Crafty for the Kingdom

 

520px-the_worship_of_mammon

1909 painting The Worship of Mammon by Evelyn De Morgan.

A sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 18, 2016.  The lectionary readings are Amos 8:4-7, Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, and Luke 16:1-13.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

The Episcopal Church’s House of Bishops is currently meeting in Detroit.  When they meet, they worship, they study the Bible, they talk with one another, and they also hear from people who they think have something to say to the church.  On Friday, they heard from John Danforth, the three-term Republican senator from Missouri.  In retirement, Senator Danforth briefly served as Ambassador to the United Nations, and has continued to write and speak widely.  As early as 2005, Danforth criticized changes in the Republican Party, he’s continued to speak out, and on Friday, he called our House of Bishops to lead the Episcopal Church to take up a ministry of healing our country.  Political opponents are not “enemies,” he reminds us.  And he encourages the bishops to help us all remember, articulate, and work for the common good.  In a book he wrote last year, Danforth argues for a “theological disarmament,” pointing out that, “Politics is not the battleground for universal truth. It’s a process for negotiating compromises.” Politics matters less than the ideologues insistand that to make a policy position non-negotiable is to turn it into an idol. (The Relevance of Religion: How Faithful People Can Change Politics, Random House, 2015.  A good article on the book and Danforth is at Salon, Dec. 28, 2015).

Senator Danforth always catches my eye because he’s thoughtful, he’s faithful, and he brings a kind of complexity to whatever issue he approaches. Part of this is, I think, because he is both a lawyer and an Episcopal priest.  He worked at a Wall Street law firm before entering politics, and is rare in the way he never compromises his lawyerly mind or his Christian soul.  He uses all he has to follow Christ.

Even though few of us might follow our vocations to the extremes of God and mammon the way Mr. Danforth has, we all move in circles that are sometimes religious and sometimes very worldly.  Today’s scriptures, in some ways, help us navigate both the religious, the worldly, and the in-between.

The prophet Amos thunders forth from our first reading. “Hear this,” he says, “you that trample on the needy. You who cheat the poor and push around the defenseless. [God] will turn your feasts into mourning, and … your songs into lamentation.” The point to Amos’s preaching is not to criticize formal or elaborate worship. The point is that with all the resources at Israel’s disposal, with all the wealth in their temple, in their homes and in their hands, they are (at the end of the day) showing themselves to be a stingy, selfish people.

Amos points out the hypocrisy in Israel’s worship, in the ordering of their lives, in their culture. They have forgotten when they were poor. They have forgotten when they were aliens. They have forgotten when they were not the majority. But God never forgets. And God will bring justice. God holds God’s people accountable.

If the Old Testament reading reminds us about some of WHAT we should be doing, the Gospel suggests that the MEANS of our doing—our living out the Gospel, our working with God to bring about his kingdom, may involve some strange relationships. This is the world people like John Danforth can help us navigate, those places in which our being faithful to God sometimes means our getting smart, shrewd and resourceful in the here-and-now.

In today’s Gospel, we hear about a rich man who has a dishonest manager. This manager is not only underperforming, but seems to be either skimming off the top or manipulating the funds in some other way. The accounts do not add up, and the rich man gives the manager notice. But the manager sees some of this coming. He knows his days are numbered, so he makes plans, and his plans involve building up “credit” with others. Before he leaves, the manager goes around to all of those who owe the rich man. He cuts his losses. He lowers each person’s total, collects what he can and tries to prepare for the future. He is a pragmatist and his quick thinking seems to get him back into the favor of his boss.

In this parable, Jesus is simply telling a story. He does not mean for his disciples or us to identify specifically with one character or another. He is not encouraging us to be cheats. He is not suggesting that the kingdom of God is achieved by dishonesty or duplicity. But there is the suggestion that the kingdom of God benefits from a shrewd mind and from a willingness to make use of all the resources at one’s disposal. The Christian faith is not helped by feeble-mindedness or by a kind of pious naïveté. Rather, in Jesus’ words, the “children of light” can learn a few things from the “children of this age.” That is to say that those who seek to follow Jesus can learn even from, and perhaps especially from some who are secular and even nonreligious. This idea is echoed in Matthew when Jesus sends out his disciples to be “as sheep in the midst of wolves, to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Today’s readings suggest that we have a role to play in the ongoing life of God and the unfolding of God’s kingdom. It matters what we do with what we have, whether we have just a tiny bit or whether we have a whole lot. Whatever we have can be used for God’s good will. What we have in terms of our energy, our mind, our faith, our compassion, our talent, our money— all of this has a role to play in God’s unfolding kingdom.

Using what we have, for God, is the central message of today’s scripture. It is what Jesus is saying to his disciples—that even though the manager in the story is less-than-honest, perhaps he’s even a little shady and maybe even a little underhanded, the manager does everything he can to prepare for the future—he uses all of his resources in the most creative way he can, and it’s that creativity and resourcefulness that Jesus is lifts up for us.

Very soon, we’ll be talking about “using what we have” for God’s glory in very tangible ways, as our church enters Stewardship Season.  A pledge form is not only for money (though we use pledges so that we can create the operating budget for the next year, and we NEED your pledge—whether it’s a dollar or thousands of dollars).  A pledge form also has various ministries and efforts of the church listed, inviting you to consider where God might be calling you to spend some time, or spend some energy.  Don’t underestimate the things you have, the skills you possess, the relationships and connections you enjoy—God calls and consecrates the WHOLE person, and wants us to be creative and crafty as follow and serve Christ.

Maybe you can volunteer with HTNC (Holy Trinity Neighborhood Center) with the Tuesday lunch, the Saturday dinner, or the weeknight homeless shelter. Or maybe you can volunteer with Trinity Cares, our network of people who can help with odds and ends, going with you or picking you up from a doctor’s appointment, or just visiting. Or maybe you don’t have time, but some of your extra money could not only support the music and museums around the city, but could help underwrite the programs here that invite people into God’s love through the “beauty of holiness.” There will be time in the days ahead for us to consider prayerfully (and honestly) how God might be calling each of us to be a part of God’s work at Holy Trinity and beyond.

Our Collect of the Day prays that even as we are surrounded by earthly things, that we would not be anxious about them, but hold on to what lasts, what endures, what helps others, and what furthers the community and love of our Lord Jesus Christ. May we learn to use all that we have and all that we are for God, and never be afraid to be crafty for the kingdom of God.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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