Crafty for the Kingdom of God

workplaceA sermon for September 22, 2019, the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost.  The scriptures are Amos 8:4-7 , Psalm 113, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, and Luke 16:1-13

Listen to the sermon HERE.

I have a date on my calendar next month for meeting with the church’s investment committee.  That committee is chaired by Jean Geater and is filled with some very good, very smart members of the parish.  I don’t go to all of the meetings, but I like to go, when I can.  I learn more about the current state of the world economy, how the church’s investments are faring, and – I suppose I should admit it—there’s something kind of fun about wearing a black suit and clergy collar into offices filled with financial people.  Perhaps it’s good, at some level, for a priest to be seen, walking through such a secular building; but even more, it’s good for me to remember that only a small percentage of God’s work is done in a church building—the larger part of God’s work and mission play out in offices, schools, hospitals, factories, shops, subways, and wherever God’s people go.

Today’s scriptures invite us to think about how we move with God out in the world, and how we sometimes might place barriers between what is perceived as “the spiritual” and “the worldly.”

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 means that we’re called to move in a world of faithful people—followers of Jesus who take their faith into the marketplace and the boardroom can help others to navigate these spaces.  It means that God calls us to be smart, shrewd and resourceful not in some future realm, but 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 Spirit. 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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