1.30.11 Sermon: “The Kingdom Dream”

Texts: Micah 6:1-8, Matthew 5:1-12

I have recently gotten into the TV show Mad Men. This is a current drama set in the early 1960′s in Manhattan and is based around the life of a man working for a prominent advertising agency. Don Draper lives in a high-powered world where he is always forging a way ahead in business. He seeks after wealth and influence and fulfillment of lust. At the same time, the series paints him as the ultimate success story of realizing the American dream. He has pulled himself out of his poor and shady past to rise to prominence and influence. Don Draper has also gotten a beautiful wife, a nice house in the suburbs, and two kids. But Mad Men also captures the darker side of Don Draper’s “success.” One day, Don Draper’s younger brother reappears in his life. Don has done absolutely everything that he can to leave his poor and shady past behind and will go to all costs to keep it that way. He wants absolutely nothing to do with his little brother, fearing that his reappearance in his life will drag Don down and destroy the life that he has created for himself. When Don is confronted with his brother for the first time, the first words out of Don’s mouth are, “What do you want?” as if his little brother would want nothing more than money or power (since that is what Don himself wants in life). His little brother is taken aback by Don’s question and replies, “I just wanted to see my brother.” All he wanted was a relationship with the brother that he had lost for years. But Don refuses. Instead of welcoming his little brother into his life, or even begrudgingly allowing for his existence, he gets together $3,000, which would be more like $50,000 dollars today, gives it to his brother and tells him to stay out of his life forever. Here’s a spoiler alert: the little brother is dumbfounded and extremely hurt by this response and he kills himself. In this drama, we see a darker side to success, to wealth, to power, and it asks significant questions: To what extent are we willing to go to for these things? What does it cost us to preserve these things once they are “attained”? How much are we willing to do to get what we want? Mad Men paints a picture of the American dream, but it doesn’t sugar-coat it. Today we are going to explore a picture of an alternate dream, and the Scripture doesn’t sugar-coat it either.

What is this alternate dream that Scripture paints for us? Today we heard three different passages from Micah, 1 Corinthians, and Matthew and each of them help us to see not the American dream, but what I would call the “Kingdom dream.” Today, we’ll be looking primarily at the Old Testament passage from Micah. The verses from the prophet Micah provides the framework for us to explore the nature of this kingdom dream. Micah was one of the twelve minor prophets in the Old Testament: pretty much, he was a short-winded prophet. His book is only seven chapters long. Micah was preaching at what I would call at the end of the good times and just before his nation fell apart. There had been years of peace and prosperity. During times of prolonged prosperity and peace, people often forget to worship God, and instead begin to worship the things that peace and prosperity might bring about. In Micah’s day, people were getting caught up in keeping up religion for show or duty, but forgetting the heart of what God wanted of them. When Micah preached, it was just before the end of the good times, just before the fall of Israel and Judah. In today’s lesson from Micah, he is playing the role of accuser before Israel, putting them on trial before God for forgetting what God really wants (and not only wants, but requires) from his people. Listen to v. 6-8 again: “With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Micah is accusing Israel before God of forgetting the most basic things that God commands: do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Today, these three things will provide us the framework for the kingdom dream.

The first of the requirements is to do justice. What is justice? The word, mishpat, means judgment. It means God’s wisdom, God’s law, God’s justice…that there would be fairness, fair play and equity within the human family. Justice, in God’s world, is not penalty-based. It is not retributive. It is ultimately and fundamentally restorative. God created human beings and all of creation to be in harmonious relationship with him and with one another. God’s justice is delivered so that this restoration can be made possible.

In our country, we often hear the phrase, justice is blind. That is the ideal (even if not reality) for our own justice system. It is intended that everyone be judged fairly and equally, regardless of who they are, without taking sides. Justice being blind. That sounds like a nice idea. But throughout both the Old and New Testaments, we find that God does take sides. Who does God champion? God consistently chooses to side with the poor, the widow, the orphan. God consistently opts to seek justice for those who are on the margins of society. We call this God’s preferential option for the poor. Does this mean that God does not care about the rich? No, of course it doesn’t. God cares for all of his creatures. But God knows that there are inequalities in the world, which are often at the hands of the rich and powerful, whether they are the ones actively and intentionally inflicting injustice upon those without the power, or if they are simply the ones who allow the current structures to remain in place by not advocating on behalf of those who are vulnerable. What God desires is restoration for all people: for both those who are oppressed, and those who do the oppressing.

Do justice. What does it mean that God requires us to do justice? God calls us to side with those God sides with, to be a voice for the voiceless, and to work towards restoring a right relationship between all of God’s people. Sometimes this means speaking up when we see an injustice taking place. Sometimes it means helping someone who is down and out find a job. Sometimes it is empowering someone through the gift of validation and worth. Sometimes it means lobbying for laws to be passed that look to the interests of the marginalized. Sometimes it means becoming aware of how our own wealth or power might be negatively affecting others and being willing to change our own behaviors to correct this. There is no formula for what it means to do justice, and no simple fixes. If justice is about restoration, it often takes complex solutions and a lengthy search for the best course of action. It is not always easy, but it is what God calls us to do if we say that we are his people.

Many of you know that the Bible contains an overarching story that contains a few basic plot points: God creates the world, human beings rebel, God chooses the people of Israel and makes a covenant with them, the people stick to the covenant for a while, people turn away, God pronounces punishment, then God offers grace. Perhaps you also know that in most cases where the people turn away and God pronounces judgment, it is due to the people worshiping false idols. What you may not realize is that almost always a failure to seek justice on behalf of the oppressed is the other accusation paired with worshiping false idols. When we forget who God is, we also forget who our neighbors are. When we forget the restorative justice that God offers to each of us, we forget about seeking justice for those around us. This seeking after justice is the first characteristic of the kingdom dream.

The second characteristic of the kingdom dream is to love kindness, or as some Bible translations put it, to love mercy. Again, like the concept of justice, this takes on a social dimension. Certainly, it can be understood on an individual level, but the sort of mercy that Micah is talking about again is mercy to those who are vulnerable and in greater need. In the Law in the Old Testament, there were specific laws given to the Israelites from God that would help them demonstrate mercy to those who needed it. Two such examples are the Sabbatical year and the Year of Jubilee. The Sabbatical Year had to do with agricultural practices. The early Israelite community was an agrarian community. People planted crops and tended animals. They were farmers as most people were then. God gave a law that said every seventh year, they had to let the land rest. This was in part to help the land stay healthy, and today we have practices like crop rotation that do the same thing. But there was more to it than that. In that seventh year, as the land lay resting, orphans, widows, foreigners, and others who were unable to provide for themselves were to be allowed to glean leftover crops from the resting land. Farmers were not to over-harvest their land so that there would be produce that the poor could glean. This was one example of an act of mercy on the social level. During this same year, there would also be a release of all debts that were owed to prevent those who were already struggling financially from going from bad to worse. Now if that is not a merciful act, then I don’t know what is! Can you even imagine what something like that would look like today? I know that I can’t even fathom it!.The other example that I mentioned was the Year of Jubilee. The Year of Jubilee was to occur every fiftieth year, and in this year, all landholdings were to be restored to the original owners. Say a family who was in a bind decided to sell their land to a wealthier neighbor. While this wealthier neighbor would own the land for a time, upon the Year of Jubilee, the ownership of the land would revert to the original family. This helped to maintain a relatively balanced social and class structure. So much poverty today is generational. It is inherited. The Year of Jubilee sought to prevent that sort of thing from happening. This law too, was a law demonstrating mercy. These things sound foreign to our ears, but these are examples of what Micah was talking about when he said that God requires his people to love kindness. God’s people are to seek out ways of demonstrating mercy. We need to begin to imagine ways of demonstrating this kind of mercy in today’s world.

The third characteristic of the kingdom dream is to walk humbly with God. There are two main points from this phrase: we walk first, with humility, and second, with God. In fact, we cannot walk with God unless it is with humility. But let’s look first at the characteristic of humility. A word that is similar to humility is humiliation. Everyone here has probably had a moment in life where they felt totally humiliated. Where they have felt very lowly, where they have wanted to just disappear our of embarrassment. While humility does not take on the connotation of embarrassment, it does take on the quality of lowliness. This does not mean that humility means a self-deprecatory attitude or a low sense of self-worth. All that kind of attitude is is sort of an inverted version of the sin of pride. Instead, the lowliness of humility means a refusal to think of ourselves more highly than we should. It means we are not self-congratulatory. It means we don’t outwardly demonstrate a sense of self-entitlement or inwardly think that we are superior are more deserving than anyone else. God himself exhibits humility, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ. As Paul reminds us in Philippians 2, Christ, though he was God, did not hold onto that power or consider it something to be exploited. Instead, he humbled himself to become a human being, and not just any human being: a poor, homeless man on the fringe of the powerful Roman empire, who wandered the countryside, and came to face death, even death on a cross. If we look at Christ’s life, we see the humility of God. And if we are to walk with God, we must follow in those same footsteps. So let’s recap: the three characteristics of the kingdom dream, in contrast with the American dream, are to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God. This is no small calling, and it is what God requires of us.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we hear one of the most famous passages of the New Testament: the beatitudes, which make for a hard-hitting start to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Listen to them again: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” These are the words of Jesus himself, the one who exemplified justice, mercy, and humility. We could spend weeks looking at the beatitudes (and we will be looking at them in more detail tonight at The Well worship service if you want more), but they can be summed up in this way: the kingdom of God does not look like the kingdoms of this world. Or to keep continuity with what I have been saying today, the kingdom dream does not look like the American dream. In the kingdom dream, it is those who are weak, vulnerable, lowly, and those who extend hands in compassion towards those who are weak, vulnerable, and lowly who find themselves at the “top.”

So what does this all mean for us today? I have been talking rather abstractly about the concepts of justice, mercy, and humbly walking with God but I haven’t really talked much about us here. What impact does today’s message from the prophet Micah and from Jesus mean for our congregation? What it means is that we need to take a good, hard, look at ourselves as individuals and as a congregation and ask ourselves which dream we are struggling to achieve. It means we need to assess our priorities and compare them to the priorities that God has placed before us in Micah 6:8. It means that we need to look for better ways of pursuing justice and mercy in our community. It means that we need to be walking daily with God so we can be cultivating true humility in our lives rather than false senses of modesty. So I ask you now, which dream are you striving for today?

9.26.10 Sermon: “Manna or Mammon? Pt. 2″

Text: Luke 16:19-31

Last week we heard a story about a shrewd steward who moved from an economy of mammon to manna, where he shifted from the priority of money to the priority of relationships. Last week the story taught us that generosity and relationships are the currency of the kingdom of God. Today we will continue this theme of moving from an economy of mammon to manna as we look at the story about the interaction (or lack thereof) between a rich man and a poor man. This story is perhaps one of the most memorable parables of the New Testament, next to that of the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. In today’s story, we find two main characters: Lazarus, and the rich man. Again, we face a sharp word from Jesus and a challenge to reconsider how we use the gifts (financial or otherwise) that God has given us.

Let’s begin by trying to re-imagine what this parable might look like if it were to take place in today’s world. Imagine a man and a woman. They are very wealthy, and they have a big beautiful house in South Hills overlooking Charleston. They wear designer clothes and host frequent dinner parties for their rich friends and drive BMW’s. One night, they decide to go out to celebrate their 30th anniversary at Tidewater Grill. They order multiple dishes of succulent lobster, crab meat, shrimp, blackened salmon. As they eat their scrumptious dinner, dipping the fresh lobster tail into warm melted butter, they think to themselves, oh, this is just so delicious! After an incredibly large amount of food and mouthwatering dessert of cheesecake, the woman says to her husband, “lets go on a walk honey. I am so full and bloated that I just need to walk off some of the calories!” So the couple walks out of Tidewater Grill and starts to walk east. They comment about what a pleasant evening it is, and before they realize it, they start to walk through the plaza. All of a sudden, they notice a homeless man lying on one of the benches just a few feet away from them. He is dirty and smelly and just appears to be all around skuzzy. The man mutters to his wife, “Don’t worry, we’re safe, it isn’t dark yet. He looks old and alone.” The wife replies, “Oh how pitiable. The poor man. Look at those rags, those worn shoes, that smell! Poor soul!” Averting their eyes, they try to walk right past him as if he isn’t even there. The ragged looking man says to them, “Got any spare change for someone like me?” The couple pause for a moment, and the husband says oh so magnanimously, “Sure, here you are,” as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out two quarters. He drops the change into the man’s hands, careful not to touch him, lest he catch some sort of infectious disease. Spontaneously, the rich man asks him, “and what is your name?” “Lazarus” the poor man replies. “My name is Lazarus. God bless you, sir!” “And God bless you too, Lazarus,” says the rich man as he walks away. He and his wife continue their walk feeling good about the meal, good about the encounter with the homeless man, and very good about their generosity.

Now for a dramatic scene change. We are now in hell. The rich man and his wife are trodding through an endless expanse of desert, sweating profusely in their designer clothing. They are absolutely miserable. There isn’t even a drop of water to quench their unbearable thirst. They continue to trudge along, almost faint with exhaustion and weakened by the extreme heat. Then the wife looks ahead, pointing, and says, “what’s that? Do you see trees? A lake?” “Yes, yes you’re right!” the man replies, suddenly perking up a bit. As they approach, they see that there is a big canyon between them and this oasis. So big, in fact, that they can’t even see the bottom of it. The rich man looks closely at the other side and shouts, “Hey, Father Abraham! I recognize that homeless man over there! I think his name is Lazarus! Yeah, I gave him 50 cents once. Can you have him dip his finger in the water and send him over here to touch my dried up tongue with a drip of cool water? I am absolutely parched!” Father Abraham shouts back, “Uhm, yeah, about that….I don’t know if you noticed this or not, but there is sort of this enormous chasm between us. We can’t get over there and you can’t get over here. You’re out of luck, buddy.” The rich man and his wife were so hot, so uncomfortable. He tries to wipe away the sweat that is dripping into his eyes. As he surveys the possible solutions, he realizes that there aren’t any. He starts to think about his brothers and sisters who are still alive, living back in Charleston, and Dunbar, St. Albans and Nitro. He shouts back to Father Abraham, “Well, can you at least send Lazarus back to my brothers and sisters to tell them to take better care of the poor and the oppressed so they don’t end up here, like me?” Father Abraham hollers back, “They have the Bible. They have the Old and New Testament. They know what they need to do. Even a man who was raised from the dead wouldn’t convince them into loving their neighbors the way that they should. Your brothers and sisters have already been given everything they need to know. It is all up to them whether or not they will listen.”

This parable is not about heaven and hell. It isn’t about the evil of money and the blessedness of poverty. Rather, it is a story that demands that we take a good hard look at ourselves and the world around us as we ask the question, “Are we truly living the way that God wants us to? What are we doing for Lazarus?”

God’s care for the poor is a consistent theme throughout the gospel of Luke. It is first established in Mary’s song while Jesus is still in the womb. She says, “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their throne but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Ouch! Tough words! As we continue throughout Luke’s gospel, we witness this occurring in multiple places, but perhaps most prominently in today’s story. Here we see Lazarus, the poor man, being filled with good things and we see the rich man with nothing. Well, at least, we see that in the second half of the story.

What is the rich man’s fundamental problem? He is completely blinded to the world around him. Or rather, he chooses to remain blind. It isn’t as if Lazarus is some invisible, imaginary person halfway around the world. He is literally on the rich man’s door step. He is literally smack dab in front of him. And the rich man, who has so much wealth, so much excess, fails to even look twice at Lazarus. I’d say this rich man is definitely living in an economy of mammon. The rich man only considers himself and his wants and desires.

Maybe we aren’t as rich as this rich man. Maybe we don’t have everything that he has. But perhaps the only real difference between us and the rich man is quantitative, not qualitative. The difference lies in the amount of wealth, but not our attitude towards it. As Jesus speaks this parable then and now, he is speaking to an audience that is much more like the rich man than like Lazarus.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, preached many sermons on how Christians should approach money. His most famous sermon on the use of money offers a radical new paradigm for us to consider: it can be summed up in three simple statements: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. On first hearing those words, you might think, that doesn’t sound so radical to me.

But let’s look at each of these three statements in more detail. The first one is, gain all you can. You might be thinking, well, that sounds about right. Make as much money as you are able. Don’t we always enjoy a raise or getting a higher paying job? John Wesley says yes, gain all that you can, but then he puts a whole bunch of qualifiers around it. We are not to gain money at the expense of life or health. We shouldn’t take a job that does more harm to us than good. Life is always more valuable than money. We are to gain all we can without hurting our minds or our souls. In making money (among other things), the ends do not justify the means. If we are engaging in work that is detrimental to our moral character, then we, as Christians, need to reassess our priorities. Finally, the way in which we gain money cannot be at the expense of our neighbors. Here Wesley speaks of something that runs contrary to our capitalist society and the competitive nature of the free market: He says, “We cannot, consistent with brotherly love, sell our goods below the market price. We cannot study to ruin our neighbor’s trade in order to advance our own.” Furthermore, our trade can’t be based on selling something that does harm to our neighbors. In short, Wesley says gain all you can by honest means that does not harm yourself or your neighbor in body, mind or soul. This first one isn’t so bad, and for the most part, we may already be doing a pretty good job with this. The rich man in today’s parable had not come into his wealth necessarily by dishonest means. The story doesn’t tell us, so we don’t know. The problem is not that he has gained money.

The next of Wesley’s principles is where it starts to get a little hairier. Save all you can. This doesn’t mean put all of your money into a trust fund and let it just sit there doing no good to anyone. Rather, what Wesley means here is don’t spend your money on excessive amounts of things. Don’t throw money away on stuff that isn’t really important or that you don’t really need. This is where I start to get a little uncomfortable. I have the problem of money tending to burn a hole in my pocket. If I have a little extra money, I have to do practically all I can to resist going out and spending it on something fun, just because I can and want to. This definitely goes against what Wesley means when he says, save all you can. Wesley advises against spoiling one another. He especially speaks against parents spoiling their children because this contributes to gratifying and further increasing, in his words, “the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life.” The rich man who lived in his house, wearing the fine robes of purple and feasting every day did not exactly save his money. He spent it on rich living for himself and his friends to feed his own desires.

So we have gain all you can, and save all you can, but here’s the real clincher: give all you can. Gaining and saving all you can is nothing if we stop there. Unless we are being good stewards with the gifts entrusted to us by giving all that we are able to the care of others, then gaining and saving by themselves are pointless. We are to use our financial resources to help one another. Generosity is the defining characteristic of living by the economy of manna that last week’s Scripture lesson pointed to. Wesley himself lived what he preached about money, though it took him a while to get there. He had an experience one year at Oxford. He had just finished paying for some pictures for his room when one of the chambermaids came to his door. It was a cold winter day, and he noticed that she had nothing to protect her except a thin linen gown. He reached into his pocket to give her some money to buy a coat but found he had too little left. Immediately, the thought struck him that the Lord was not pleased with the way he had spent his money. He asked himself, Will thy Master say, “Well done, good and faithful steward?” Thou hast adorned thy walls with the money which might have screened this poor creature from the cold! O justice! O mercy! Are not these pictures the blood of this poor maid?” That experience may have been a turning point for him, and he began to limit his expenses so that he would have more money to give to the poor. He records that one year his income was 30 pounds and his living expenses 28 pounds, so he had 2 pounds to give away. The next year his income doubled, but he still managed to live on 28 pounds, so he had 32 pounds to give to the poor. In the third year, his income jumped to 90 pounds. Instead of letting his expenses rise with his income, he kept them to 28 pounds and gave away 62 pounds. In the fourth year, he received 120 pounds. As before, his expenses were 28 pounds, so his giving rose to 92 pounds. Wesley felt that the Christian should not merely tithe but give away all extra income once the family and creditors were taken care of. He believed that with increasing income, what should rise is not the Christian’s standard of living but the standard of giving.

That is pretty powerful testimony, and I know that I myself feel squarely put in my place. Wesley approached money in a radical way, in a way that was characterized by generosity and framed by his consideration of the other as greater than himself. Wesley is a foil to the character of the rich man in today’s parable. Throughout the Old Testament, we hear in the prophetic writings God’s command for Israel to hear the cry of the needy. He says over and over, do not let their cries fall on deaf ears, or I will not listen to you when you cry out. This is exactly what we are seeing in this story of Lazarus and the rich man. We really aren’t too different from the rich man. What are we doing for Lazarus? How are we using the gifts that God has given us to serve someone other than ourselves?

I, probably like many of you, still find myself stuck in the economy of mammon. I am still stuck in the way of thinking about me and mine. Ultimately this economy of mammon is not even about how much money we have; rather it is about how we think about what “belongs” to us. John Wesley’s motto on the use of money can be summed up as this: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. These three things are to be done with the purpose of serving others, rather than ourselves. These three things are to be done in order to build up the community, our family of faith, and to invite others into that family. If we truly could shift to that perspective on money, what would our life as a congregation look like? What would our witness to the rest of the world look like? I don’t pretend that this is an easy thing to do, or a change that we can make overnight. To move from the economy of mammon to the economy of manna may be difficult and a continual challenge; but this is what God calls us to. John Wesley said, “when I have money, I get rid of it quickly, lest it find its way into my heart.” Maybe it is time for us to ask ourselves this question: what is governing our hearts today? Amen.

9.19.10 Sermon: “Manna or Mammon? Pt. 1”

Text: Luke 16:1-13

I have to admit, when I saw this text from Luke’s gospel pop up as one of today’s lectionary readings, I immediately thought, hmm… let’s see what the other passages are. I’ll pick one of them to preach on! After all, the story from Luke’s gospel is about a subject I would just rather not touch: it’s about money. And not only is it about money, it is also a confusing parable on top of that. So seriously, why not just avoid the trouble of trying to deal with it? The other passages I had to choose from I found to be much more preachable! But as much as I tried to avoid this story of Luke’s, God kept reminding me that it is these tricky and undesirable passages that probably need the most attention. So here I am, about to preach on the most uncomfortable topic and probably what many of us would consider to be the most personal and private: money. The gospel of Luke addresses the issue of wealth and poverty more frequently than any other issue. In fact, Next week, the gospel passage continues with this theme in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, so let’s consider today to be the first of a two part series on money. This isn’t just a call for you to put more money in the offering plate. It’s not just about tithing. These two gospel lessons we will explore actually call us to do something much more difficult and significant than that. So let’s begin with today’s story.

Today’s gospel lesson is one of the more difficult to understand of Jesus’ parables. It is a story that upon first glance, appears to advocate a dishonest use of money. The story begins with a rich man discovering that his steward has not been acting in a way that is financially responsible. We don’t know exactly what he has done. Maybe he has spent his master’s money too freely, maybe he has been stealing out of the petty cash, perhaps he made some book-keeping “errors”. Regardless, the story tells us that this steward has been accused of wasting his master’s goods. So naturally, the rich man fires the steward.

So now the steward is in a difficult position. He’s been accused of wrongdoing, and whether or not those accusations are true or false, he will have those rumors following him around, and now he also has no job, no stability. Like any person in his position, he is worried about his future, so he comes up with a plan. Before word can get out that the steward is no longer employed by the rich man, he goes to each of the people who owe the rich man some money and says, you owe 100? Pay 50 and we’ll call it even. You? 100? Pay 80 and that will do. That’s a smart move on the steward’s part! Those whose debts he lessened will see him as a generous man and will welcome him into their homes in the future. And of course, when the rich man discovers what this steward has done, he is probably not best pleased, but he does commend the steward for thinking on his feet and acting craftily.

So if that is the story, does that mean that Jesus is commending dishonesty? I mean, Jesus says, “For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light! Use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings!” At first read, that actually sounds like Jesus is saying, use your wealth to make friends! Is this what Jesus is actually saying? What does he mean?

Let’s take a closer look at the steward’s plan to ensure that he still has a future. Up until this point, the steward participates in an economy dictated by gaining and maintaining financial wealth. He is in charge of the rich man’s account. A good steward is one who not only keeps the wealth, but also multiplies it. We are reminded of this in Matthew’s gospel where the master entrusts money to each of his servants. While the master commends each servant who then goes and invests and multiplies the initial amount that was entrusted, the third servant goes and buries the money in the ground, doing nothing with it. This servant is then condemned. So that story reminds us that a good steward is one who multiplies financial wealth. The story today begins with the steward belonging to an economy that is dictated by gaining more and more material wealth. This is his initial priority. However, when he learns that he is about to be fired, his plan indicates a shift in priority. His new plan is not to go out and acquire money so he can live happily on retirement. Instead, he goes out and partially forgives his employer’s debtors of their debts. The steward is certainly not going to come out of this financially well. Instead of being driven by making more money, he offers instead generosity. Why? So that they may welcome him into their homes. What we see here is a shift from money as a priority to relationships.

I am going to rely now on one of my professors from Duke to help me make some more sense of this parable. Sam Wells is a professor of Christian ethics at the Divinity School, and he is also the Dean of Duke Chapel. He has a real knack for making sense out of tricky passages, and has some helpful insight for us today.

Sam Wells says that in this story, we find two different economies that are meeting head on: an economy of scarcity, and an economy of abundance. The rich man’s world is driven by this first economy: the economy where there is concern that there isn’t enough to go around, where one needs to multiply his individual wealth to make sure that he can stay on top. This is an economy motivated by fear, and consequently greed. I have to make sure, that in a world with a limited amount of cake, that I at least get what I deserve on my plate. The bible would probably call this economy the economy of mammon. Mammon is the word used in Luke 16:13 to describe material wealth and greed. The other economy is the one that the steward discovers after he has been fired: the economy of abundance. This is the economy of relationships, of community. When the steward finds his economy up a creek without a paddle, he realizes that it may be time to invest in someone else’s. It may be time to make a shift from thinking about personal financial gain to the wealth that comes through being in relationship with other people. The bible would probably call this economy the economy of manna. Manna was the food that God gave to the Hebrews in the wilderness, and there was always more than they needed. It only dried up when they tried to take more than they needed. The manna was for everyone, and it was freely given by God. Manna is characterized by grace.

In a sermon he preached on this text, Sam Wells sums up this passage in these words: “What happens in scene three of this story is that the manager gives up trying to squeeze people for a living and starts making friends instead. He realizes the friends are more important than the money—or even the job. He moves from mammon to manna, from an economy of scarcity and perpetual anxiety to an economy of abundance and limitless grace.”

So that might all sound good in theory, but what does that actually mean for how we live our lives? We live in a world where we have to make money in order to buy food, have shelter, and provide the appropriate care for our families. If we don’t get a paycheck, we will undoubtedly be facing all kinds of anxieties. Why is this? Because we primarily see ourselves as individuals and individual family units. We must be self-sufficient in taking care of ours and our own. But as Christians we now have a new definition of “ours and our own.” Being a Christian is not just about personal salvation. It’s not something that just happens between me as an individual and God. Being a Christian is about more: it is about being a part of a community called the Body of Christ. In this community, relationship is the priority. In this community, “ours and our own” takes on a new meaning. Or at least, it is supposed to. Unfortunately though, when we become Christians, that doesn’t automatically snap us out of living according to an economy of mammon.

Let me tell you a story about a particular Christian community that thrived not on the economy of mammon, but on the economy of manna. This was a poor community in Jerusalem. They didn’t have a whole lot of financial wealth and most would probably consider them to be living on the margins of society. Most of the people who joined the church did not necessarily have very much money to put in the offering plate, but they became one of the fastest growing churches that the world has seen. Why? Because the people in this community knew how to take care of each other. They weren’t out to gain as much money as they could for themselves and their family; rather, they considered their individual families to be a part of the larger faith family. They were not surrounded by people who just happened to be fellow-congregants, they were surrounded by new brothers and sisters in Christ, and they truly treated one another as such. This faith community shared everything with one another. They pooled their possessions and their wealth together and used it to help out anyone who was in need. They came together for frequent meals and extended generosity to one another. Individuals weren’t afraid of sharing their own resources with others. They weren’t driven by a fear of scarcity.

The community that I just described is the first community of Christian believers we find in Acts 2. Do we really look very similar? What economy is driving us as a Christian community? What today’s parable is suggesting to us is that we, as a community of faith, need to be shrewd. We need to be creative. We need to start thinking about not only our financial wealth in a new way, but one another in a new way as well. To be a Christian means to be a part of community that is characterized by generosity: that lives not by mammon but my manna; a community that lives by an economy not driven by scarcity, but by abundance. This means that we must truly begin to see our brothers and sisters in Christ as true brothers and sisters. It means we have to go beyond the lip service of these labels. Sometimes being a part of a community means we must give generously, forgoing the temptation of the sin of greed. Other times it means we must allow ourselves to receive the generosity of others without letting the sin of pride get in the way. We all face the temptation of self-sufficiency, and this can manifest itself through greed or pride. We may be in a more challenging economic time, this is true. Your own household may be struggling to make ends meet. But if we are to belong to the Body of Christ, then that means that we are no longer alone and we have to relinquish the damaging myth of self-sufficiency. We aren’t supposed to be left to fend for ourselves. Not only does our attitude in general need to be adjusted regarding our own wealth, but we also need to “put our money where our mouth is.” I myself am a chief offender when it comes to this. This is not a task that can or will happen overnight, but I will leave you today with two things: a question and a prayer. First the question: which economy are you living in? The economy of mammon or of manna? And second, a prayer for us all: Almighty God, whose loving hand has given us everything that we have: grant us the grace that we need so that we can honor you with everything that we are, and remember that you have called us to live lives reflecting grace and generosity rather than selfishness and greed. Teach us to be shrewd and faithful stewards who always value relationships above personal wealth. We cannot do this without you. In the name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.