Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | September 18, 2022
I would imagine that in light of today’s Gospel text, many preachers will be talking about something else instead. One approach that helps me to understand stories in the bible is to think about those stories mirror our own stories. We all have stories that we can tell about the lessons we have learned along the road of life.
There was a fellow I knew named Winn. Winn was a hard-working guy. When politicians talk about “hard working families,” people like Winn would fit that bill. He supported his wife and six children working as a custodian.
He was a devout Christian; involved in his church, not just by attending, but by volunteering as a leader in the youth work of the church. I remember as a kid attending the boys club at church on Wednesday nights. The church had a workshop where we made things. Not ashtrays, because it was a Baptist church and smoking was frowned upon. But birdhouses and such. Winn had us working on woodshop projects and before we began, he gave us a talk about honesty. He said it is very important that we not take anything out of the shop – don’t steal anything. Leave it all there and it will be there when we come back next week. He said, not even one little nail. He said that taking a little thing is just like taking a big thing. He said that if he found out any of us stole something, we would be out of the boy’s club. Before we left that night, we were all checking our pockets to make sure nothing had accidently gotten in them.
There were some wealthy people in that church. Folks who lived in the “West Hills” of town. One such fellow was named Doug. He was a go getter; he knew how to make money. One time, Winn went to Doug with a business proposition. Sure, it was a “my idea – your money” sort of thing, but it had some merit. Winn wanted to start a custodial cleaning service. Take on clients and have people work for him instead of punching someone else’s time clock. Doug had contacts in the business world and if he loaned Winn the money to get things started, Winn would pay him back, no problem.
Doug considered Winn’s proposal and then told him the many reasons why it wouldn’t work. Bad idea – no start up loan. And the next thing you know, Doug has his own custodial cleaning service going. People working for him, and not Winn.
Many years later when I was living in Scotland, one of Winn’s sons was coming through town and we met for lunch. He gave me the jacket that Winn wore at the boys club on Wednesday nights. Sewn on the back were the letters “CSB,” for Christian Service Brigade. I passed it on to Jay Thomas, the Church of Scotland youth Minister at St. James’ in Glasgow. So Winn’s sense of honesty and integrity spans the globe.
I would imagine that Winn was in church the time that Doug, in an effort to find his way back on the road to redemption, stood before the congregation and asked their forgiveness for the ways that he had been dishonest and cheated, especially to his wife and children. I would also imagine that it was in Winn’s heart to grant that forgiveness.
In the story that Jesus told, we can get some grasp of it when we look at the context.
The context of the story of the shrewd manager assumes two things: an absentee landlord, and a limited supply of wealth. In order for one person to have more, other people must have less. In the Greek text of the gospel, the manager is not called dishonest, but “the manager of injustice.” There was an assumed injustice in the owner’s financial situation. So when the manager shrewdly settled accounts for less than what people owed, so that he could ingratiate himself for the day he was fired, his boss commended him. Where the boss could have expected people to default on their payments, he at least got something.
In Luke’s view, by reducing the amount that people owed, the manager is doing justice. He took the wealth of injustice and created a sense of justice, by giving back to people what was rightfully theirs. Under God’s rule, wealth is neutral. It’s fine to be rich as long as one doesn’t worship or become a slave to wealth.
Jesus is saying that his followers must be shrewd and honest at the same time. Wealth is a tricky master. You can possess it, or it can possess you. The easy road would be either to declare a vow of poverty and avoid it altogether, or to avow that “God wants you to go first class,” and serve it wholeheartedly. Jesus calls for integrity. He said that if a person is faithful in the little matters, you can count on them to be faithful in the big matters. In the same way, if a person is dishonest in the small things, you can depend on them to be dishonest in the big things.
“Make friends for yourself by means of worldly wealth,” he said. That’s still a tough statement. We make distinctions between honest and dishonest gain. But we could take any dollar in our pocket, and within six degrees of separation, connect it to some form of dishonesty or injustice. Does that make us guilty? No. But it makes us responsible to use our resources for truth and goodness. Use the wealth of injustice to create the ways and means of God’s justice. We can take that same dollar and when it goes from our hand into the world, we can try to make sure that it at least starts out on a journey with good purposes in mind.
One day I came out of the grocery store and there was my car with the driver’s side door caved in. Upon further inspection, there was no note claiming responsibility; nothing but a big dent. I had comprehensive car insurance. My deductible was $250. The problem was, I didn’t have $250. I barely had $2.50. As a minister just starting out in Tamarack and Round Lake, I was going need to scrape up a few more lawns to mow or pick up a few more hours at Bob’s Small Engines to get that dent fixed.
The first thing to do was to get an estimate that the insurance company would accept and then get the car fixed. This is where a guy I knew offered a suggestion on how to get the dent fixed. He gave me the name of a body shop and said before I talked to anyone else, go see the guy who owend it.
So that’s what I did. The body shop guy looked at the car and said he could fix it no problem and that it wouldn’t cost me a penny. I was thinking, hey this is a good deal. But you know the saying, if something seems too good to be true…
I told the body shop guy that my insurance company required three estimates. He said that was no problem. He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a stack of estimate sheets, some of which were from other body shops. He said he would write up all three, with his being the lowest and with enough cushion so that I had no out of pocket expense.
Two thoughts came to mind, one that I heard somewhere along the way, maybe even at the boy’s club at church when Winn taught us lessons in integrity. The thought being, “You can sell your soul for a penny, but you can’t buy it back for all the money in the world.” The second thought was, “Felony insurance fraud.”
The dent was repaired at an honest shop. I managed to scrape up the $250 by mowing a few more lawns and working some extra hours at Bob’s Small Engines.
One more story. A few weeks ago, I went over to Tamarack for the annual Hay Days celebration. I ran into Bobby Johnson, who I used to work for. We had some laughs about the good old days. I remember one customer of Bob’s who ever time he came into the shop he would steal something. Usually just some little item, but every time. I asked Bob why he didn’t do something about it, why didn’t he stop him or confront him?
Bob said the guy probably felt like he had to steal, maybe thinking that was his way of getting one over on people. He said other merchants around the area had the same experience with him.
Bob said that he, like the other merchants, would just add the price of whatever the man swiped onto his bill, with interest for their trouble. So he was actually paying more than if he just bought something outright.
Jesus lays down some tough truth. Such as –
“Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”
Or – “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”
Or – “You cannot serve God and wealth.”
One way to think about this, is to reflect on our stories. What are the daily choices we face? Maybe small choices that don’t seem to matter much. But small things add up to big things. Even the small choices can create systems of justice, because the context of our lives is that we are all connected in some way. Think about how you view the world – where is your truth and what side of truth will you choose to be on? Amen.