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Creating an Intentional Future

September 23, 2013

“Creating an Intentional Future” Luke 16:1-13 © 9.22.13 Ordinary 25C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

He’s been termed “unjust” and “dishonest.” His actions, “shrewd” or maybe “wise.” But whatever the translation of Jesus’ description of the manager in his story, we have trouble accepting that our Lord could be making an example of such a person. Why doesn’t Jesus use someone good, a saintly figure, who quite obviously embodies truth and inspires trust?

Interpreters over the ages have struggled with this story, just as we do, because of such questions. It seems so odd for someone who termed himself “the truth” to hold up as a model somebody who practices deception. It’s perplexing to hear One who called us to give up our claim on ourselves inviting his followers to learn from a person who only looked out for himself. Even the editors of Luke were puzzled by the tale, so they appended to it in verses 10-13 some other sayings of Jesus that, frankly, don’t support the point of the parable.

What are we to do, then, with this strange little tale? Maybe the place to start is with a quick review of the story. A rich man, an absentee landlord, leaves a manager or steward in charge of his property. The manager was trained for the task and authorized to speak as the landlord’s agent. In that capacity, he rented tracts of land to tenants, negotiated loans, collected debts, and kept accounts of all transactions. Through the grapevine, though, the rich man began to hear stories of mismanagement and waste. Risky loans. Bad investment decisions. Wild keg parties at the estate charged to the landlord’s account. The employer checked into the rumors with his sources and found them to be true. So he called his steward in and told him his services would no longer be required. Naturally, there would be an audit of the books.

Facing imminent unemployment, the manager had to think fast about his possibilities. There was physical labor, but having been accustomed to a cushy white collar desk job, the man knew he did not have the strength and stamina to dig ditches, despite his daily workouts at the health club. And he was too proud to beg, so that was out.

The only option left was to put people in his debt and to make friends of the very people he had cheated. His scheme needs a little explaining, especially in light of the employer’s reaction and Jesus’ positive assessment of the man’s shrewdness. What the tale doesn’t tell us is that the steward had tacked on sometimes exorbitant interest to the amounts owed the rich man by his tenants. This money would cover a sizable commission for the steward. From the looks of it, he was planning to make a killing and buy an island in the Mediterranean—maybe Crete. Note how much he has the bills cut. One poor guy had been paying 100% interest on olive oil. Another was lucky. He had only been required to fork over a 25% surcharge on his wheat. None of these people knew how much interest or surcharge was being assessed. There were no itemized bills.

So the steward chopped off the amount of his commission in order to build a network of friends who owed him one. In that way, he would protect his future. The rich man got everything that was coming to him, and the manager had to give up his usurious and greedy scheme. Though he still fired the man, the employer could admire his creativity and his willingness to give up immediate gain for future security.

This odd story is addressed to Jesus’ disciples, meaning it’s for Christians in any age. But what can Jesus possibly mean us to learn from such a tale? Let me suggest that this story is about the future—our future—and what it will look like. I think at root this parable invites and urges us not simply to let tomorrow happen to us, but to approach it with what we might call “intentionality.” That means deciding what kind of future we want for ourselves, those we love, those we are called to serve, indeed, even the whole earth, and making some decisions, taking some steps to get there. It’s being proactive instead of reactive. We can sit and watch while the world changes around us, while circumstances make us their victims, or we can do what this steward did and become creative in the face of great challenges.

Let’s look at his thought process and see what clues there are for us about how to bring about an intentional future. Notice that he first identified the nature of his situation, namely, that the master was taking the position away from him. So with us, putting a name on our need is the initial step to a solution. What keeps you awake at night? Where do I feel inadequate? What’s that voice in our heads or the empty feeling inside? Where and when and about what do you and I have to pretend and bluff, when we really should know with certainty? If we were speaking in medical terms, we would talk about “diagnosis.” And, as in medicine, it’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms and from that identify the illness.

The steward’s situation was pretty clear-cut. His employer called him in and said: “You’re fired.” Not too much ambiguity there. It’s not always so in our individual and corporate pilgrimage of faith. Suppose you often feel sad. It might be you just have the blues. But the problem could go deeper. If the sadness is sustained over a period of time, you could be clinically depressed and need therapy and medication. Or your feelings might be evidence of a deep spiritual longing, an emptiness that can only be filled by the One who fills all, a restlessness that can only be calmed by the One who quieted the surging waves. Obviously, not an easy diagnosis to make.

Or take the much-lamented loss of members and influence in and of the mainline churches. Some will tell you the loss is the problem, but many others, including me, would say it’s a symptom of something else, like the loss of trust in institutions or the sense that the church is not doing the work of Christ. The irrelevance not of the message, but of the ineffective and outmoded way it’s proclaimed. The too-easy accommodation of the church to the culture, with its obsession with looks and numbers. On the other hand, the failure of the church to keep up with the culture, whether in technology or in understanding emerging generations. The lack of spiritual vitality, the vibrancy that would attract new folk and engage those currently in the fold. The unconcern of so many for youth and college students while being obsessed with administrative and structural matters. Those are deeper issues that are not remedied by better marketing or more effective programming. If folks come in the door and don’t find vibrant people who love Jesus Christ, they will turn on their heels and leave and not come back. If youth and college students don’t feel accepted for who they are and challenged with something worthwhile to do, they’ll say “I’m outa here.” Again, the diagnosis is difficult, but the proper one is the key to knowing what to do next.

So, the first step to an intentional future is knowing what the situation is. But the steward went on to assess and use his gifts. He knew he wasn’t cut out to dig ditches, but he could negotiate and close deals. He was shrewd and imaginative. So if he wasn’t the manager of a large estate, he could be a spin doctor for some monarch in another country. He could start his own consulting business. He had all kinds of options, given his talents and his confidence in his ability.

What are your gifts and mine, then, that can serve us as we move into the future? Please don’t say “I don’t have any.” Every one of us has gifts from God we can, should, must use. God has trusted us as trustees of his mysteries, stewards of his marvels, regents over his realm on earth.

Discovering those gifts is a process that sometimes bring us face to face with reality. When I was in middle school, I thought I might want to be what was then called an “aeronautical engineer,” work with the space program and so on. I was forever drawing airplanes. But as I grew up, I discovered that I had little aptitude for math and physics. I did, however, have a good speaking voice. My future was not to be in aircraft, but rather in radio or the pulpit or something similar.

But the point is that I did have gifts, and just because I couldn’t solve an equation, that didn’t mean I was doomed to failure. I just had to select the service that matched what I could do. So consider. You might not sing, but you can sew. You might not draw, but you can dance. Maybe you can’t manage an endowment, but you can sit by a bedside and comfort the dying. Perhaps you don’t know a chord from a cucumber, but you can arrange and plan for dinners and receptions. Everybody has something to offer. Doesn’t matter how old or how young you are, man, woman, girl, boy, richer, poorer. The question is not whether we have resources, it’s whether we have the will or the motivation to use them to bring about the future we believe God intends. Will we do what is necessary? Make the sacrifices? Hold on for the long-term?

Gathered as a church, we also have gifts that can be used for the sake of this congregation and for the community. For example, a particular perspective and tradition called “Reformed” that brings significant insights for the issues of the day, a reasoned and measured approach that if often lacking from today’s media and popular opinion. That same theological tradition also emphasizes the right and duty of people to choose for themselves what to believe and do. So our theological approach puts us in a unique niche that our neighbors might find is just the right fit for them. This particular Presbyterian church has a beautiful meditation garden and the land next to it and across the street, as well as unused rooms in our buildings on Sundays and weekdays. How might those become assets for ministry in this community and for the congregation? And of course, there’s all of you, generous, hospitable, and friendly, caring and willing and longing to help when there’s a need. We may not have a lot of money or members, but we have no lack of resources.

So creating an intentional future calls first for assessment of the situation. Then consideration of resources and the summoning of the will to use them. And finally, the steward planned a future consistent with his self-identity. “I am too proud to beg,” he said. So the future had to involve making his own way.

That was his idea of himself. How do we see ourselves, individually and together? How can we work for a future that honors our self-identity while being open to new possibilities? What will it mean tomorrow and the next day and the next to “belong to God,” to act as baptized people? How can we be traditional without being traditionalistic? That last one may be an easy question for Presbyterians theologically, for as you know, openness to the future, planning for tomorrow, is part and parcel of our tradition. We are Reformed, always to be Reformed according to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. God is never finished with us. As the movie line says, “There always are possibilities.”

Jesus said that the people of this world know how to get things done. They know how to look out for themselves. They use the best and latest technology, the most effective tools, the proven techniques to accomplish their agendas, make profits, win friends, secure the future, whatever it is that seems important to do. The people of God can do no less as they work for the coming of God’s rule on Earth. The church is engaged in the greatest and most important project of all—reaching people for Jesus Christ. Such work deserves the very best we have to offer, not the leftovers of our time, our energy, our money, our interest. We are called to be creative in the use of resources of money, facilities, and contacts with people in the community. God asks for our most imaginative ideas and intelligent solutions, our deep thought and our heartfelt commitment. We are invited to look ahead to the future we believe God intends and wonder “what if?” and “why not?” Tomorrow will come; what sort of day it is depends on our obedience, our imagination, our creativity, our willingness to use the resources God has given us.

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