Sermon, September 18, 2016

We Need to Be Shrewd
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
September 18, 2016   Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Proverbs 8; Matthew 10:16-20; Luke 16:1-13

Jesus seems to be commending dishonesty in today’s parable in Luke, suggesting that we follow the example of the dishonest manager and get ahead in life by cheating and stealing. But Jesus called us to love our neighbor as ourselves and lay down our lives for one another. He would never promote injustice and dishonesty. So what is going on here?

The first clue is that this passage is made up of a parable followed by some proverbs, including the famous one from the Sermon on the Mount, “You cannot serve both God and mammon (or both God and material wealth).” Parables and proverbs were literary genres in the first century Middle East that belonged to what was known as wisdom literature.

Wisdom says in the book of Proverbs, “Happy is the one who listens to me, watching daily at my gates… For whoever finds me finds life and obtains grace from God.”

The purpose of Jesus’ parable is to help us grow and obtain grace, but wisdom teachers understand that it sometimes takes a puzzle or shock for our brains to awaken to a new insight or sense of urgency.

That is why Jesus suggests that we should be like the dishonest manager who cheated his master by reducing his debtors’ bills so that those debtors would take the dishonest manager into their homes after he got fired. Jesus says. “His master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth, so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

The expected thing would be for the master to be enraged and throw the manager in prison for cheating him. Instead, the master praises the manager for his shrewdness. This is shocking, but then Jesus says that the children of the material world are shrewder than the children of light in dealing with this world. That is not shocking at all. If we are spiritual, then we want to be detached from material things and focus on the spiritual realm. That is what Jesus has been teaching in previous passages about humbly putting everyone else ahead of us, and giving up our attachments to possessions. Of course we are not materially shrewd. We are spiritual!

But Jesus is setting us up to shock us even more. He turns around and tells us to be shrewd like the dishonest manager. “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”

This contradicts our understanding of all Jesus stood for—until he slips that word “eternal” in there. Then he is slipping into our hands the key to unlock the entire parable. Just as the dishonest manager used dishonest wealth shrewdly to enter the homes of other dishonest people, so we who are spiritual should use dishonest wealth shrewdly to enter a spiritual home.

“Dishonest wealth” used to be translated as “the mammon of unrighteousness.” (King James Version) Jesus is saying that we need to use shrewdly whatever mammon comes into our hands, whatever we take from the economy of the unrighteous world that surrounds us. We need to use it as shrewdly in the service of our spiritual ends as the dishonest manager used it in the service of his selfish ends. We need to be shrewd with our resources—our time, energy, talents and wealth—in the service of God’s realm.

We need to be shrewd by making friends with those who can open the door of eternal homes. Think about what that means. Who can open the door of an eternal home for us? Can a rich person? Can a powerful person? Can a Deacon or Trustee? No, no human can open the door to heaven for us. Jesus is telling us to make friends with God and the Holy Spirit and Christ himself.

I have been at the bedside of many dying people, and I can tell you that it makes all the difference in the world to how we feel when we get there if we have used our time and resources to become friends with those who can welcome us into eternal homes. Similarly, I have been part of many churches, and the ones that were working to become ever closer to Christ and more open to the Spirit were full of love and joy.

We need to be shrewd. We need to use well the opportunities God has given us and constantly ask ourselves how we can be shrewder.

Jesus offers the proverb, “If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” The book of Proverbs says that “wisdom is better than jewels,” and we should choose it rather than silver or gold. Jesus is saying, if you use your material life shrewdly to serve God, God will give you in return the true riches of the spiritual life. The true riches are the wisdom and power of the Holy Spirit that form the greatest shrewdness in the world.

Spiritual shrewdness has enabled the church to resurrect when political persecution or cultural decadence has crucified it over the ages, to find a way through catacombs or communist prisons and survive two thousand years of challenges.

Today we face new challenges to the church’s survival, and terrible new threats to human civilization and the health of the planet. This congregation is aware that it needs to grow in order to continue serving God’s realm in this urgent time, and that it needs to learn new ways of doing things in order for it to grow.

To do this we need great shrewdness. But for us, that means the opposite of what it meant to the dishonest manager. For us, shrewdness means not self-serving, but self-giving.

To be spiritually shrewd is to do what Jesus recommended to his disciples, when he sent them out into the material world “like sheep into the midst of wolves.” He said, “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves…. Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of God speaking through you.”

The urgency and danger in the church and world today are arguably greater than ever before, but our hope is greater, too, because if the Spirit of God spoke through the shrewd spiritual heroes of the past, then we can trust that it will speak through us even more powerfully. All that the Spirit requires are people who are willing to listen to the voice of wisdom teaching them how to be shrewd.

Listen to the shrewdness in a story from Jewish tradition that I have told before. A monastery had dwindled from one hundred down to six aging monks. They were sad and afraid that their monastery was going to die out. They prayed, they tried different programs for attracting new members, but nothing worked.

An old hermit lived in the forest nearby who was reputed to be very wise, so the brothers begged their abbot to go ask the hermit what they should do.

The abbot returned to the monastery disappointed. All the brothers gathered around him and asked if the hermit had any wisdom to offer. The abbot said, “No, I am afraid not. All he said was that the Messiah is among us.”

The monks went on with their daily labors and prayers and their grief, but they remembered what the hermit had said. They began to wonder, could the abbot be the Messiah? He is wise and patient and kind. Or one would ask another, “Do you think brother Jacob could be the Messiah? No one interprets the scriptures as profoundly as he does.” Or, “Could it be brother Michael? Remember how he prayed for that sick child in the village and she recovered?” Every time one of the brothers did something virtuous the others would notice and think, yes, he could be the Messiah.

Something miraculous began to happen. The monks started treating one another with so much love and respect that the visitors who came to tour the great old monastery thought to themselves, these must be really holy men. Some of the younger visitors lingered to listen to the old monks’ conversations, and asked questions, and began to learn. Then one of the young men asked if he could join, and then another, and soon there were twenty monks, and then fifty. Within a few years it was once again a thriving monastery because they used their shrewdness to see the light of God in one another.

Two weeks ago my sermon cited one member of our congregation as a model of the love of Christ that we all are called to extend to one another. It just happened to be a child I was singling out. I said that I could have picked any one of our congregation’s leaders, and it could have been any child. It is as true here as in that monastery. There is Christ’s light to find in us each.

Jesus himself chose children to hold up as our ideals. Children who greet us with hearts full of love are as innocent as doves, and yet there is a shrewdness to that love. It builds God’s realm of love around them. It attracts others to join them in creating a culture of love, which in turn attracts others, so the church grows, and the realm of God grows, and the power of Christ to transform this world grows.

We say in our Identity and Aspiration Statement, “We aspire to grow in numbers as we make this an increasingly welcoming, loving, helpful congregation where we take the love we find here out into the world around us, and where people want to participate because the church makes a positive difference in their lives throughout the week.”

The wisest, shrewdest thing we can do is open our hearts to love and extend a welcome to one another as joyously as the brightest children of light among us.  Let us pray in silence asking the Spirit of God to shine through us today, and asking also for the shrewdness to see that Spirit shining through everyone else…