Saturday, September 18, 2010

Give big (or go home)

Amos 8:4-7; Luke 16:1-13

Week after week in the lectionary this time of year, we read stories about how to use the money and other blessings God has given to us. These texts continue the theme of justice for the poor and oppressed that defines Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus. You may remember that before Jesus was born, his mother Mary sang a song about knocking the wealthy off their thrones and lifting up the humble; about filling the hungry with good food while the rich go away empty.

Because of this background understanding, the parable of the cheating manager always has preachers, scholars and casual readers alike scratching their heads. As I prepared to preach this week, I found at least a dozen possible explanations for it. Here’s what makes the most sense to me. I’ll start with an analogy.

Lindsey Vonn and Shaun White were American stars of the Winter Olympics. Lindsey Vonn excels in downhill skiing, and Shaun White is a snowboarder. Both have the winner-take-all attitude of “Go big or go home.” If you’re not going to go all out, don’t bother.

Lindsey skied with a seriously bruised shin, but went after the Gold with a winner’s heart, leaving nothing at the gate as she plummeted down the mountain. Shaun attacked the half-pipe snowboard ramp with an eye to getting the most turns and flips and the biggest air. While both Lindsey and Shaun always try to be safe, accidental injury and death are always a possibility. But they put aside their fears and went with gusto for the Gold. They both say: Go big or go home.

Now to our parable: There was a rich man whose manager was cheating him, taking advantage of him in some way. The manager may have been buying $5 toilet seats for $200 and pocketing the difference, or skimming a bit off the top of every transaction, or bribing vendors for the privilege of selling to him, or charging extra interest and keeping the proceeds. Whatever he was doing, someone ratted on him, and he was about to lose his job.

In the same way that he had been clever enough to steal from his master, he thought hard about how to continue making a good living for himself. Working with those who had probably helped him cheat the rich man in the past, he made deals with them to set up continued relationships and income in the future. As good as he was in the past, he would be just as good in the future. For him, it was cheat big, or go home. He wasn’t ready to just go home and retire on his savings.

Jesus praises not his cheating, but the determination with which he cheats. The manager is passionate about maintaining as much as possible of his present lifestyle and having the personal contacts that help him do so.

When we apply this lesson to our own lives, Jesus wants us to have as much passion in our discipleship as this manager had in his life. Jesus knows that if our focus is on getting and managing money and the possessions money can buy, that activity will distract us from going big in serving God.

This lesson from Jesus isn’t new. Amos and many of the other prophets preached the same lesson. Amos describes a culture in which the wealthy find it hard to observe the Sabbath, because they are so obsessed with making more and more money. They take advantage of the poor, making them even poorer, cheating with every trick they can think of. Like the manager in Jesus’ story, they are going big in serving themselves. Perhaps we could even say they are “cheating big.”

I doubt that any of us intentionally cheats anyone. We may consider under-reporting our income or over-reporting our expenses to the IRS, but wouldn’t really do so. But it seems easier to consider cheating God. Many people put giving to the church – which means to God – at the bottom of the list when making out checks. We make sure to pay the mortgage, the car payment, the electric bill, the phone bill, and the cable bill. We calculate how much we will need to buy groceries, and meals at restaurants. We may make sure we put away some money for the future. We write the check to the church last, depending on how much is left over.

I’ve been there, where my income barely covered the bills. I’ve been there, where I wondered how I could pay the electric bill. I’ve been there, where the bank was close to foreclosing on my house. The fact that I was able to pay the bills, and get caught up on my house payments, I owe to God. Money came in the mail as a birthday gift, or as a remembrance from a Women of the ELCA unit, or the blessing of my in-laws who knew we were unemployed. The timing could only have been because God knew I was struggling.

In those days, giving much to the church was difficult. But I gave as much as I could and promised God that as soon as I could, I would give much more, out of gratitude for the blessings I had received. I committed to giving a designated percentage of my income to God, and grew that percentage each year. I committed to give big.

With our generosity, we have helped one family with no income get through a month of crisis. We have given big to help them. There are plenty more families in similar or worse situations. We cannot help them all. But we have done what we could do. How will they return thanks to God? Generously, I hope. In the meantime, we can give thanks to God that we have been able to help them.

It takes trust and budgeting to give a significant amount to God through giving to the church. The disadvantage is that we can’t buy as much stuff. That’s also the advantage. When we give a significant portion of our income to God, we learn how much less we can live on, and we learn how much God does give to us. We learn to be dependent on God, instead of self-sufficient and independent. We learn to trust big.

Beyond money, we can give big to God with our time and our talents. There are plenty of opportunities for us to give our time and talents to God. We can use teachers, council members, offering counters, committee members, choir members, worship volunteers of all sorts, after-worship refreshment providers, lawn mowers and shrub trimmers.

Each person here can tell others about the good news of Jesus’ love for us, and of the good things that are happening here at Hope. As we rebuild this congregation, God hopes we will step up to serve in whatever ways we can. We are called to serve big.

Beyond giving our money, our time, and our talents, we can give ourselves. We can love and respect each other as God’s children, even if we don’t like each other. We can love each other as Jesus loves us, warts and all. In our relationships, we can love big.

We are called to commit ourselves to God as fully as the manager was committed to taking care of his own needs. As God’s children, we are called to give big, trust big, serve big, and love big.

Please pray with me. Holy One, you are committed to loving us and giving to us and serving us as your beloved children. Help us to commit our hearts to loving, trusting, giving, and serving you. Help us to go big in our relationship with you. Amen