Sunday, September 22, 2013

After We're Found

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
September 22, 2013

Year C, Proper 20: The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
Psalm 79:1-9
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

After We’re Found

            I think most of you know that, for the most part, I don’t choose the readings that we read and hear in church. Some Sundays there are options, but usually we follow the same cycle of Bible readings, known as a lectionary, as other Episcopal churches, along with lots of other denominations including Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists and Presbyterians.
            I think it’s really good that so many Christians across the country and around the world are reading and hearing the same Scripture passages on any given Sunday. It’s a reminder that we are all part of Christ’s Body.
            Last Sunday, if you were in church you may remember we heard two wonderful and powerful parables from Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: the Parable of the Lost Sheep and the Parable of the Lost Coin.
            Even if you weren’t here you may remember the parables: the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep behind and goes in search of the one who is lost. And a woman turns her house upside down for her lost silver coin.
            In both cases, after what’s lost has been found, the shepherd and the woman invite everybody to a big party to celebrate.
            Jesus teaches that this is what it’s like in heaven when those who are lost are then found. There’s a big party.
            Those two parables are so beautiful and clear they practically preach themselves.
            Now, in the Gospel of Luke the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin are followed by what’s usually called the Parable of the Prodigal Son. You remember the story: after squandering his inheritance the son returns home hoping to be hired by his father to do even the most menial work. Instead the father runs out to greet his lost son and throws a big party to celebrate his return.
            Pretty much the same theme as the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin, right?
            Lost and found.
            But, what happens after we’re found? What happens after the party?
            Well, in their wisdom the creators of the lectionary skip the Parable of the Prodigal Son, giving us instead the passage from the Gospel of Luke that I just read: it’s called the Parable of the Dishonest Manager or, sometimes, the Parable of the Shrewd Steward.
            It’s a parable found only in the Gospel of Luke. In fact it marks a shift in theme in the Gospel of Luke – from lost and found to a deep concern about how we use our possessions.
            What happens after we’re found? What happens after the party?
            Well, today’s Parable of the Dishonest Manager challenges us to think about how we use our wealth.
            Let’s be honest – the use of our wealth – our money, our possessions, our gifts – is usually the last thing we want to talk about. We tend to think it’s nobody’s business.
            But, this is what the lectionary has given us. So, let’s take a look at this challenging parable again.
            It’s the story of a manager who is fired by his boss, for some kind of alleged squandering of the rich man’s property. To protect his future, the manager begins to cut the debts of his boss’s debtors. Jesus concludes the parable by saying that the master praises the unjust manager for acting shrewdly.
            So what’s going on here?
            Well, first of all, we have to admit that we don’t know for sure that the manager actually was fired for just cause. Who knows, maybe the boss was wrong for firing him. Wouldn’t be the first time – and certainly not the last time – that someone was unjustly fired!
             Secondly, commentators suggest that it was customary for people like the manager to earn their money through commissions, by taking a percentage for themselves. So, in the parable, when the manager reduces what the people owe the boss, in reality he’s eliminating his own cut in the hope of making people happy so that he won’t be out on the street when he loses his job.
            So, he’s not stealing from the boss. And that’s why he’s praised by the boss for his clever thinking.
            But, what does this story have to do with us here today? Why did Jesus tell this story and why did Luke decide to include this parable in his gospel? After all, Luke could have just left it out.
            Well, the parable is meant to get us thinking about our relationship with our wealth – about money and our stuff – and about all the many gifts that God has given us.
            In the parable, the manager was careful to use his wealth to ensure a safe future for himself. Now, that’s something we already know . We all know that how we use our wealth helps to determine our future.
            But, Jesus goes further. Jesus suggests that how we use our stuff will help to determine our ultimate future – our future in what he calls the “eternal habitations.”
            So, Jesus is clear: a lot is riding on what happens after we’re found. A lot is riding on how we use our money and our things – a lot is riding on how we use our wealth.
            Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
            Now, Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see a lot of us choosing wealth over God. I don’t see a lot us serving wealth.
            Instead, I know that many of us struggle financially. I know that for many of us each month, each week, each day, it’s a challenge to make ends meet – to pay the rent, to buy the groceries, to cough up the bus and PATH fare, to scrape together money to pay doctors, to make car payments and come up with the car insurance premium, to buy the things the kids and grandkids are begging you to buy them, and on and on.
            I know that many of us live this close – maybe just one paycheck away, maybe even less than that  – from dramatic and terrifying changes in our lives.
            And yet, despite those financial pressures – or maybe because of those financial pressures - St. Paul’s has always been a community of overflowing generosity.
            Just since I’ve been back here as rector, each time I’ve asked you to step up the response has been overwhelming. So many of you have sacrificed, happily offering your time, talent and treasure.
            I don’t think I’ll ever forget the dinner we threw for the volunteers from Garden State Episcopal CDC. Talk about overflowing generosity! So much delicious and lovingly prepared food!
            And our donations to the food pantry have gone from a trickle to a flood – so much so that this last month things were starting to get a little out of control in the back of church. Even with our tight budgets, more and more of us are remembering to pick up an extra item or two for our most vulnerable neighbors.
            And, let me tell you, we’ve already gotten a reputation at Garden State Episcopal as a wonderfully generous church. I couldn’t be happier or prouder.
            And you have been increasingly generous with St. Paul’s itself.
            Pledges for 2013 have continued to come in. People are paying the pledges they have made – and sometimes even going beyond their pledge. Even at the weekday services, people have been generously dropping bills and checks into the offering plate.
            I know that many of you have noticed that there have been a few weeks when we have collected over $1000 in the offering. That kind of generosity feels great. It’s a sign – just one sign, but an important sign – of how much we love God, how much we love St. Paul’s and how much we believe in the exciting future that God wishes for us all.
            Partly because, like most of you, I hate talking about money and partly because I know you get it – I’ve suggested that we have a low-key stewardship campaign this year.
            Next Sunday when we have our annual meeting I will share some ideas and dreams that I have about our future together. And I know that you have your own hopes and dreams for St. Paul’s.
            Those ideas and dreams – yours and mine – are only possible with God’s help and with all of our support.
            So, for now, my prayer is that we all reflect on today’s challenging parable. Jesus is clear: a lot is riding on what happens after we’re found - a lot is riding on how we use our money and our things – a lot is riding on how we use our wealth.
            So, may we resolve to use our wealth – our money and all that God has given us – shrewdly, carefully, lovingly – to ensure the beyond our wildest dreams future that God wishes for us all.