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Creating an Intentional Future

September 19, 2016

“Creating an Intentional Future” Jeremiah 10:1-10; Luke 16:1-13 © 9.18.16 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. Jesus, according to the gospel of John, termed himself “the truth.” So it seems very odd that he would hold up as a model somebody who practices deception. He called us to give up our claim on ourselves. How perplexing, then, to hear him 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, are at best only loosely related to the parable.

What are we to do, then, with this strange little story? Maybe the place to start is with a quick review. A rich man, an absentee landlord, leaves a manager or steward in charge of his property. This man 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 landowner began to hear that the manager was squandering, wasting, the man’s property and resources. The text doesn’t tell us how. But the situation was rumored to be bad. The employer checked with his sources and confirmed the facts. He therefore 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 always physical labor. But he had been accustomed to a job that required brains not brawn, so the man knew he didn’t have the strength and stamina to dig ditches. 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 ones 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 his own private island in the Mediterranean. 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 abandon his usurious and greedy scheme. Though he still fired the steward, 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, for you, for me. But what can Jesus possibly mean us to learn from such a tale? Let me suggest that it’s 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 planet, 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 follow the example of the steward 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, is it? Suppose you feel sad. It might be you just have the blues from a bad day. 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 made us for himself, as St. Augustine said.

Or take the loss of members and influence in and of the once 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 erosion 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 failure of the church to keep up with technology or to understand emerging generations. The lack of spiritual vitality, the vibrancy that would attract new folk and engage those currently in the fold. The unconcern of the powers-that-be and the pews for youth and college students, among others, while being obsessed with administrative, legal, and structural matters.

More broadly, as I look at the church at large, of whatever stripe, I see the too-easy accommodation of the church to the idolatry of the culture, with its obsession with looks and numbers, power and money. Our false gods are no longer as unsophisticated as those Jeremiah condemned, but such religion is still worthless. And I lament the way the word “Christian” has become synonymous with bigotry, hatred, oppression, and fear-mongering. As blogger John Pavlovitz said just last week: “The Church isn’t shrinking in these days because people are turning from Jesus, but because they are turning from an institution that they can rightly see no longer represents him” (http://johnpavlovitz.com/2016/09/14/the-churchs-sin-against-the-lgbtq-community/).

So, the first step to an intentional future is knowing what the situation is, putting a name on the problem. 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 an advisor for some monarch in another country. As we would say today, 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 made us trustees of his mysteries, stewards of his marvels, regents over his realm on earth.

So consider what you can do. Your abilities are valuable, whatever they are. You create art that enhances worship, while someone in the next pew is comfortable teaching a class or speaking in public. Maybe you can manage bank accounts or build a budget, while your neighbor is wonderful as a companion for the sick and the dying. To you, musical notes look like ants marching across a page, but hosting a fellowship dinner or planning a funeral meal is a snap. Edging the sidewalk is a chore, but you’re glad to lend a hand with spackling and painting. 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 and the motivation to use them to bring about the future we believe God intends. With Pavlovitz again: “We have three resources in this life: time, creative energy, and money. We are given…the opportunity to steward these things well, to cultivate them, to multiply them, to use them for goodness. They are finite, precious reserves we are entrusted with to reflect the character of Christ in the world” (see citation above).

Gathered as a church, we also have gifts that can be used for the sake of this congregation and for the community. For example, we hold to a particular perspective and are part of a tradition called “Reformed” that brings significant insights for the issues of the day, a reasoned and measured approach that is usually lacking from today’s mainstream 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 some of our neighbors might find is just the right fit for them.

More concretely, as we consider our future, this congregation can and should take a fresh look at our assets, whether physical, fiscal, musical or collective. We’re blessed with a beautiful meditation garden. There are rooms upstairs that are empty on Sunday and throughout the week. We have the best choir of any small membership church I have ever known. Many of you play instruments or are learning to or have other artistic talents. And I’ve said it before: seldom have I encountered folk who are as generous, hospitable, friendly, caring and willing and longing to help when there’s a need as you are. We may not have a big bank account or 1000 or even 100 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 old movie line put it, “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’re 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?” To dream of things that never were, as Robert Kennedy said, and ask “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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