Sunday, September 18, 2016

Sermon: "A Good Investment" (Luke 16:1-13)

As far as I can tell, Frank Underwood is not a nice person. He’s the main character on the TV show
“House of Cards,” and although I’ve only seen a few episodes from the first season, I have figured out that much.
By the way, don’t let your kids watch that show. There are a lot of “not nice” things to see there.
Starting with Frank Underwood.
In the show, Underwood is the majority whip in Congress. And he plays politics. Boy, does he play politics. He plays politics mean.
Normally, I don’t like shows or movies that have a “not nice” main character, and I’m not sure how many more episodes of this one I’ll be watching. But there is something fascinating about Frank Underwood. Something that I would almost describe as “admirable.”
Maybe it’s because I had a professor once who said, “just because you don’t like someone, don’t just toss aside everything about them.” She (my professor) was talking about theologians. One theologian in particular, who I and my classmates didn’t like, because of his views on certain theological issues. “Don’t dismiss him entirely,” she said; “you may not like certain aspects of his theology, but there’s still something you can learn from him.”
That was the most important lesson that professor ever taught me.
I don’t like Underwood’s attitude toward others. He is, as I said, “not nice.” He doesn’t care about other people at all. He’s malicious. He only demonstrates friendship and affection and care and sympathy when doing so will benefit him and his ambitions.
And yet, I can’t help but admire the way Underwood works to shape events to his advantage. He never just lets events happen to him; he makes them happen the way he wants them to happen. He never just sits there, helpless, while events unravel around him. He takes control. He shapes his future. He actively creates his reality.
For Underwood, there is no defeat. Defeat is not acceptable. If he’s working hard on a bill and it appears the bill is going nowhere, that it’s going down to defeat, well… that’s when Underwood really gets fired up. That’s when he gets really ruthless. That’s when he really starts manipulating people, blackmailing them, luring them into traps that they can’t get out of, so that he can get his way.
Because of that, things usually do work out for Underwood.
And when they don’t… when some other member of Congress gets in his way, or even if the president himself gets in his way… Underwood makes them pay. There will always be a next time, and he wants them to remember what happened the last time they stood in his way.
Like I said, he’s not a nice person. But in spite of all this, I still see something in him worth admiring.
The dishonest manager in our Bible story – in my mind, he’s a lot like Frank Underwood. He might not be. But because I watched a few episodes of “House of Cards” the same week that I began reading and studying and pondering this story of the dishonest manager, I can’t help but think that the two had a lot in common.
To start with, even though he is described as “dishonest,” there is, apparently, something to admire in this manager. “And the master commended the dishonest manager…”
But why was the dishonest manager commended?  Well, there are different opinions on that.
Some have said it was because the manager, when he was about to be fired, instantly repented of the way he had contributed to the economic inequality of his time; that he had defected from the systemic injustice of the dominant system. Instead of making a profit for himself by helping the rich, he now was seeking to help the poor who were in debt.
That would certainly be an admirable change of heart on his part. But I don’t buy it.
Others who have studied this passage say, no, he’s not that nice of a person. He didn’t instantly go from bad and dishonest to a fine, upstanding person of high morals. Rather, he’s still doing what’s best for himself.  He’s giving favors to his master’s debtors who are not poor but are, themselves, people of some means, and he’s doing this so that they might remember the kindness shown to them, and might then show him some kindness in return, perhaps by offering the dishonest manager a job. He’s just looking out for himself.
Watching a few episodes of House of Cards has me thinking that this second option might be the correct interpretation. I know that watching House of Cards is probably not the best way to gain insight into scripture, so I could very well be wrong.
But verse 3 in our story seems to support the idea that the manager had not completely repented of his ways.  Just look: after he was summoned to his master – after he knows that he’s going to be fired – he’s still thinking only of himself. “What will I do?” he says. (He says this to himself, but it seems as if he’s saying it directly to the reader, the same way that Frank Underwood speaks directly into the camera.) “What will I do? I’m not strong enough to dig, I’m too ashamed to beg…”
He’s not concerned about his master’s debtors. He’s not concerned about the poor. And he certainly doesn’t care about reforming an unjust economic system.
No. He’s still concerned only about himself and his own welfare. That is what guides his actions. And even at the end of the story, he’s still referred to as a “dishonest manager.”
In other words, he’s still a “not nice” kind of guy.
So what is it about him that is admirable? What is it that leads the manager to commend him?
Here’s what I think: this dishonest manager has just had the rug pulled out from under him. I’m not saying that he didn’t deserve it; but now, he’s facing a dire predicament.
Yet, he doesn’t give up. He hasn’t lost everything, at least not yet. He still has some leverage. He still has some time.
And he works hard, and he uses that leverage to ensure that he won’t be left out on the street after this is over. He makes deals with those who can help him, and shows kindness to them.
Yes, it’s in his own self-interest! But he’s securing for himself a future. Instead of sitting back and letting whatever’s going to happen happen, he’s still at work shaping his future. The future is not going to control him; he’s going to figure out a way to create his own future.
It may not be the future he thought it was going to be, working for his master as he had in the past. It may not be the future he had been counting on. But it will still be a future in which he is controlling what happens. It will be a future that he helps shape, a future which he works actively to create.
And he’s using whatever resources he has to make that happen.
Even when fired, when the end of his success seems imminent, he hasn’t given up.
He will find a way.

Jesus says, “The master commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
In other words, those who belong to the world, those who strive to achieve worldly success, are more shrewd, more clever, more determined to get what they are striving for, than are those who seek and strive for God’s kingdom.
The children of this world do not give up in pursuing their goals. They are persistent. They will keep working, using everything they’ve got, in order to find success.
But what about those who seek and strive for God’s kingdom: are they as committed? Are they as willing to keep working? Are they willing to use everything they’ve got in order to be successful at carrying out their mission, their calling from God?
Jesus says, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth…”
“Dishonest wealth.” It means the money of this age. The money of this world. All the material wealth that you have, and all the resources at your disposal…
We all have wealth. We all have money. We all have resources at our disposal.
Maybe we’re like the manager in the story, before he was fired, living comfortably with an abundance of wealth.
Maybe we’re like the manager when he’s about to be fired, when we realize that the money we had or thought we had coming was about to dry up.
But whatever we have, Jesus says, we should use it on behalf of God’s kingdom.
If we invest now, using the resources we have, we can secure a brighter, hopeful future for us and for all people, by working for peace and wholeness in our world.
And when things don’t go our way, we can continue working hard, shaping our future, instead of letting whatever’s going to happen happen to us. Instead of letting our circumstances shape us, we can direct and guide and shape our future.
When we invest our money in this way, it is a good investment. It is the best investment. Because it is an investment in the kingdom of God. It is an investment in the beloved community. It is an investment in a life of shalom, a life of deep satisfaction, for us and for all people, now and in the age to come.
The dishonest manager invested in the future even when it seemed that there was no future. He invested in the future, even when it seemed there was no future to invest in. That is something to admire, even if he was a “not nice” guy.
So if this is how a dishonest manager – a person lacking in moral fiber – can create a future for himself, imagine how the world can change if people who are nice – people who are filled with love and compassion and kindness, those who Jesus refers to as the children of light – imagine what can happen if they – if we – work hard and manage our resources and invest our wealth in the kind of world we want to live in…if we used our resources to create a better future… if we refuse to give up and give in, and instead actively commit making good things happen…
If we sit back and resign ourselves to fate, to whatever’s going to happen, then whatever’s going to happen is what’s going to happen, and we’ll have no say in it.

But if we use everything at our disposal to shape the future, to help create the future that God is calling us to create… that is how we wisely and shrewdly invest in the future. That is how we go about the work of bringing God’s kingdom on earth, as it is in heaven.

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