SERMON: Stories Around the Campfire: Things Aren’t Always What They Seem
SCRIPTURE: Luke 16: 1-13
DATE: June 14, 2015
When I was a kid I loved to read the mystery adventures of The Hardy Boys. I would finish one and then I couldn’t wait for the next one to come out. I even got in touch with my
feminine self occasionally and branched over and read the stories of Nancy Drew. They were basically the same story only with a girl teenage detective instead of the boys. And I tried to solve the mysteries along with Frank and Joe. But try as I might I could never get to the bottom of it until the solution was revealed in the story. And that was because there was always some twist. All of the clues would point one way, but then there would be an unexpected turn of events and the solution would be something completely different.
Those books taught me an important lesson in life and that was that things are not
always what they seem.
Consider the story about a young engineer who had just graduated from MIT and was
interviewing for a job. The interview went very well and at the conclusion the interviewer said,
“If we hired you, what starting salary would you be looking for?” And the young man said, with
out much hesitation, “In the neighborhood of $125,000 per year, depending on the benefits
package.” And the interviewer said, “Well, what would you say to a package of five weeks
paid vacation, 14 paid holidays, full medical an dental coverage, the company matching
retirement fund up to 50% of your salary, and a company leased car-say, a red Corvette?”
The young engineer sat up straight and said, “Wow! Are you kidding?” To which the
interviewer responded, “Yes, but you started it by asking for $125,000.
Things aren’t always what they seem. The best stories, the best T.V. shows, the best movies, are usually ones that have an unexpected twist. They are like unexpected gifts that take us out of the mundane and routine into the realm of mystery and excitement. When we tell the stories ourselves we always remember those twists. And when they happen in real life they make life interesting and exciting. Annie Dillard in a book called Pilgrim At Tinker Creek, tells of a game she played as a child.
She said she would take a shiny new penny (quite a sum for a child then) and carefully place it at the base of the tree in front of her house for someone to find. But she wouldn’t be content just letting someone find it by chance. She would take chalk and starting one block away on both sides she would draw arrows pointing towards that tree and leading right to the penny, and at periodic intervals in an ever increasing radius, she would write on the sidewalk “surprise ahead”. And then she would hide and wait she said to see who would come along and “receive in this way an unexpected gift from the universe.”
Often times it is the twists and turns of life, that are the unexpected gifts from the universe, that bring us such joy and fulfillment. That make life interesting. But then sometimes those twists and turns bring us other things in this life like pain and heartbreak. Sometimes life takes a twist and we lose our jobs. Or life takes a sudden turn and a loved one dies. Or our health fails. It is to such twists and turns of life that Jesus often addressed the stories he told. In Luke’s Gospel, following the stories of lost and found in the fifteenth chapter, we find perhaps the strangest of all of Jesus’ stories.
Eugene Peterson in his paraphrase The Message, tells it this way:
There was once a rich man who had a manager. He got reports that the manager
had been taking advantage of his position by running up huge personal expenses.
So he called him in and said, “What’s this I hear about you? You’re fired. And I want
a complete audit of your books.”
The manager said to himself, “What am I going to do? I’ve lost my job as manager I’m
not strong enough for a laboring job, and I’m too proud to beg . . . Ah, I’ve got a plan.
Here’s what I’ll do . . . then when I’m turned out into the street, people will take me into their houses.”
Now we get to this point in the story and we think to ourselves. “The master really had him pegged. Look how dishonest he is. He deserved to be fired.” And we expect that Jesus, too, will draw that conclusion. But things aren’t always what they seem. The story continues:
Then he went at it. One after another, he called in the people who were in debt to
his master. He said to the first, “How much do you owe my master?”
He replied, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.” The manager said, “Here, take your bill, sit
down here – quick now – write fifty.”
To the next he said, “And you, what do you owe?” He answered, “A hundred sacks
He said, “Take your bill, write in eighty.” Now here’s a surprise: The master praised
the crooked manager. And why? Because he knew how to look after himself.
Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law abiding citizens. They are on
constant alert, looking for angles, surviving by their wits. I want you to be smart in
the same way – but for what is right –using adversity to stimulate you to creative
survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really
live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.
Now this is a strange story, indeed. When I prepare for a message, I like to read the passage of scripture from several different translations, and then study the commentaries to see what others are saying about that scripture. And in doing that this week, it was obvious that most don’t know what to do with this story. The tendency is to try and read into it something that’s not there. Or to say this is what Jesus meant to say. We are not comfortable with the twist this story takes.
But I learned from my days with Frank and Joe Hardy that the true enjoyment of the story was not to be too analytical, but to simply go where the story took me. Today I would read those stories and I would apply them to a more cynical adult mind, and rob them of their joy.
I would probably search for deeper meaning that is not there. And I suspect that sometimes we do too much of that with the stories of Jesus. We try to outwit Jesus by searching for
meanings in the stories that are not there. I think we need to take this story for its face value.
And if we do that, I think Jesus is telling us some things with this story.
First, we shouldn’t get too hung up on the dishonesty of the manager. This is not a story contrasting good and evil and if we hear it that way, we will miss the lesson. The Manager represented a common character in Jewish folklore. He is the clever trickster who earns his pardon not based upon his honesty, but upon his shrewdness and initiative. For instance
A popular Jewish story that the Rabbis liked to tell was of a man who was once caught
stealing and was ordered to be hanged. But on the way to the gallows he tells the governor that he knows a wonderful secret and it would be a pity to allow it
to die with him. And so he is taken before the king. And he tells the king that he would put a pomegranate seed in the ground and through the secret taught to him by his father he can make it grow and bear fruit overnight.And so the next day they all gathered in the
field so the thief could plant the seed. The thief dug the hole and then he said, “This seed must be planted by someone who has never stolen or taken anything in his life that did not
belong to him. And one by one those who gathered turned away, each confessing that there had been a time when they had taken something that did not belong to them. Even the king confessed to taking a necklace that belonged to his father. When no one was left who could plant the seed, the thief said: “You are all mighty and powerful and want nothing and yet you cannot plant the seed. whilst I have stolen a little because I was starving and I am
to be hanged.” And with that the king pardoned the thief.
You see, in this story, just as in Jesus’ story, the thief does not find pardon because of the honesty of his actions. The thief was a thief and the manager was dishonest. But the point is that in the face of ruination and death, they did not give up, they acted to change in their fate. Remember this difficult story follows immediately the stories of the lost sheep and lost coin and lost son. These stories are right in the middle of Luke’s
Gospel and in many ways they are the very heart of Jesus’ message of grace.
At one level they are stories of people not acting as they would be expected to act.
A good shepherd would not leave the flock to find one sheep. He would count the sheep as lost and suffer the consequences. And a prudent person would not tear their house apart to find one small coin. They would resign themselves to the fact that they lost it. And a son shamed by his sin, would probably not turn for home after the way he had treated his father when he left, essentially treating him as though he were dead. Believing there to be nothing for him there, he would sink deeper and deeper into trouble. And a manager facing ruination, would be expected to take what was coming to him. He deserved it. But in Jesus’ telling there was a twist. In His stories the characters made a plan and they carried it through. It might not be what conventional wisdom called for, but they did what they had to to survive.
Jesus stories are often about people facing crisis and adversity, but instead of giving in to it, they immediately act to rise above it. Now that sounds right, but so often it is not the case, is it? William Willimon writes:
When adversity comes our way, we tend to freeze up, or we pull the covers over our head and simply give up. We become overwhelmed. We reassure ourselves with the great law of thermodynamics – if something can go wrong,
it probably will. We decide that our number is up, the gods have decreed it is our turn to
suffer when the roulette wheel of bad luck turns our way, and we give up. We do this not
only in our personal lives, but also in our social lives. We look at this country’s (condition)
and we say to ourselves, I am just one person. What can one person like me do to change
things?” You are told by your doctor that you have cancer and you conclude that there is
nothing to live for. Your boss comes in and tells you that you are the latest victim of
downsizing and you decide that your productive life is over. We circle the wagons. We
move into a defensive posture. We hunker down unwilling to fight a hopeless cause.
But it seems to me that this story is calling us to a different kind of reaction to adversity. To not give in. But to, in the popular vernacular of the day, “plan your work, and work your plan.” And Jesus uses the exaggeration of the unscrupulous manager to make the point even more clear. If one such as this can respond in the face of adversity, and over come, how much more prepared to respond should we be as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Let’s be clear, Jesus is not condoning the actions of the manager, but rather praising his initiative in the face of adversity.
People of faith need to grab hold of the future, no matter how hopeless it might look, because God’s grace makes all things possible. Our fate is not determined by the adversity that we will all face in this life, but rather how, led by God’s Spirit we will respond to it. Willimon continues:
The unscrupulous manager took what had been dealt his way, a rather precarious and bleak future, and wheeled and dealed, worked with it with a faith that even this could lead to some good, and received an open future.
By God’s grace, so do we. We come up to the altar with empty hands. There we receive just a bit of blessed bread, just a taste of blessed wine. Not much. Not much to build a future upon. But in the outrageous graciousness of God, those bits of ordinary life become transformed into a miraculous, sacramental God-infused future. And we go forth, with eyes open, with fresh possibility before us, a future not of our own devising, but a future as a gift of a gracious God.
In a wonderfully, extravagant way Jesus is telling His disciples to not settle for the way things are, but instead to grab hold of the future that God has in store for us.
Because when we give up or settle for less than that, we are confessing to ourselves and the world that we do not have faith in a big enough God who can see us through even the darkest of circumstances. Disciples move into the future with boldness and confidence, just as Jesus did.
Even as He moved towards the adversity of the Cross, Jesus did not do so with resignation, but with confidence and boldness and the assurance that comes only through the grace of God. Through knowing Him. With the assurance that even the Cross is not what it seems.
Dag Hammarskjold a writer who was the second Secretary General of the United Nations
once said: We act in faith – and miracles occur. In consequence, we are tempted to make
the miracles occur. In consequence, we are tempted to make the miracles the ground for our
faith. The cost of such weakness is that we lose the confidence of faith. Faith is, faith
creates, faith carries. It is not derived from, nor created, nor carried by anything
except its own reality.
This unusual story urges us to move into the future with confidence and boldness, not
because of our own abilities, but confident in the grace and power of God.
Because we have a God who is faithful in the small things of life as well as the big ones, and who is Lord over today as well as tomorrow. And because of that we are to be faithful in the small things, yes, but also in the large things. A God who wants
more than just a moment here and there, an hour or two on Sunday morning, but
who wants our every moments.
Who wants our very lives, the good times and the bad. And when we give Him less than
that, we are saying that we do not trust Him enough to give Him our whole lives.
So back to my original question, who do you know that is struggling with dark times.
Maybe it’s you. Broken hearted, battered by life, physically challenged, emotionally drained, spiritually drifting. It says to us don’t give up. Give your future to God, your moments and your days, and your years, and move confidently into the future that only God offers.
Don’t get so consumed with the things of the moment that we lose sight of the glorious future that God intends for each one of us. Because when we do that we can become so
consumed by the little things, the trials of the moment, that we lose sight of the purpose for which we are called and fail to move boldly and confidently into the future. We can become
so discouraged by the conditions around us that we become convinced that we
cannot make a real difference. And so the little things become the essentials, and the future becomes unreachable. But Jesus is saying to us that we should know better. That if this unscrupulous manager can manipulate the master to forgive him and thereby secure his future, surely the church of Jesus Christ can grab hold of the
future which God intends. Because we know who holds the future. There is no need to
try and manipulate God because He wants only the best for us. And in case we’ve
forgotten, hear this story about a shrewd manager who had the courage to overcome great adversity in his life without relying on God. Just imagine what Disciples can overcome
empowered by God’s grace and Spirit. You see, at it’s heart, this is a story about
overcoming adversity by the grace of God and as I was thinking about it in preparation
for today, I was reminded of another rather strange story in the Bible. The Old Testament story of Joseph and his brothers that sold him into slavery because he was his father’s
favorite and never missed an opportunity to remind his brothers of that fact. But, Joseph overcame great adversity and eventually rose to be in charge of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s storehouses as the world plunged into famine. But as remarkable as Joseph’s personal
story is, that’s not what brings to mind the story of the unscrupulous manager. It’s the
plight of the brothers, toppled from their undeserved positions of prominence and
comfort and plunged into such adversity and misery and fear, that they came with hats in hands to beg from the Egyptians, just to survive the famine. And to their surprise and
horror they find the brother they had betrayed and wronged so many years before in
charge of their fate. And they try to deceive Joseph by telling him that their dead father
had pleaded that Joseph forgive his brothers. But Joseph had already decided to offer
them grace and forgiveness and he speaks what I think is the summary statement of
this story of the dishonest manager when he says to his brothers: What you meant for evil, God has turned to blessing. Isn’t that how God’s grace often works in our lives? Adversity will come to us all. And though we may try to distinguish between adversity we bring on ourselves or that which simply comes our way in spite of the way we have tried to live our lives, God makes no such distinctions. Scripture tells us that storms come to the just and the unjust. Praise God that when Christ went to the Cross, He did not go just for the just. He went for us all. His Grace is never really deserved, but always offered. And so what the world means for evil, becomes a blessing through the unlimited love and grace of almighty God. I don’t know about you, but there has been times when it’s worked that way in my life. We don’t always understand why but it seems to me that’s a story that our friends and neighbors need to hear, those in our lives who are facing adversity. And God needs you and I to tell it in the midst of a world that is often blinded by adversity to the love and grace of almighty God.