Sunday, September 18, 2016

Luke 16: 1-13
A Sting Operation

Note: I asked Susan, our music director, to help me with this sermon, using music by Scott Joplin, "The Entertainer", the theme song from the movie, The Sting. The music can be found here: and elsewhere. 

Isn’t this a strange story? Since when does Jesus praise scoundrels?!
There is an owner and a manager who gets caught doing something underhanded and gets fired. The manager makes arrangements with the debtors and doctors the owner’s books, so he will have friends after he loses his job.
It seems even Luke wasn’t sure how to interpret the story, since he included at least 3 interpretations of the parable:
·         Make friends whenever and however you can
·         Those who are faithful (or dishonest) with a little will be faithful (or dishonest) with much
·         No one can serve two masters, God or wealth
Many pastors check out the other readings for this day, rather than having to wrestle with this Gospel text. But, I was reading it and imagining different scenarios. I finally settled on one I haven’t exactly seen in commentaries. So, given the culture, it may not be valid. But it makes sense to me.
I wonder … What if the manager is caught, not misusing the owner’s income, but has a set of books on the side. He makes deals with the tenants and debtors on the side. The owner still gets what he is owed, but the manager agrees to some special favors in exchange for some extra money or oil or wheat. Then he spends the extra to make his life better. Unfortunately, people notice that he is living better than he should be, and begin to ask the owner if he gave the manager a raise or a bonus.
So, the jig is up, the manager is caught, and he will soon be out of a job, and living on the streets unless he can figure out something else. And he does, because he’s a shrewd, or maybe wily, guy. He plans and carries out a sting operation.

Do you remember what a sting is? Technically, a sting operation is a complicated confidence game planned and executed with great care. Crooks play stings on one another. Undercover law enforcement personnel play stings to catch high level criminals.
There was a great movie in 1973 about a sting, starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. [Susan, play a few bars to help us remember.] Newman and Redford played kinda bad guys who got themselves in some trouble and decided to pull a sting operation on some badder guys to get themselves out of trouble. They set up a scenario to get the badder guys to give them a bunch of money for a fake event. At the end of the movie, we are cheering these scoundrels for their success. [Susan, play those notes again.]
In the Bible story, the manager knows he has been caught and he figures out a sting to save his future in the community. He thinks for a few minutes, and then says, “I know what I can do.” And he develops a plan to make the people he has been dealing with on the side grateful to him. He has to act fast, before he has to turn over his books, and before the folks in town find out he has been fired.  
He invites a few of the debtors into his office, and has them change the numbers on the original contracts with the owner. This works because in Hebrew, it is easy to change one number to another. Imagine in our Arabic numbers changing a 5 to a 3, or a 9 to an 8, 3 to a 2. With a small stroke of a pen, the debtors owe less oil or wheat. They are grateful to the manager, and will readily welcome him into their homes. This ancient sting is a success. [music]
Now, it is hard to tell in the story if it is the owner or Jesus who praises the manager for his cleverness. Either way, the folks listening can appreciate the idea of pulling off a great sting. It seems we are to be as shrewd as the manager in following Jesus.
What does that mean? It means that we need to do whatever it takes to follow Jesus. We probably do not need to set up an elaborate sting operation, but we do need to be focused on the goal of putting Jesus first in all that we do. 
I want us to think about the idea of a sting as a way to bring people into the church. This is a good sting, for the purpose of sharing Jesus with others. [music]
Events like the flea market, the indoor yard sale, and the Shred Event draw people into our yard, into our buildings. They say, we care about our neighbors. They say, come and see. They raise awareness of Hope Lutheran in the community, so even if they never worship anywhere, people know we are here.
Many congregations use music, art, education, and food programs to draw people inside. Through these programs, our neighbors meet us and get to know and trust us. They come to realize that we are not judgmental fanatics, but caring people just like them.
The more of these kind of stings that Hope does, the more awareness people will have that there is a church, a Lutheran Church, in the neighborhood. [music]
In addition to the congregation planning and running a sting operation to draw neighbors in, we can carry out little stings every day to remind people that Jesus is real and loves them. But it’s not always easy.
This week our book club spent some time discussing a story we had just read in Reviving Old Scratch. Richard Beck is pastor who has a ministry in a maximum security prison. One day, he was leading a Bible study on the Beatitudes. When he got to “Blessed are the meek …” the men all had a strange look on their faces. Finally, one of them spoke up. “It’s not that we disagree, but we can’t do that stuff in here.” Meekness in prison is interpreted as weakness, and it can get you killed.
Back home during the week, Beck thought about their statement over and over, and he came to realize that we can’t do that stuff out here either. Meekness/Weakness in the classroom gets us bullied. Meekness/Weakness in the office gets us the crummiest assignments. Meekness/Weakness on the jobsite gets us uncooperative employees. So, to be meek believers in today’s world we need to be as shrewd, as wily, as the manager in the Gospel story.
We may hesitate to be bold in making ourselves known as Christians in public, because we have no desire to be ridiculed for being people of faith. Fortunately, here in the south, in this part of the Bible Belt, many people are believers, and actually welcome our reference to the Divine. It is easy here to pray our thanks at a restaurant, and to say “God bless you” when someone does something nice for us. It’s easy to notice someone’s cross and ask about it, and learn about their faith.
These simple activities may not be stings, and they are not for any underhanded activity. My hope is that by using the idea of a sting, it will encourage you to think more often about sharing Jesus with others, so they might be willing to accept an invitation to Hope, and to be loved and forgiven by him. It will make of you a shrewd follower of Jesus! [music]
Please pray with me. Jesus, you gave us this parable to cause us to think and wonder. Lead us to think shrewdly and boldly about ways we can share your love with those we know, with those we meet. Give us open hearts and words to speak. In your holy name, Amen