Friday, September 27, 2013

“In Praise of Shrewdness” - September 29, 2013

Text: Luke 16:1-13

An official who worked for the U.S. Army was in charge of purchasing a large quantity of tools needed at various Army bases.  It was a very large order.  The shipment was to be 25,000 claw hammers, 70,000 screwdrivers of assorted types and sizes, and 30,000 pairs of pliers.

Now one would think that a person would shop around a bit to get the best deal, particularly when you are talking about a purchase of this size.  This was not a case of just running down to the nearest hardware store.

We just replaced the computer in Susan’s office, which was about as fast as an abacus, with the difference being an abacus wouldn’t freeze up on you.  While we were at it we replaced the old CRT monitor, which was probably 17 or 18 years old – I think we got our money’s worth out of it.  I got some advice from Joe Parrish and Tom Logue and then went shopping.  I searched all over the internet, and we got really good deals on both a new computer and a new monitor.

I know some of you are the same way.  You want to get a good deal.  We use coupons, we look for sales, we want to get our money’s worth.

Now, if you were to shop for 25,000 claw hammers, it stands to reason that you would want to shop around.  But surprisingly, this army procurement officer only talked to one tool manufacturer.  He purchased the 25,000 hammers at $119.95 apiece, the 70,000 screwdrivers at $39.95 apiece, and the 30,000 pairs of pliers for an even $90 each.

These prices seemed outrageous when auditors later looked at the books.  By then, the official who approved the purchases was gone – he had retired from the military.  And surprise, surprise, he had a new job as executive vice-president for that very same tool manufacturer!

An athletic director at a major university had been approached by various shoe companies, eager to have the university sign a contract for all of its teams to wear their brand of shoes and sportswear.  Unknown to most people, the athletic director was about to lose his job in a scandal that was about to break.  But before the story came to light, he agreed to a multi-year contract on behalf of the university that would pay only about half of what similar colleges had been getting.  A week later, the scandal hit, and the athletic director lost his job.  But he wasn’t out of work for long.  As soon as his severance pay ended, he signed on as marketing consultant with (guess who?) that very same shoe company.

You read these kinds of stories once in a while, and you suspect this stuff goes on all the time.  Well, it’s nothing new.

Jesus told this same story.  A manager had been found to be dishonest, and the owner was about to fire him.  The manager was desperate.  He was too lazy for honest work and too proud to beg.  And so before he was let go, he went to all of those individuals and businesses that owed the company money.  He said, tell you what, we’ve got a special deal going, cash flow problems and all, I’ll discount your bill if you can pay now and we’ll call it even.

The debtors were only too happy to take him up on this generous offer.  So happy, in fact, that the manager was certain they would find a job for him once he was fired.

This kind of thing makes us angry.  We know that corruption is rampant, but that doesn’t make it right.  The government official who paid the exorbitant amounts for tools was basically spending our money--he was robbing taxpayers.  That athletic director was stealing from the university.  And this manager was stealing from the owner.  They put themselves ahead of anyone and everyone else.  They had no scruples, no morals, they were completely selfish.

We read stories like this, in the newspaper or in the Bible, and we are reminded of people or situations we know that are not so different.  It makes us mad.  And then we continue reading this story in Luke, and we are confused.  We are troubled.  Because verse 8 says, “And the master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”

This is one of the strangest of Jesus’ parables, and that is saying something because Jesus tells some strange stories.  David Lose, a preaching professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, called this “Jesus’ most confusing parable.”  Which made me feel a little bit better – at least I’m not the only one having some trouble here.  You read this passage and wonder, was this story just a sermon illustration gone bad? – you know, you tell what seemed like a good story but then it’s hard to connect what the point is.

It is a difficult enough passage that immediately after the telling of the parable, ending in verse 8, there are at least four different explanations for what is going on here.  We will be looking at the first explanation, which is the one most directly related to the story.

In this parable, the owner had been fleeced by this manager, and don’t forget, this was not the first time.  He was being fired because apparently there had been some monkey business, maybe embezzlement, going on before.  But this owner commends the guy.  What he had done was reprehensible, yet he is commended for it.  He is applauded.

In discounting the debt owed, the steward had secured his own future.  The owner could not go back and ask for more payment – that would have been embarrassing – but he does come off looking generous.  It would be good advertising.  He looks good, the manager improves his future prospects, and maybe the owner was the kind of person who could appreciate the neat trick this rascal had pulled off.

Still, we don’t expect Jesus, of all people, to comment favorably on this scheming, conniving, employee.

In a way, though, this is just like Jesus, to find some good in even unlikely people.  The dirty rotten scoundrels of Jesus’ day, the sinners and tax collectors, the riffraff, somehow Jesus saw some good in them.  In the previous chapter of Luke, in the scripture we read last week, Jesus was hanging out with sinners and tax collectors.  And here, he finds something to commend in this dishonest manager.

Jesus is not holding up this manager as an ethical role model.  He doesn’t exactly say, “Go and do likewise.”  But there is something about this man that Jesus finds appealing.  There is a quality in this scoundrel that Jesus finds lacking in so many of his followers.

The word is “shrewd.”  It’s not a word that has entirely positive connotations, mostly because it is used to describe people who use their shrewdness for their own advantage.  Other translations use words that come across more positively to us: astute, industrious, taking initiative.  Call it creativity, ingenuity, cleverness, smarts, vision, industriousness, whatever you want to call it, this man has it, the government official has it, the athletic director has it, and oftentimes - we don’t.

What Jesus is speaking of is nothing more than the ability or maybe more than ability, the willingness and foresight to look at a situation, make a decision as to what the best course of action is, and act accordingly.  It doesn’t sound like all that much, but for some reason it can be awfully hard.  Some of us get hung up before we even get started.  We never get as far as taking a good look at a situation. We all tend to ignore unpleasantness.  We want to deny that things are not going well or that maybe a change is needed.  The manager was not in denial.  He knew good and well what was coming.

Others can get stuck just looking at the situation.  Looking, looking, looking.  “This is sure a mess, this is a really bad spot we are in.”  It is easy to dwell on studying the problem.  The “paralysis of analysis” it’s sometimes called.  We’ll appoint a blue-ribbon study committee.  We can be well aware that here is a problem yet never really come up with a plan of action.  This manage not only knew what was coming, he was able to devise a plan to address the situation.

And then a lot of us get hung up on the action part.  “Somebody really ought to do this,” we say, or maybe even “I really ought to do this,” but we never seem to get around to doing it.  The dishonest manager went from examining the situation to planning to action.

The manager is commended by the owner – and by Jesus - but not because he is a nice guy.  He is not commended because he is a moral example.  He is commended for his ingenuity.  He perceives the situation very well, takes initiative, makes a plan of action and carries it through.

Jesus bemoans the fact that his followers often lack that kind of ingenuity and industriousness.  “The children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the children of light.”

An interesting legal question was once posed in the Saturday Evening Post.  It seems that one Sunday when the sermon was particularly long, the congregation rushed from its pews as soon as the “Amen” was said.  Faithful Abigail, the only worshipper held entranced by the sermon, was slow in moving and she was trampled.  And so she sued the church for damages.

Abigail argued that “those in charge of the church knew that most of the congregation stampedes after long sermons.”  (I might point out here that I’m pretty sure this was a hypothetical question raised in the magazine.)  Abigail’s’ layer argued that church officials should have recognized the danger in the situation.  Not being prepared to cope with it, they were negligent.”

The church’s attorney made this response: “A church is a non-profit organization manned for the most part by volunteers.  No one has the right to expect it to be run with the smart efficiency of a business concern.  Abigail therefore has no real claim.”

The article asked, "If you were the judge, would you award damages to Abigail?"

What was especially interesting was the characterization of the church: “a non-profit organization run mostly by one has a right to expect it to be run with the smart efficiency of a business.”

The argument essentially was: “They’re just a church.  You can’t really expect much from them.  They don’t really know what they are doing.  They can’t be expected to have the efficiency or creativity or savvy or just plain good sense that others might have.”  The argument was basically that you can’t sue a church for incompetence because nobody expects a church to be competent in the first place.

That is exactly the attitude Jesus was responding to when he told this parable.  “The children of this world are shrewder than the children of light.”

Jesus wants us to be as good as what we do as McDonalds, or Apple, or Coca-Cola.  Why not?  What if we were as committed to spreading the Good News of the kingdom as American businesses are to winning new customers?  What if we were as committed to Jesus’ way of peace and justice and love and grace and forgiveness as Starbucks is to customer service and great coffee?  Jesus wants those who follow him to not simply be nice people, but to make a difference.

One year ago, we were in the midst of our Vision 20/20 campaign.  We interviewed anybody willing to be interviewed, around 70 people in the church, asking for stories about First Baptist at its best and for hopes and dreams we had for our church.  Essentially, we were trying to do what Jesus is speaking about.  We were trying to be smart about ministry.  We were trying to answer questions about how things are and how we would like for things to be, about where God is leading us and how we might head in that direction.

And a year later, we have made some progress.  It is most obvious with the church’s facilities – we have added a rest room at the back of the narthex and we have upgraded our sound system so that we are more welcoming to everyone.  We have a new sidewalk in front and we are doing painting and repair on the exterior so that this is a more inviting place and so we can maintain our facilities.

We have adopted a statement saying that all are welcome here, and that when we say all are welcome, we really mean all.  No matter your age or race or income level - married, single, gay, straight, Cyclones and even Hawkeyes – everybody is welcome here.  Becoming more diverse is not easy, but it is something we are trying to live into.

We are working on being more involved in our community; one of the ways we are doing that is through involvement in AMOS, a coalition of congregations working for positive change in our community, and we continue to explore the possibilities of that relationship.

We are continuing to work on adding more variety and instrumentation in worship.  We’d like to keep the music and the style that is meaningful to many of us even as we add some new sounds.  Again, that is not necessarily easy, but it is the direction we feel called to move in.

Now, we don’t go through that kind of visioning process every year, or every other year.  But it needs to happen regularly, in a more informal way, and now I am not just talking about churches.  When Jesus asks us to be shrewd, to be smart, to be creative, to be astute, to show some ingenuity, part of what that means is to ask ourselves regularly where we are and where God is leading us.  We need to ask how things are, and how things should be.

This is a strange and hard parable, but it seems to me that in a nutshell, Jesus is asking us to be aware, to have vision, and to act with courage.   May it be so.  Amen.

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