with much more.  And one final note here, Jesus closes this parable with two reminders.  First, even though others may not see or be aware of our motives, God sees our heart.  Second, the things that we think of in this world as important, God has a different value system.  On the surface this parable seems to be limited in its teaching, but when you pull back the layers there are many lessons here.  But guess what, there’s still more.

 Did you know that in many areas of the country it’s now hunting season?  Now a few of you will say, of course it is, bow season opened up three weeks ago.  But this isn’t the hunting I’m referring to; instead of tree stands, bows and arrows, the fearless, intrepid hunters I’m referring to drive around with ratty-looking sheets of plywood hanging out the tailgates of their pick-up trucks.  These hunters are after one of the most vicious of quarry, one capable of inflicting both long slashing wounds and deep puncture wounds.  Their quarry can only be approached by cautiously creeping towards it on a broad protective plank – and even then, one of its hundreds of arms is sure to inflict some painful scratches.  I’m talking about blackberry picking.

Now for those who remember hunting for wild blackberries, is there any more well-protected fruit than this one?  The long, supporting vines can have diameters of well over an inch.  They’re studded with huge, curved thorns, hooked on the end.  The smaller vines hold the luscious fruit, but they too are well armored.  Smaller barbs surround the berries completely, no matter how slender the stem upon which they hang.  Even the underside of the leaves, tracing down each vine, are covered with needle-sharp prickles.  And for extra discomfort, the smaller thorns are especially good at breaking off into the skin.  But man was it worth it!

Forget the fact that your hands will be stained purple for days; forget the fact that you may have to leave your shirt hanging in shreds on a vine; forget the fact that your arms and legs may look like you’ve been trying to wrestle a full-grown tiger: these, in the famous words of Monte Python, are just flesh wounds.  The discomfort is worth the reward.  One taste of grandma’s fresh blackberry preserves on a hot biscuit or her famous blackberry pie and you too will become a lifelong hunter.

As I mentioned before, Jesus’ parable here in Luke presents us with a thorny issue.  The dishonest manager who remains unrepentant, is hardly a likeable character; he comes across as shifty, shady, and self-serving.  At the very least, the manipulating manager seems an unlikely candidate to be selected as a good example.  The reason this wily guy sets about adjusting the debt levels owed his master is to make the debtors beholding to him, owing him a reciprocal favor.  

The first-century culture was organized and orchestrated by strict social rules.  The rules of reciprocal hospitality were in no way optional.  Rather, they were the supporting ligaments that bound together status and honor, safeguarding roles and responsibilities through right relationships.  The dishonest manager has no doubts that he will be able to collect on the favors owed him when the time comes.  He will get by, despite his looming unemployment, because he knows how to work the system.  Buried in this parable is an additional lesson we need to focus on this morning. 

Jesus in no way lifts up the manager’s dubious situation.  Nor does Jesus concern Himself with the man’s self-serving character.  What Jesus focuses on, is the results from the manager’s maneuverings.  Jesus paints the picture of a man unafraid to push the accepted limits in order to bring about a needed change.  And He sees in this shrewdness something that His disciples might well learn from.  To find the overarching message Jesus is driving home, we need to pay close attention to Jesus’ closing commentary.

The commentary Jesus offers after this story is as central to this parable as the debt-dealing details.  Jesus focuses on the effective and efficient use of worldly, dishonest wealth, not for money-making, but for relationship building and hospitality.  The manager accepts a reduced return on investment for his boss in order to establish and cement relationships, relationships that his society wouldn’t ordinarily embrace.  Jesus reminds those listening that day, that the kingdom isn’t about bean-counting, the kingdom is about recreating our relationship with God and recreating our relationships with each other.

In two previous parables, the great dinner in chapter 14 and the prodigal son in chapter 15, Jesus reinforces just how unexpected, and even off-the-wall, these new kingdom-mandated relationships might look to the rest of the world.  First, the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame (14:21) are brought to the banquet table.  Then the worthless, spendthrift, disreputable son (15:21) is celebrated and welcomed back home.  And now, even the debt-modifying actions of a dishonest manager is praised.

These are unlovely people whose harsh, ugly lives can’t be hidden.  Yet as their actions bring the reality of the kingdom closer, their lives open up to reveal God’s power at work within them.  Maybe it would help if we bring this parable into the 21st century.  Today, our role models aren’t those who do good, but are those who look good – no matter what they do.  Admit it or not, the twenty-first century culture is a celebrity culture.

We envy these celebrity icons and look to them to lead us in the ways of perfection – perfect faces, perfect figures, perfect physiques, perfect clothes and perfect cars.  Many in society try to copy their perfection as much as possible.  We have makeovers for our bodies, our homes, our wardrobes – all in an effort to match the trademarked perfection we glorify in our cultural celebrities.  “Life Is What You Make It” is the newest advertising slogan of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.

However, what the slogan really suggests is, your life can only be as good as your plastic surgeon makes you look.  The skills of the surgeon will give your life its worth.  In data released by the American Society of Plastic Surgeons shows continued growth in cosmetic procedures.  According to the annual plastic surgery procedural statistics, there were 17.5 million surgical and minimally invasive cosmetic procedures performed in the United States in 2017.  The statistics also reveal Americans are turning to new and innovative ways to shape their bodies, as minimally invasive cosmetic procedures have increased nearly 200% since 2000.  Statistics prove that we’re rapidly becoming a culture committed to going only skin deep – a culture of skin-deep perfection.

Twentieth century novelist James Joyce declared “modern man has an epidermis rather than a soul.”  According to Joyce, post-modern culture goes even one step further:  The skin we long for isn’t even our own; it’s cut and stitched, sculpted, tightened, tanned, lightened, suctioned, lased, all according to whatever celebrity trademark, whatever perfect look we hope to emulate of our cultural gods and goddesses.  In this parable, Jesus challenges us to get beyond our skin-deep preoccupation.  The gospel is more concerned with our soul than with our skin.  Jesus looks at the eternal, not the epidermis.  Life is not what you make it.  Life is what you let God make it.  

Here’s a counter-cultural though for you: Let compassion for others get under your skin; let feeding the hungry get under your skin; let forgiveness of those who have wronged you get under your skin; let a thirst for justice get under your skin; let the needs of your children, your spouse, your parents, your church, your community, get under your skin; let a desire for God’s grace and goodness get under your skin; let a hunger for things of the Spirit get under your skin.

Our skin-deep society costs a lot of cash.  It’s not just the plastic surgeons who are getting rich on $10,000 face-lifts or $3000 liposuctions.  There are also the cosmetic companies, the clothing industries, the fitness gurus, the drug companies, and the diet doctors.  I wonder, what would happen if we took some of that cash that we plan to spend on making ourselves look good and invested it in doing good in others’ lives, for others’ souls?  Consider the life story of John Davison Rockefeller.

John D. Rockefeller, who many consider to be the richest man in his time, started out as a clerk at $43.75 per week.  Even at that small salary, he gave as much as 50 percent of his salary to his church every week to contribute to the betterment of others.  Years passed.  When he was fifty-two years old, he was extraordinarily wealthy, and he was also extremely sick; his doctors told him that he would die within a year.  He thought back on his early years and the pleasure he got from contributing to his church, so he resolved that he would spend his last year giving his money away.  He sold half of his stock in the Standard Oil Company and he began financing worthy causes around the country.  But something incredible happened.

The more money he gave away, the better he felt.  His health improved.  His illnesses went away.  He recovered completely.  He went on to live to age 91, in excellent health.  By the time he died, he had given away millions of dollars.  Meanwhile, the value of the Standard Oil Stock he had kept had increased so much that he died with more money than he had when he was on his deathbed many years before.   

When we let our lives be what God would make of them, we receive the power and perseverance of a life that’s transformed soul-deep, not just skin-deep.  When God’s power and presence fills our soul, our skin can’t contain it.  No matter how young, how old, how ordinary, or how seemingly incapacitated our skins may suggest we are, the Spirit’s power under our skin can change everything.

            The question we need to be asking is, are we defining ourselves by trademark external signifiers: the measurements our body bears, the brands we wear, the car we drive?  Or, do we look to what really matters, what God values as important?  A skin-deep life must shrivel, age, and decay.  It’s the reality of our mortality.  However, a soul-deep life, Spirit-filled and Spirit-powered, remains ever vital, ever ready to serve the needs of the kingdom.  And it’s this soul-deep life that leads to what God expects, Him first, others second and in return, we receive life eternal.


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