The Blows Keep Coming 9-18-16

In this sermon, based on Luke 16:1-13, I explore a troublesome parable of the Dishonest Steward. The parable is tricky because the man is commended for acting in an underhanded way. Yet we remember that what the world commends is not what God desires for us.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:
https://soundcloud.com/revdalen/the-blows-keep-coming-9-18-16

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

Grace and Peace in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Does anyone else ever fall in the trap of seeing something in a movie or on tv and think to yourself…I could do that. (pause) This can happen in any sort of thing, but in my case, it probably happens the most when I see something physical…Now if I’m watching some fictional story, I embrace the fiction and the thought in my head is usually “Yah, I could do that.” But on the flipside, when I’m watching something that’s actually real…things like the popular show American Ninja Warrior…or televised boxing matches…and in this case, the thought is usually more of a question “I wonder if I could do that.”

If I am honest with myself, I know the answer to that question…no, I can’t do that…and my history does include one bit of actual evidence to support this conclusion. When I was a student at Iowa State, homecoming week was always exciting…and the college provided various types of entertainment for the students…one of which was a blowup boxing challenge.

Perhaps you’ve seen this…the ring is a big inflatable that you can bounce around in…and the boxing gloves are enormous…you stick your hands in them and grab a handle…but they are giant and bulky and sort of heavy…so you really can’t swing them very hard…and of course they are padded too…so if you happen to catch one in the face, it doesn’t really hurt you.

But…it will knock you down…which I learned the hard way.  A friend and I were walking past and saw this thing…and we since neither one of us had ever been in a fight before we thought this was the perfect way to give it a shot…and I thought I’d be really good at it…but I was fooling myself and reality was a little different.

Let’s just say my friend was a much better inflatable boxer than me…he was bigger and taller and he used this to full advantage…and for me, the blows just kept coming…it amazed me at how quickly I found myself flat on my back, not quite sure how I got there…and then I’d get up…and pretty quick…he’d knock me right back down again.

Now here’s the weird part about it…getting cracked in the head with a big padded boxing glove doesn’t hurt…but it does stun you…and likewise, getting knocked down onto a big bouncy surface doesn’t hurt either…but it does sort of knock the wind out of you. (pause) And so I learned that day, even if you soften the blows…you still take the blows.

(pause)
Now we take a lot of blows in our lives don’t we…and they take a lot of different forms and come from a lot of different directions. We get knocked down emotionally…we get knocked down spiritually…we get knocked down financially…sometimes we even get knocked down physically…and each of these have a wide variety of examples that we can apply.

But sometimes…perhaps most surprisingly today…we can even get knocked down theologically…and it stuns us. (pause) In a moment of full disclosure…today’s gospel lesson is one of those things that stuns me…because I have no idea what to make of this parable…and I have a hunch that I’m not the only one. (pause) Now I’ve never been secretive about the fact that preaching about parables is pretty low on my list…but of all the parables that we encounter throughout the course of the lectionary…this one is my least favorite…To be perfectly blunt…I hate this parable…and I hate it because it is impossible to make heads or tails out of it. (pause) And maybe, just maybe, if you hear this parable and find yourself scratching your head about what Jesus is talking about…then rest assured you…are not…alone. (pause)

A rich man employs a manager, or a steward…and I honestly wonder just how this guy got the job in the first place…because apparently he’s REALLY lousy at his job…but while he has it…he takes full advantage…living it up in his master’s household…every need is met and he’s comfortable.

But then the boss man catches wind of this guy’s issues…and as expected…he fires him…and now all of the sudden the rug is being pulled out from under the steward…and his comfortable life that he had perhaps taken for granted…is being taken away…to go back to our boxing story, he’s taken a solid cross face and he’s on his way to the mat.

Now here’s where the story gets weird…the steward, knowing that he has zero life skills to fall back on, gets creative…and he starts calling in his master’s debtors…and tries to win himself some favor with them by cutting their bills way down…thinking that if he does them this favor with the little bit of power he still holds for the moment, then when the rug is finally pulled out from under him that maybe they’ll repay the favor and take care of him….but if we think about it…what’s the steward really doing?

It would seem that he’s short changing his soon-to-be former master…squandering even more of his property in order to improve his own situation…and now here’s the part that confuses me to no end…the master…commends him for it. Basically telling him…hey good job…way to be shrewd…you’ve cheated me…and I applaud you for it. (pause)

And I have to ask…just what the heck is Jesus trying to teach us here? What’s the lesson? Is he simply being snarky? Is he being ironic? I just don’t get it…because at face value it seems like Jesus is telling us to be shrewd…to be crafty…and to do whatever it takes to improve our own situation. (pause)

Now if this is confusing for you, don’t feel bad…I get the sense that its confusing for everyone…and as per usual, Jesus does offer some teaching…though I fail to see much in the way of connection…because Jesus’ words on the subject, pretty much boil down to his statement that we cannot serve two masters…because we will always place one above the other…and in his final words we hear that we cannot serve both God and wealth. (pause)
Does anyone else have a hard time connecting Jesus’ teaching with the parable?  The teaching seems pretty straight forward…but there’s not really much to connect it with the lousy steward trying his best to improve a bad situation at the expense of his master. (pause) Unless we consider the motive behind the steward’s actions.

He knows the blow is about to fall…he’s about to be fired…he’s about to be cast out of the household and his entire life of privilege is about to come crashing down…and having nothing else to fall back on…he does his best to soften the blow…to give himself a bouncy pad to land on…and to place a big soft pad on the boxing glove that’s catching him with a solid shot.

And in the end…that’s all he really accomplishes…to soften the blow…it might not hurt so much…but it still happens. (pause) And maybe, just maybe, that’s the best that we can ever hope for in this life…because the blows catch us don’t they? Whether we are looking for them or not…they still rain down on us…and if we see it coming, whatever it might be…we might be able to soften it, but we can’t stop it…and that’s the best that we can hope for in this life…in this reality…to maybe see it coming and try to soften the landing when we come crashing down.

And the funny thing is that we create an illusion of control…and we think that if we build up all the barriers…then we can stop the blows from hitting us…and we all do it…so what are your barriers? What are the things that you build up in order to keep the shots from hitting you? (pause)  You know what they call that? When you place your faith in something?  They call that idol…and that’s the connection back to Jesus’ teachings.

We lose a little something in our modern translations…and often times we hear the statement that you can’t serve God and wealth, or maybe money…and that’s not really accurate…but perhaps you’ve heard the old word…especially some of you a little farther along in years…you cannot serve God and mammon.

Mammon is an odd word…one that could be described as dishonest wealth…but when we boil it all the way down…mammon is actually the name given to the idol of wealth…the Jewish culture named it…just like any of the other false gods like Ba’al or Asharah…Mammon, is the name of a god…little g. (pause)
Now we all have our idols…whether we want to admit it or not…and maybe, just maybe the reason that this parable is so troublesome for us…is simply because it hits pretty close to home, especially considering our culture and our economy…and the fact that we live in a dog eat dog world…and we disguise it…we soften it, by calling it the American dream…that we do whatever it takes to get the dollar out of your pocket and into mine.

And the parable is troublesome because the way Jesus tells it…this behavior…is commended. (pause) But maybe what Jesus is telling us…is that to put all our eggs in this basket…and to live our lives as if this is the most important thing…well then the very best we can hope for is to soften the blows when they come…and that if we try to improve our situation by aligning with others in this way…then when the rug gets pulled out from under us we will be welcomed into eternal homes…but now notice that Jesus said eternal…not heavenly. (pause)

This is where the rubber meets the road…what do we serve? And this is an important question to ask…because often we look at scripture and we ask what is the eternal aspect…and at the same time, if the kingdom has come near, then what is the here and now aspect? And maybe, just maybe, this particular one only has an eternal aspect…because in life the blows keep coming…and sooner or later the big one lands…and there’s no getting up from that one.

So maybe Jesus is getting pretty blunt here…and telling us in no certain terms that we darn well better look to the one who is capable of overcoming that final blow for us…as opposed to seeking out what the world would commend and placing our faith in that. (pause)

But that being said…we do still need to think about what it means for us now…and maybe think back to the role that the guy in the parable held in the first place…a steward…and in doing so we remember that we are all stewards of something…we are all called to manage something…but just like the steward managed that which was not his own…we need to remember that its not ours either…because if it was then we could take it with us…but we all know that we can’t.

So what does this mean for our wealth? What does this mean for us as we consider money…and property…and bills and paychecks…and our savings account and the charities that we give to? Well, in the end, we need to remember that all of that stuff exists as a tool in the lives that we live with our God…who is the one that gives it to us in the first place…its not the other way around…We use wealth in our lives…we do not live our lives to serve wealth. (pause)

All that being said, I’m not going to stand up here and tell you what to do with your money.  I’m not going stand up here and tell you that you need to get your priorities straight and serve God by putting some extra in the offering plate today so that we can meet our budget…but I will pose the question one more time…what are we going to trust in?

Our congregation is blessed in many ways, including financially…but we are also looking at the possibility of some things in the future that will stretch us…and as we look towards those things we must ask ourselves of just what we are trying to accomplish…and what direction are we following…is the work of the Spirit guiding us into the world to engage and seek the lost? Or are we just trying to survive?  These are the questions that we are wrestling with…and I invite you to wrestle with them too…and if you feel in your heart that what we as the church are doing is serving the will of our Lord, then support that in any way that you can…with your time and talents and treasures…with those gifts that you have been entrusted with.

That is what we do in this life…here in the tension between the now and the not yet…within our day to day lives and the life that is yet to come.  And in the midst of it, we stand together…and we do our best to support one another when the blows come…and yes the blows keep on coming, whether we work to soften them or not…but thanks be to God that He has chosen to live this life along side us, even as we struggle…we know that we are not alone. Amen.

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