November 4, 2018 Sermon
Savvy Servants of the Lord
The parable that Paul just read is often called the Parable of the Shrewd Manager. We think of “shrewd” as shrewd lawyers who stretch the truth or shrewd salesmen who do not tell buyers all the facts about their products. The custodian for the Church in Oregon where I was a pastor was a newly arrived illegal immigrant from S America. He supported his wife and two small children with his wages as the church janitor. He purchased a car thru a payment plan that a used car salesman offered. The shrewd salesman took advantage of his plight, and the interest that he owed was soon greater than the price of the car. Church members found out about the exorbitant interest and acted shrewdly, as well: Church members joined forces and personally refinanced the car.
What point did Jesus want to make with the parable of the shrewd manager? The servant devised an ingenious plan to reduce debts owed to his master so that the debtors might befriend or hire him later. His shrewdness served his own interests. Is Jesus telling his followers that we need to be savvy about our job of promoting the Gospel and ways to be the church? Is Jesus telling his listeners to find ingenious solutions to problems that seem hopeless? I urge all of us to engage our best thinking to see how this parable might apply to each of us and for this church here and now.
In the parable, savvy innovation pays off: The servant finds a solution to getting fired. Like the shocking conclusion of any of Jesus’ parables, this parable concludes: “The master commended the shrewd steward for acting prudently.” The debtors get some relief, as well. As churches face economic and practical hurdles, how savvy and intentional are we at finding solutions? Do our savvy initiatives merit God’s commendation? This parable leaves the listener to decide if the master re-hired his shrewd servant.
Jesus makes another point: "Make friends for yourselves through your use of this world's goods, so that when they fail you, a lasting reception will be yours" (Luke 16:9). Is Jesus advising his followers to make friends, especially in difficult or uncertain times? The parable refers twice to making friends. The shrewd manager gives up trying to squeeze people and realizes that friends are more important than money. Jesus’ overall message strongly urges: Make friends, especially with people that the world ignores—because, in the end only love will endure.
How successful is the church at making friends with those who visit on Sundays? Extroverts could sincerely get to know visitors. Do we walk people over to the guest registry and invite them to completely fill in their information? If visitors’ info is in the registry, then introverts could follow up with welcome notes.
Do we take friendly initiatives to talk to people outside the church about our faith and their faith? The discussion class for the next few Sundays focuses on strengthening conversation skill to deepen friendship with people outside of our own small circle of friends.
Is the parable about setting priorities? Does the wealthy master realize that his own focus on wealth is of little substantial value compared to friendship and generosity. Jesus reinforces this choice by explaining after this parable: “You cannot serve God and money,” or to use the archaic KJ English: “You cannot serve God and mammon.”
A money-making focus doesn’t go very far. Jesus conveys a hope that we can re-align our own personal interests and church priorities to be proactive on behalf of the Gospel. Innumerable opportunities to promote God’s vision open up to us if we put God’s grace first! Churches that focus on institutional preservation and the church budget are likely to fail. Congregations that tend to thrive are intentional and industrious about sharing the Gospel.
Whether the master reinstates the steward is an unanswered question that Jesus’ followers have to answer for ourselves.
I hope that the landlord reinstates his steward and they start doing business very differently from their old money-grubbing ways.
When the manager juggled accounts after he was about to be fired, perhaps he reduced the payments that the debtors owed by reducing his own cut of the profit. If so, then maybe Jesus challenges his followers: Are we willing to sacrifice our own gain to respond to Jesus’ invitation? Will we sacrifice our own personal agendas about how church should be—in order to remain actively faithful to Jesus? Almost all church people everywhere prefer “the way we’ve always done it.” The familiar ways are comfortable and reassuring. Let’s not lose that warm sense of home. Besides, if the goal of this church is to remain a comfortable, convivial group of believers, then simple maintenance of the way things have been done is all that is required.
Declining churches across the nation prove that congregations need to be intentional and savvy to grow in mission and expand in member outreach. What does the Mission Statement of this Church say? Do we filter our goals and activities to live out that Mission Statement? How can the Mission Statement give greater substance to the life of this church?
What else can we learn from this parable? Perhaps the steward reducing the debtors’ outstanding debt tells us that as individuals or as a congregation; we can actively promote God’s expansive justice and mercy. The Food Pantry-Samaritan’s Way is good example of such initiative. If Union Church wants to focus creative action on local mission. How might we be shrewd and savvy to expand ways that this congregation can help disenfranchised people in the Newburgh area? The shrewd servant found a solution—even with his extremely limited resources and options. How can we further mobilize this congregation’s many resources? Every member needs to be proactive and savvy to find ways to implement meaningful outreach—whether mission outreach or membership outreach.
Jesus was a strong advocate of social justice. Was relief for debtors also a point of this story? The debtors were probably poor tenant farmers. Landowner abuses were widespread even dating as far back as the time of Second Isaiah.
Was Jesus commending the steward for offering debt relief? Debt relief certainly fits well with Jesus’ overall agenda. Maybe Jesus even intended to condemn the whole society’s self-centeredness by implicitly commending the manager for hindering the rich master from preying on the poor. Did Jesus intend to commend the savvy manager for eradicating abusive practices of powerful elite?
With this understanding of the parable, Jesus encourages us to initiate advocacy on behalf of the poor and oppressed. When we see any injustice or difficulty, do we take action? Can we find innovative, savvy solutions to some of the serious problems that harm people of Newburgh or the oppressed in other parts of the world? Leaders of Bread for the World have convinced me that helping the poor and oppressed requires both immediate relief and advocacy for uprooting the causes of inequality and oppression. The Habitat for Humanity work of many here is an example of an ingenious way to make a real difference for people in Newburgh City. The national Presbyterian church regularly sends out emails that inform church members and facilitate lobbying Congress and the President to protect vulnerable people and our vulnerable environment.
This congregation could readily take on that mission by following the savvy advocacy steps given to us by our national church leaders.
According the Ministry info form used to find an interim pastor, one reason Union Church hired an interim pastor is “so that the church can continue to identify its vision, mission and purpose during the time between installed ministers to create an
environment that is 21st century and sustainable.” I have lots of seed ideas for further building up this church based on the strengths of this church. More importantly, each of you have ideas that the church can consider. Let us pray and work together to find ways to make this church an even better ambassador of God’s grace.
Together, we CAN be savvy servants of the Lord.
Let us pray.