Sermon for September 22, 2019
Greta Thunberg is a sixteen year old Swedish girl who traveled to the United States in a solar powered yacht. The trip took two weeks. Why did she not take the more conventional mode of transportation, board a plane in Stockholm and arrive in New York City in a matter of hours instead of days? Jets emit a great deal of pollutants into the atmosphere and that would be a problem for Greta. This sixteen year old is a committed environmentalist, concerned for the survival of the planet earth. She came to the United States not as a tourist, but to speak before a congressional committee to give her testimony about climate change. To make her trip she chose the most environmentally friendly way, therefore the solar powered yacht. Greta did not mince words telling lawmakers “I don’t want you to listen to me. I want you to listen to the scientists. And then I want you to take real action.”
Climate change is an important theme for our Christian stewardship. Stewardship means how we take care of all the gifts God entrusts to us. As we know the Bible says the earth is the Lord’s so how are we taking care of it? Greta Thunberg is right: listen to the scientists. Do not ignore the findings of the experts who have raised red flags of warning about damage to God’s earth from human caused pollution. But we also listen to Jesus who said ‘you cannot serve God and wealth.’ How we take care of God’s good earth depends on which God we serve.
The gospel lesson began with a parable. A rich man was bothered by the news that his number one man, his property manager was a crook. Charges were brought against him of “squandering” the owner’s property. This is the same word in a parable just before today’s gospel, the familiar parable of the Prodigal Son. In that story, the youngest son demanded his inheritance, left home, and squandered his money in dissolute living. So the property manager was writing checks to himself, scattering the cash in all directions to benefit himself. And since he controlled the account book, he could “cook the books” as they say. But his theft could no longer be hidden and he was fired. The rich owner was actually showing mercy; he could have had his manager arrested but instead fired him and ordered him to turn in the account ledgers and records.
The manager lost his job, no boss wants a crook handling the finances. The disgraced manager considered his options. He wasn’t strong enough for working in the fields, digging out rocks and other manual labor. He was too ashamed to beg. Ashamed is right; when the community found out why he was fired no one would give him a penny. No one would give him a job. But then we heard that he hit upon a scheme. He had to act quickly. If he didn’t turn in the books within a couple hours of being fired, the law could be sent after him. We heard about his daring, and maybe some would say ‘dastardly deed.” He calls in various debtors and reduces the amount they owed the rich land owner. There were tenant farmers who worked the land and agreed to turn over so much of the harvest. One man who contracted to turn over 100 jugs of oil was told to change the bill to 50. One who contracted 100 containers of wheat was told to change the bill to 80. Bible commentators speculate as to what the reductions meant. Some say the manager was erasing his own commission. Others think the manager was doing away with what amounted to the interest payment. Others think the manager was making a deal and offering to split the proceeds from extra olive oil and wheat. We don’t know for sure, but the tenant farmers would certainly not object to a reduced payment. And they did not know the manager was fired and had no authority to do anything with the accounts. Why did the manager act this way? He was as they say “feathering his own nest” so others would, as he said, “welcome me into their homes”. This did not mean he expected to live on charity, but it was an expression meaning someone would give him a job, ironically to be a manager again!
When the landowner saw the changed accounts signed and witnessed by his tenants, he did not surprisingly blow his top. He commended the dishonest manager because he acted shrewdly. He used his head to secure his future. The rich land owner knew he had to let the changes stand. Already he was being hailed in the community as a generous and kindly man, seeking to do more for his clients. How could he ever restore the original bills; such an act would ruin his good name in the community.
So Jesus concluded “for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Jesus was an astute observer of human nature. People like to boast about what shrewd deal-makers they are: whether buying a car or a pair of shoes, they have found the best deals. We are all children of this age-we look for the best buys and seek to be wise with investments so to have enough for retirement.
After our baptisms a candle is given with the words of scripture, Jesus’ words; “Let your light so shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” Also, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” We are children of God, we are children of light which means we are called to follow the Light of the World, Jesus. Jesus, the careful observer of human nature would say to us “you are shrewd, wise, and prudent—for the most part—in handling the affairs of your generation, of this age. Jesus would want us to take good care of ourselves, which is part of good stewardship, management of what God has entrusted to us. Jesus’ challenge is are we wise, shrewd and prudent as children of light, do we listen to Jesus? Jesus said “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” Jesus must have been worried about the temptation power of wealth to take over people’s lives. The English translation ‘dishonest’ is translating a word meaning ‘unrighteous”. Money is not meant to be a god-but we seem to have a rough time accepting that truth. Luther called ‘money, wealth, possessions” the most common idol on earth. Money, we love to have it, we worry about not having it, and we judge people on the basis of how much money they have. Jesus called money unrighteous for a good reason.
Jesus’ solution is “make friends” by means of the unrighteous green stuff. In other words, as children of light, listening to Jesus, be philanthropists. That word literally means “make friends of humanity”. As children of light this does not mean only the super rich are philanthropists, the common understanding. But we use what we have not just for ourselves, but to make friends, and what Jesus meant by that would be care for the poor. Earlier in Luke Jesus said when you give a dinner invited the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, often the excluded and friendless, and you will be blessed because they cannot repay you.” Listen to Jesus and act for God seeks to use his children to “raise the poor from the ash heap” as we heard in the Psalm. In the first lesson the prophet Amos gave scathing judgment on those who forget they were children of light and became enamored with accumulating wealth: trampling on the poor, dreaming of making money during the Sabbath service, and even making money at the expense of the poor by cheating them.
Jesus said you cannot serve God and wealth. If climate change is caused by human carelessness and pollution, how much of that can be ultimately traced to serving wealth, disregarding the damage to the earth and the most vulnerable of the earth, the animals, and the poor? To be welcomed into the eternal home, as Jesus said referring to heaven, eternal life, and life forever with him, calls us to serve God, not money, and make friends with our funds, by lifting the poor from the ashes. Now we understand the importance of stewardship: we cannot have an attitude of “none of your business, God” with what I do with my money, my wealth, and my possessions. All those things are not ours, but a trust from God. Jesus is the careful observer of our human nature. We indeed fall short. Since money is our real, if hidden god, does this mean we will not be welcomed into the eternal home? In the prior parable of the Prodigal Son, the Father welcomed home his son who had wasted his money on his own pleasures. The son gambled hoping he would be received at best a hired hand. But grace is not a gamble, it is the sure thing of forgiveness, mercy, and welcome from God. The second lesson today said Jesus gave himself as a ransom for all. Jesus has set us free from the bondage of sin, the guilt and the judgment, by going to the cross for our salvation. Since Jesus died for us, rose from the dead for us and the world, he persistently calls us to listen to him, to follow him, for this light of mercy and compassion to shine for us and through us. Lenny Duncan has recently written the book “Dear Church: A love letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S.” He is writing about our ELCA. In the book he calls for various reforms. But he insists on denying all narratives that the church is dying. He writes we are an Easter people. “We are not being invited into death by the Creator of Life. No, we are being invited to rise up into resurrection and freedom and to offer that to the world.” Be encouraged! We are called not to listen to the words of decline and death. Instead, listen to Jesus. We are children of Light. He is our Light. May we not only bask in the light of forgiveness and grace, but use his light to see clearly our mission of love for the world.