Sermon – September 22, 2019 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

“Sweat the Small Stuff”

On more than one occasion in my days as a journalist, my news director would look over my copy and tell me that I had buried the lead. That’s Newspeak for not getting the most important fact in the most important place, at the top of the story. I think in this story today, Jesus buried the lead.

This is as confusing, vexing, even bewildering of a parable from Jesus as you will find. It seems as though he is commending practices that are self-serving, dishonest, and expedient. In fact, it is hard not to come to such a conclusion. Except for the fact that Jesus doesn’t make similar commendations anywhere else.

What I think we should lead with this morning, what ought to be at the beginning of this strange parable, is Jesus’ words of interpretation. “Whoever is faithful in very little is faithful also in much . . . and whoever is dishonest in very little is dishonest also in much.   No slave can serve two masters; . . . .. You cannot serve God and Wealth.”

Jesus here is talking about where our loyalties lie, who commands our central convictions, whom we serve, and how. If we begin there, maybe we can pick up a few cues as we hear Jesus using a worldly example to make a vital point about faith.

So let’s look at the parable.  This manager has been dealing incompetently, maybe even deceitfully, with his master’s goods. When he is exposed, he takes the necessary actions that restores his credibility with the master, and in the meantime makes everyone look good. In that culture, the manager’s actions would reflect on the master. If the manager were dishonest, careless, or incompetent, those attributes would be assigned to the master. And the master would be shamed to in the community. That is what the master feared, and that is what the dishonest manager’s behavior threatened to bring about.  It turns out that honor is more important than money, and the master approves the actions of the manager because he comes off looking charitable, generous and even kind. So, everybody’s happy.  The master keeps his honor.  The manager keeps his job.  And the master’s debtors are happy.

I don’t believe we are to take anything else from that but an example of how a self-aware crook acted in a crisis. Certainly, the master in this parable is not God, for his whole estate is built upon what the parable calls dishonest wealth. And I have a hard time imagining that the dishonest manager is a great role model for Christian behavior. Instead, these are simply examples of how the ones the parable calls “the children of this age” act.

Not so in the kingdom. Folks have been quick to attribute an admonition from Jesus to be shrewd and worldly and take from the ethics of the marketplace or the boardroom that which would benefit people. Sort of a notion that the ends justify the means. But Jesus doesn’t tell the disciples to be shrewd in his explanation of this parable. He calls them to be faithful. That’s the currency of the kingdom.  And here, maybe, is where this notion of money and material things may come in. They might be the little things that Jesus speaks of when he says “whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth: who will trust you the true riches”.   If you can’t, he suggests, resist the temptation of something so blatantly idolatrous as money and material things, then how can you take up the true riches that God provides: Grace and Mercy, hope and justice, equity, forgiveness, and the good news of salvation.

Let’s take another look at that manager. You see, he had a problem. He was failing to serve the master and the Master’s people.   He was only serving himself. Presumably as far as the master was concerned, the manager was to properly execute the master’s wishes. As far as the clients of the master are concerned, the manager presumably would be expected not to put upon these good people more debt and interest then they could manage. He wasn’t doing very well in either case. When the manager served only himself, everyone lost. The master was angry, the manager was on the verge of losing his job, and the debtors to the master were really under the weight of the manager’s demands. But, when the manager came to his senses and began to serve the interests of the other, everything changed.

Ahhhh.  Now were getting somewhere. Maybe this manager does have some reflected wisdom, in spite of his practical and ethical shortcomings. It turns out, brothers and sisters, that when we serve each other, when we serve the needs of those who are burdened, bearing away they cannot sustain, then we serve the master.

Now let’s go back to the lead. Those faithful in very little are faithful in much.   No slave can serve two masters . . . . . You cannot serve God and Mammon.

This is an issue of what is at our center, who articulates our convictions, and whom we serve. In the gospel of Luke it time and again, material wealth, riches, the prerogatives of the wealthy are condemned. They are either idolatrous in themselves, or they lead the way to such things.

Jesus is reminding us that these tempting forces, these calls to our own self interest, these vectors that enable us to lord it over another are insidious, compelling, and dangerous to our faith.  If one is dishonest in little, remember, one is dishonest in much.

So, he says, “become proficient in the little things.” Little things like worship, little things like prayer, little things like taking care of our neighbors, little things like a word of encouragement to troubled soul.  Become proficient in the little things, be faithful in the little.   Practice.

These are not just encouragements for the individual. It is the call for the church to be faithful, to be proficient in the work it has been handed from age to age.

These are some.

The tasks of the church are reverent worship which celebrates the promises of God fulfilled in our lives, prayer, the celebration of the sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion where our gathering and our forgiveness is guaranteed, the proclamation of God’s word of grace and love, teaching the principles of faith and the stories of God’s faithfulness, and sacrificial service to each other and to the  neighbor.  Luther called them the marks of the church, the fundamental expression of the church, prayer, the sacraments, worship, ministry, service, teaching.  To be the church we must be faithful in these things, the basics, the small things.  For, as Jesus said , if you are faithful in small things, you are faithful in the larger.  You see, in the kingdom economy, the little things are the big things.  An encounter with Christ can occur in any venue at any moment.

I just read a story of a kid who worked in a Dairy Queen in Minnesota. A blind man, a regular customer, made a purchase. When he reached for his credit card a $20 bill fell out of his pocket. The woman standing behind him picked up the 20 and put it in her pocket without saying a word. The kid confronted her, she denied it and left with the 20 in her pocket. The kid, the part-time minimum-wage employee, took $20 out of his own pocket and gave it to the blind man. About a week later the kid’s boss found out about the incident. He asked the young man, “why didn’t you tell me what happened?” And the kid replied, “it was just the right thing to do.” This kid could have ignored the whole thing. He could just let it go. No one would’ve been the wiser. The world’s not to come to an end if a blind man loses 20 bucks. But this young man was faithful in a small thing,  and in his actions are revealed the riches of compassion, justice, love of neighbor.

We hope for much in the church—that we are clear enough on the little things that we will help parents rear a young man like that kid in the Dairy Queen, who saw money as a vehicle of injustice and a means of restored justice.. . . . that God’s will would be clear, that God’s presence would be palpable. . . . that our children will be touched by the Word and set upon a lifelong path of faithfulness, that we who face difficulty in our lives would find strength in our faith and Christ’s community, would find a place here where a place elsewhere is denied, that our fellowship would grow in numbers and in understanding of God’s word, in faithfulness because of our proclamation of God’s grace, that young and old, men and women, all people would be one here and in the world. These things are ours in the practice of the little things.

Here’s a good lead.  Turns out that the little things matter, so hug your husband, praise your child, keep that promise, forgive your neighbor, say that prayer, for these are the ways of the kingdom. Turns out, that these little things are the big things, these small gifts are the great riches, turns out God is praised in our serving.     Amen