Saturday, September 21, 2013

The (Un)righteous Steward

Sermon on Luke 16:1-15
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
September 22, 2013 (Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

It’s not about the money.  It’s not about the power and glory that comes from being “first” in this life.  It’s not about proving that you can be just as good, just as capable, and wield just as much authority and power as anybody else.  Christianity isn’t about you, in other words.  But when I say that, I mean it in a way that is completely contrary to the way Rick Warren means it.  The way he means it, it means that we’re to serve God selflessly, and not serve ourselves.  And of course, by itself that’s also a true statement.  But Christianity is not about what we do for God.  It’s what God does for us.  When I say Christianity is not about you, I (and the Bible, and the Lutheran Confessions) mean that Christianity is not about what we do.  It’s about what God has done and continues to do, in creating, redeeming, and sanctifying us.  Which is also why Christianity is not about this life, it’s about eternity.

The manager in this parable knew the jig was up.  The stuff he had been given charge over, he misused.  He did things with it that were contrary to his master’s wishes, and contrary to the purposes for which these things were given.  Sound familiar?  It should.  “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.  He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have.”  And how have you done with the body and soul, eyes, ears, and all your members you have been given charge over?  How about the clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all you have?

Not so good, eh?  Well, me neither.  So what now?  There’s nothing we can do to fix the problem, is there?  Not even doing good works for our fellow men, either inside or outside the church walls, will make up for our misuse of what belongs to Him (and remember, it’s not just our stuff, but our own bodies and souls that belong to Him, since He made us as well as our stuff).  Even when we do good and follow every letter of God’s law, we were still only doing our duty.  God doesn’t give bonus points to make up for a bad grade on the test.  He doesn’t accept anything besides lifelong perfection.  We can’t bribe our way out of this one.  We can’t put forward the fact that we’ve been serving Him or giving ourselves to Him, either.  You can’t give someone something they already own, so any service we do for Him with the expectation that He’ll appreciate it, is an insult, because it implies that He didn’t own it in the first place.  And that even applies to our worship, whether liturgical or not.  I’ve heard it said by some Christians that the reason we sing and praise God is because He craves our worship.  The idea that the almighty Creator of heaven and earth would, or even could, “crave” anything we have or do, is nothing less than blasphemy.  He owns it all anyway.  He has no lack by definition.  To say that God “craves” something we can give Him is to imply that we can help God out.

And by the way, that’s part of the problem when men try to compete with one another for God’s attention instead of simply recognizing and confessing Him as the one who continues to uphold us.  That’s part of the problem when anyone desires something other than the station in life God has given him (or her) rather than simply being, by quietness and meekness, a reflection of God’s own humility.  That’s why St. Paul says what he says in today’s epistle lesson: because fighting and arguing with one another, and putting oneself forward rather than simply carrying out one’s own calling in life, is contrary to God’s will.  It’s not more God-pleasing to be the preacher and teacher, than it is to serve God quietly and modestly.  As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the lowly near-minimum-wage Walmart associate who helps his customers find the right electronic gadget or TV or phone, serves God just as much as the preacher does (or any other church worker, for that matter).  And those who claim the “right” to be pastors contrary to His will in creation, as if by being the guy (or, hypothetically, gal) standing up here in the strange robes were somehow a better or more God-pleasing way of serving Him, are frankly criticizing Him for His gifts, rather than rejoicing in the goodness of what He has given to them in their own vocations.  When we try to put ourselves forward, we don’t serve God better, we only insult and criticize Him.

So, what now?  We’ve misused His gifts.  We’ve even tried to bribe Him with His own money.  And that obviously didn’t work.  All that got us was more wrath.  It’s hopeless.  There’s nothing we can do.

But here is where the parable changes.  Here is where someone else steps in and plays our part in the story.  Here is where someone else does the work we are unable to do, and shows the humility and quietness we are unable to muster.  There is only one human being in all the world who can step in and fix the problem we have with God.  There is only one recipient of God’s gifts who can ever be commended by God for what He has done, especially since what He has done itself seems so bizarre and wasteful.  And that is the one who steps into our place in the parable, takes on Himself the accusation of wasting our Lord’s gifts, and then turns around and forgives the debt that was owed to His Master, by giving, not to the Master, but to the Master’s debtors (that’s us), the oil and wheat of His sacraments.  Even though we really were the steward who wasted God’s gifts, the steward in the parable isn’t us.  It’s Jesus.  It was Jesus who, unlike us contentious men and uppity women, became the perfect example of humility and peace.  Though being in very nature God, he didn’t consider equality with God something to be displayed as spoils from battle, something to be bragged about.  Instead, He made Himself nothing, becoming obedient even to the most humiliating death possible for an Old Testament Jew: the death by hanging from a tree.  It is that One who then is able to turn around and forgive the debts owed to His Father.  It is only that One who is ever able to give God something that He truly “craves,” because He craves it not out of need or want, but out of love for His creation.  It is He who is able to redeem and restore the crown of His creation to its rightful place at His right hand and before His face, eternally.

And because salvation is something that is accomplished for us, and not something we do, we do get to be meek and humble, both as men and women, in our own callings in life.  We do get to receive His gifts rather than trying to earn them.  We get to have the oil of His Word and Spirit poured on our heads in water.  We get to have the grain, the bread, that is His body placed in our mouths.  We get to serve Him in whatever we do in this life.  And we get to enjoy the feast we have been invited to, because someone else paid our debt for us.  We get to be invited to the Father’s house and dwell there eternally.  Amen.

+Soli Deo Gloria+

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