Unrighteous Mammon

“And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly [prudently, wisely]…”  I mean, what other choice did the rich man really have?  The manager, who is about to be fired because of accusations that he was wasting his boss’ money, quickly runs through the options before him.  “I could dig,” he thinks to himself, “except after years of very comfortable living, I’m in no shape to dig, I’ll never get hired over guys who do this every day with strength and endurance.”  “I suppose I could beg,” he imagines next, “except I’m too well known in the community.  People will laugh at me.  Surely, they won’t help me, God knows I haven’t helped them any over the years.  I’ll be dead of malnutrition or disease in six months.  No, I have to do something else.”  And then, like a brilliant strike of lightening, a plan comes into his mind.  “I haven’t helped anyone in this job, yet, but there is still time.  Maybe, just maybe, if I help these poor slobs out now, they’ll help me tomorrow in return.”

Quickly, he calls in all of his master’s debtors, people who owe upwards of ten years’ worth of oil and grain, and he begins slashing their debt by twenty, thirty, even fifty percent!  Some of them might question what’s going on, but the manager brushes it off with a wink and a nod. “My master is feeling generous these days.”  As the land owner comes to town for the day of reckoning, word has spread throughout the village and countryside of what has happened, and people begin to shout to him from the fields and out of windows, “Thank you, O gracious master, for your generosity and care!”  Theologian Shane Claiborne imagines the scene at the center of town as the crowd breaks into song, singing “For he’s a jolly good fellow” at the top of their lungs.[1]

“And the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly…”  I mean, what other choice did he really have?  I suppose he could’ve gotten angry, destroyed the manager and forced everyone to pay their original debts.  Of course that would have ended up in a riot where it is most likely he would have been killed in a fit of mob rage.  So, the rich man takes the only other option available to him, he puts his arm around the shoulder of his manager and says to him, “You got me good, way to use your brain and act shrewdly, but you are really, really fired.”  This story has played itself out a million times throughout the course of history.  A shrewd upper-level employee, knowing things are about to go down in flames, does everything they can to make sure that when the fire goes out, there is something left to hold on to.  I remember a similar story from a few years ago down in Alabama.  A family grocery store chain was bought by a big conglomerate that almost immediately filed for bankruptcy.  Just a few days before the judge would rule on what creditors got paid and how much, the company held an auction of the company’s cars and office electronics that was open only to executive employees.  The CEO walked away with two grand worth of electronics for three hundred dollars.[2]  He got what he could before it all went away.  We hear stories like it all the time.

What we don’t expect, is to hear about it from Jesus.  It seems even Luke wasn’t real sure how to handle this story, giving us no less than three and probably four possible interpretations.  The most challenging interpretation is the admonition to “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

To be honest, I spent most of this week scratching my head on this one.  It just seems so foreign, so outside of what I expect Jesus to say.  I want Jesus to tell this story and then look at his disciples and say, “In my Kingdom, people who cheat in business deals to line their own pockets will be cast out into outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  I don’t want him trying to convince me that there is some lesson to be learned in this story of deception and fraud.  What are we supposed to learn from this dishonest manager who in the end gets commended by his former boss for his wisdom and shrewdness?

The key, it seems, lies deep within that most difficult lesson from Jesus, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”  In Luke’s Gospel, more so than the other three, wealth is always a bad thing; a power and principality, not unlike Rome, that clamors for people’s attention over and against their devotion to Almighty God.  Money, whether we have a lot of it, or very little, has the ability to turn our attention away from God’s Kingdom faster than probably anything else.  This is true, in part, because money is a faith based system.  A dollar is worth a dollar, only because we believe it to be so.  Our faith in the economy allows a piece of linen and cotton that has been dyed green to be traded for a delicious Snickers Bar.  Because wealth is a faith-based system, it is in direct competition to God, which, for Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, makes it dishonest wealth, or perhaps better translated, the mammon of unrighteousness, stuff that takes our attention away from the Kingdom.

giphy

When faced with a bleak future, the dishonest manager used the material resources at his disposal to create a better outcome.  Jesus has a vision for the future as well.  The Kingdom of God is that place where lion and lamb lay down together, where the banquet of rich foods and well-aged wines is available for everyone and it never ends, where the lame walk, the blind see, the poor are rich, the sorrowful find joy, and the oppressed go free.  Jesus wants that future to be our motivation for everything we do; most especially, it should be the motivation behind how we spend our money.  “Take your money and use it to build the Kingdom of God by building relationships.  Throw a dinner party, but don’t just invite your friends.  Also invite that one co-worker or neighbor or classmate who is always left out.  When you buy gifts, make sure you include those who have never received a hug, let alone a nice sweater for Christmas.  When you go shopping, look the sales clerk in the eye and affirm them as a human being, not merely a means to an end or a cog in the machine.  If you hear that your neighbor has been ill, drop by with a thermos of soup or get in the car and visit them in the hospital.  Be extravagant in caring for the people around you.  And because nothing can happen in this world without money, use it to the mission and glory of God.”  That’s really what Jesus is saying here.

“You can’t serve both God and the Almighty Dollar, but you most certainly can serve God by using your dollars to reach out in care and love.”[3]  The Church rarely, if ever, talks about money without asking for some.  So, I’m not going to do that today.  I mean, we’ll pass the plate, of course, but don’t let this sermon guilt you in to giving.  Instead, take your wallets out of this place and use them, in one way or another, big or small, to build up the Kingdom this week.  Take your mammon of unrighteousness, and use it to build relationships, so that when it’s all said and done, the cheering section at your arrival to the great heavenly banquet will be filled with friends and strangers, family members and tax collectors, and even Jesus himself.  Act shrewdly by using the Almighty Dollar to bring about the Kingdom of Almighty God.  Amen.

[1] Red Letter Revolution: What if Jesus Really Meant What He Said? (71-72) Kindle Edition.

[2] http://www.al.com/business/index.ssf/2013/09/belle_foods_leaders_buy_compan.html

[3] Paraphrase of a line from http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/thisWeek/index.php

Good Teacher?

Preachers have only now begun to recuperate after yesterday’s triennial tap-dance around the divorce text when a young rich man comes running up to Jesus, falls at his feet, and cries out, “Good teacher.”  Good teacher?  Did he not hear what went down earlier in Mark 10?  Good teacher?  Is he not aware of what Jesus is about to do to him and to preachers for the next several thousand years?  Good teacher?

After a quick rebuke from Jesus, the rich man, seemingly no longer on the ground in front of Jesus, puffs up his chest, removes the good from his title and goes to to proudly claim that he has kept all of the commandments since his youth.  Good God man!?! Who in their right mind would make such a claim?  And yet, he does.  He boldly suggests that he has been able to keep all 10 of the Big-uns for as long as he’s been in control of his actions.  Good for him.

Jesus, no longer the good teacher, but now the teacher that the rich man needed, tells him that even in his faithfulness to the law, he is lacking something.  It seems it is that pesky first commandment.  You know, the one about having no other gods but God.  It seems the rich man has hoarded his wealth.  His possessions are his idol – his riches, his god – and so, if he is truly committed to living faithfully in the Kingdom of God, he must give it all up, give all his money to the poor, and follow Jesus.  In the words of old Hank Williams, Jr.

that-aint-good

That ain’t good, at all

It is easy, and quite tempting on the heels of last week’s text, to make this not-so-good teaching from Jesus exclusive to the rich man.  It’s be easier to say, “Jesus wanted him to sell everything, but Jesus didn’t understand late-stage capitalism, and you’re good.”  But, well, that’s probably not all true.  It would be difficult, and maybe a little tempting in a world built on scarcity, to say, “Yep, Jesus meant this for everyone.  To follow Jesus, you’ll have to sell it all, give it to the church (because the church is surely poor).”  But, that’s probably not all true either.

What the teacher, who we know to be good, seems to be saying to the rich man and to us, is that we do all kinds of bending over backwards to make sure God isn’t the God of everything in our lives.  We like to make it look like we’ve got this faith thing together, like we trust in Jesus, and like we are living in the Kingdom of God, but the hard reality is that all of us struggle to keep from making something else the god of our lives.  It might not be money for you.  It might be power, drugs, success, soccer practice, feelings, politics, or your resume.  There might be any number of things that are clamoring for you to hold on tight, lest God might come into your life and change your priorities.  What Jesus is inviting that rich man to experience is truth faith, letting go of everything he thought he could control, and trust fully in God.

That’s a teaching that might be hard, but it really is good.

Free of Charge?

0010700807220_cf_default_default_large

It being the last day of the month, payday has arrived for the employees of Christ Episcopal Church.  I enjoy payday.  I suppose most people do.  There is, if only for a moment, infinite hope on payday.  “Imagine what I can do with this money,” I think to myself, before I sit down and pay the bills.  “Wow, that went fast,” is usually my next thought.

There is a certain irony in being a clergy person reading Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 on payday.  As the lesson opens up, Paul talks about his motivation for preaching the Gospel.  His story is about as profound as any.  It is clear that the man who was once a persecutor of the Gospel would have never decided on his own to follow Jesus.  No, for Paul, as for all of us, it is a calling.  The prodding of the Holy Spirit, a deep relationship with Jesus, and a yearning for the Kingdom of God have brought him to the place where he is willing to travel the known world and risk his life to proclaim the Good News.

His reward for faithfully following the call of God?  Well, I’ll let Paul tell us, “that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel.”

Free of charge…

I am well paid.  Some days, I think I am too well paid, though my bank account does not reflect that thought, and if you tell my Vestry, I’ll say you are lying.  In more than a decade of being paid while working as a minister of the Gospel, I, like many of my sisters and brothers, have had to work out an understanding of what that means, and how it jives with these words from Paul to the Corinthians.  Others have worked out other understandings, and many pastors out there still follow Paul’s mode and work as 21st century tent makers.  What I have found helpful is the careful use of language.  If you are skeptical of organized religion, you might call it semantics, which I also understand.

We live in a world in which money must be offered in exchange for goods and services.  Over the years, clergy have been paid in various ways from currency to eggs, bread, meat, and wine, but now-a-days, we have to be paid in what former NFL wide receiver, Randy Moss calls “straight cash homie.”  Despite Paul’s own tendency to go without pay, he acknowledges the fact that even church leaders should be paid in 1 Timothy 5:17-18.  Where the challenge lies, I think, is divorcing pay from work done or tasks accomplished.  This is why I prefer to call the money paid to ordained clergy a stipend rather than a salary.

I am not paid by Christ Church to preach a good sermon or to visit someone in the hospital or to plan a decent liturgy.  I am paid by Christ Church so that I don’t have to work somewhere else while trying to follow God’s call to make disciples, preach the Gospel, and care for souls.  The difference is nuanced, and I get that, but I think it is important.  In line with Paul, I believe that clergy are not paid as a reward for preaching the Gospel.  Instead, we are paid in order to have the freedom to fulfill our obligation to preach the Gospel.  Either way, I’m glad its payday.

Maybe it is about money

Life in the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast was fairly bare bones.  I don’t say this as a negative thing, but just stating the reality of the situation.  When the Dioceses of Alabama and Florida carved out the CGC in the late 1970s, they were very careful not to give away too much of their extra oil, to borrow an image from last week’s Gospel lesson.  Alabama kept Montgomery and all of its endowed funds.  Florida kept Tallahassee and all of its endowed funds.  Life in the CGC was pretty much lived congregational pledge payment to congregational pledge payment.  The same was true in Foley, a congregation barely 100 years old, built in a community that for the better part of 75 of those years was mostly small and agricultural.  In that context, the parable of the talents that we will hear on Sunday doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in terms of money.  If you don’t have silver talents to invest, you have to hear this story another way.

Over the past decade, I have read this story to be about other types of talents, be they art, numbers, music, wood-working, electrical, computer, or the rare-as-a-unicorn ability to work with middle school youth.  I stand by this reading valid.  I follow Paul’s teaching that we are each called to invest our gifts and talents for the building up of the Church, and to squander those gifts by hiding them in a hole, is to succumb to the sin of laziness.  Where I have been wrong in the past, however, is in suggesting that this parable might only be about these talents.

screen20shot202017-07-1320at205101220pm

Maybe it because the Finance Ministry Team will be ironing out the 2018 budget this afternoon, and I’ve been knee deep in endowment fund reports for the first time in my ministry, but now that I’m serving a congregation with some named funds that exists in a Diocese with the same, I’m beginning to realize that the parable of the talents might also actually be about the money entrusted to our care. and how we make wise investments of it for the up building of the Kingdom of God.  Just as we are called to be wise stewards of Creation, so too are we to make smart choices when it comes to the hard earned money that others leave, either through gift or bequest, to the Church for its long-term sustainability.  Part of those smart choices are ensuring the money is placed in sound investments with good long-term strategy.  The other part is making us of that income.  Nobody gives money to the Church so it can sit in a bank account and make interest for ever.  People give money to the Church for mission, for ministry, and for the in-breaking of the Kingdom.  As much as I don’t really like this parable being about real money, and as much as I know that it is not only about real money, I can no longer deny that yes, perhaps Jesus did have actual money in mind as he told his disciples this parable.

God or Money

multitasking

Parable Season continues with a doozy of a parable this week.  As I said in yesterday’s sermon, Jesus’ parables aren’t fables: we can’t just pick them up 2,000 years later and find a universal truth in them.  This is especially true this Sunday, as we are forced to deal with what might be the trickiest of Jesus’ parables, “The Parable of the Dishonest Manager.”

The story begins with an abrupt scene change.  After three parables directed to the Pharisees and scribes who had been grumbling about Jesus’ tendency to hangout with sinners and tax collectors, Luke tells us that this parable is told only to the Disciples.  Most preachers might wish it had stayed there, but alas, it is in Luke’s Gospel and assigned in the Revised Common Lectionary.  I’ll get to the details of the parable later in the week, but what has my attention this morning is what many preachers will likely focus on when they punt this Sunday.

After telling a very strange story, Jesus summarizes the lesson to be learned by talking about honesty and dishonesty.  He ends with perhaps his most famous saying about money: a topic he dealt with in 11 of his 39 parables and in 1 out of every 7 verses in Luke’s Gospel (Source).

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”

What is interesting about this pithy quote is that Jesus assumes we are going to be slaves to one or the other.  Yes, I said “slaves” because that’s what the Greek word means.  We are either going to be slaves to money and the stuff, power, and prestige that goes along with it, or we are going to be set free from that bondage to be devoted fully to God’s will for our lives.  You simply cannot do both.  You cannot have two masters.  There will come a time, sooner rather than later, when you will be forced to pledge your allegiance to one over the other.  It might be a work decision: will I choose the honest path and lose money or not?  It might be a family finances decision: will I give to the church instead of buying that new toy I really want, but ultimately don’t really need?  It might be a lifestyle decision: will I work 80 weeks to accumulate wealth for the family I never see to spend?  These are choices that we all have to make at one time or another.  You cannot do both. You cannot be a slave to money and be faithful to God.  Which will you choose?

He who dies with the most toys still dies

Today’s sermon is available on the Saint Paul’s website, or you can read it here.


When I was in high school, there was a popular T-Shirt brand called No Fear.  It was the early days of a professional class of extreme sports like skate boarding and many teens in the late 90s found some freedom in their no fear attitude.  No Fear T-Shirts were a perfect way to share a pithy philosophical slogan of teenage angst and rebellion with the world.  I had one No Fear shirt, and I can still remember the slogan on the back, “A life lived in fear is a life half lived.”  My favorite slogan, however, had deep scriptural roots, even if the designers and wearers didn’t realize it.  “He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”  This is the perfect slogan for Proper 13, Year C, though I doubt it would make a compelling church ad campaign.  “Join Saint Paul’s in Foley as we talk about two taboo topics: death and money.  And remember, He who dies with the most toys, still dies.”  Of course you wouldn’t lead with that, but since I have you here already, and since Jesus seemed perfectly comfortable talking about money and death, it seems wise to talk about these two less than desirable subjects here this morning.

il_570xn-944319264_3pnc

The story we heard from Luke’s Gospel is a strange one.  As you’ll recall, Jesus has set his sights on Jerusalem.  All along the journey from Mount Tabor to Jerusalem, Jesus entered village after village, sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, and casting out demons.  As you might expect, his popularity grew immensely during this time, and by the start of chapter 12, Luke tells us that the crowd following Jesus numbered in the thousands.  There were so many people that they began to trample on one another.  In the midst of this sea of humanity full of crying babies and shouting adults, a man comes front and center with a request, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  As a rabbi, Jesus would have been qualified to interpret the laws dealing with inheritances, but Jesus is clear that he is not a judge.  He did not come to settle family squabbles.  He came to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and the Kingdom of God most certainly does not look like greedy family arguments over a dead man’s money.  The message of Jesus does, however, have a lot to say about how we spend our money and what sort of preparations we should make for when we die.

Let’s start with the money piece.  Jesus warns the crowd, including the argumentative brother, to be on guard against greed.  He is very clear that the goal in life is not the accumulation of more stuff.  So what is the goal in life?  Jesus answers this question by way of a parable about a rich man whose land produces abundantly.  When this rich man realizes that he has become even richer, the only person he can think of is himself.  He doesn’t stop to thank God for good soil, for seasonable weather, or for rain.  He doesn’t consider the many others who made this abundant harvest possible: the sowers of the seed, the tenders of the plants, the harvesters of the produce, the picklers of his okra, nor the builders of his barns.  He doesn’t think about sharing the harvest with anyone: not family, not friends, and certainly not the poor who probably lived just outside the walls of his estate.  Instead, the man thinks only of himself.  Eleven times in his soliloquy, the man uses a first person pronoun!  “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?  I will do this; I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.  And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

This man is so self-centered that in the midst of a conversation with himself, he interrupts himself to have a different conversation with himself!  His problem wasn’t really money or possessions or power, but that he worshiped only one wrong thing: himself.  There was nothing outside of himself that he cared about, and so, his money afforded him the luxury of spending years and years not having to worry about anything or anyone.  Clearly, this is not what Jesus would have us do with our money.   The Kingdom of God is not about accumulating things, but rather accumulating relationships.  The accumulation of wealth is of no value if it can’t be shared with love and joy with those around us.  In the Kingdom of God, money is not bad, in and of itself, because money allows us to build relationships.  It allows us to build familial relationships as we use it to nurture, nourish, and educate children.  It allows us to build friendships by inviting people to share a meal with us.  It allows us to build co-working relationships by engaging others in work.  It allows us to build neighborly relationships as we pay our taxes for the upkeep of society and the common good.  It allows us to build relationships of mutual respect when we minister to the poor and the poor, in turn, minister to us.  Money can be a good thing when it is used to build relationships, thereby building the Kingdom of God.

Still, as that old No Fear t-shirt said, “He who dies with the most toys still dies.”  It doesn’t matter whether you have the most money, the most influence, or the most friendships; you can’t take any of it with you when you die, which is at the heart of God’s harsh words to the rich man, “You fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  That question, “whose will they be?” rang in my ears all week.  Some commentators suggested that because this man had no family or friends, that the abundant supply of his storehouses would end up being given to the community of people around him that he never even noticed.  Some even suggested that he might become a hero by default; feeding the community for years after his death.  Others think that perhaps the grain in his silos would do nothing but rot away after his death, that all his selfishness would continue, even in death, as the hungry continued to be hungry while years’ worth of grain went to waste.  None of these seems like a comfortable ending to the story, which is precisely the point of a parable.

It seems to me that this is a story not just about the right use of our money in life, but the proper planning for its use after our death.  If we have not given any thought to the question, “whose will it be?” we have failed to see our relationships through to the end.  Even after death, our money and possessions can be used to foster relationships, to build up other people, and to grow the kingdom of God.  The Church suggests this is important, albeit uncomfortable, when, tucked deep in the Prayer Book, on page 445, at the end of the service of Thanksgiving for a Child, the rubrics require that Ministers “instruct the people, from time to time, about the duty of Christian parents to make prudent provision for the well-being of their families, and of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.”[1]  Neither Jesus nor the Church say that having money when you die is a bad thing, but both argue that not having planned for how it will be distributed is.

“Whose will it be?” is a good question to ask, not only as we become parents, but continually as life goes on.  There are other considerations as well.  “What do I want my funeral to look like?”  “Who will have my medical power of attorney?”  “Do I need a Living Will?”  As the parable of the Rich Fool reminds us, our days are never guaranteed, and having made careful decisions today, we can save our families and friends from difficult choices down the road.  Making plans for a future in which we do not exist is one more way to show that we care about something other than ourselves, build healthy relationships, and, ultimately, usher in the Kingdom of God.  One’s life does not consist of the abundance of possessions, but it can certainly be made better when we make careful, intentional decisions about how those possessions will be use with love and joy with those God has place in our lives both here in this life and after we’re gone.

[1] 1979 BCP, 445.

What the Lord Desires

“We affirm the minimum standard of the tithe is personal giving…”

These words make up the heart of point one of the Stewardship Statement made by the Standing Committee of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast on April 20, 1989, and reaffirmed on January 24, 2004.  With similar words, the General Convention of The Episcopal Church has set forth “a personal spiritual discipline that includes, at a minimum, the holy habits of tithing, daily personal prayer and study, Sabbath time, and weekly corporate worship…” (2003-A135).  Still, it seems there is no better way to get the collective hackles of Episcopalians up then by discussing the tithe as a standard of giving.

The response will typically fall into one of three camps.  The vast majority will gasp at the idea of giving away 10% of their income as they throw a crumpled up $5 bill in the plate.  Others will hold firm to 10% as The Standard of giving to the Kingdom as found in Scripture.  A third group will be very adamant that the tithe is the Minimum Standard of giving.

So what is the right answer?  What does the Lord require of the faithful? In the lessons appointed for this coming Sunday, it seems as though God asks that we trust him enough to offer everything we have back to him.  In the ever popular stewardship story of the Widow’s Mite, Jesus lauds the poor woman who drops her two copper coins in the kettle.  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”  The Widow trusted God enough to know that she would be taken care of, even in her poverty.

The Widow at Zerephath shows us the same sort of trust.  Surely, she looked at Elijah as if he were crazy when he instructed her to make him a small loaf of bread first, but she did as he asked.  She trusted in the God of Elijah, a God who was not her own, enough that in the midst of a 3 year drought, she gave away the last little bit she had.

I’m not suggesting that we should sign over all our assets to the church.  Nor would I dare to say that the poor should give more than their fair share.  And don’t get me started on the heretical scam that is the “seed offerings” of television preachers.  What I am suggesting is that all the arguments of percentages of giving, before or after taxes, is missing the point of giving back to God.  More than our money, more than our time, more than anything else, God desires our trust.  The giving of our time, talent, and treasure is the sacramental sign of our trust in God.  When we give sacrificially, we show that we trust that God has provided everything that is, was, and ever will be, and the hard truth is that very few of us trust God in that sort of way.

Truth be told, even as my family gives away 11%, there are days, lots of them, that I don’t trust God, and so my offering is as pitiful as the tattered $5 bill.  In the end, it isn’t the money that matters to God, but rather, it is what the money symbolizes – our trust in the Lord’s never-ending provision of everything we have, even down to the air we breathe and the blood in our veins.