Sunday, October 20th, 2013 – Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31

Genesis 32:22-31

22 The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. 24 Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. 26 Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” 27 So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” 28 Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” 29 Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” 31 The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Who are you? How do you describe yourself to others?

Take a moment and turn to someone next to you and answer briefly that question: Who are you?

How many of you said your name, when describing who you are? Our names play a huge role in identifying who we are. I mean, it is the first thing we do when we get a new dog or when a child is born. We name it. I can remember months before Elliot was born, scouring through  books and books of baby names and what they meant. It felt like this sacred task. To name our child. To give him the thing that would forever be his identifier.

Today, for new parents, having a unique name seems to be the thing. You don’t want to be just like everyone else. So you find that really unique name for your child or you find a different way to spell it. In fact, some of our friends have called “dibbs” on some names. And I can’t tell you the number of times one of Lauren’s friends has called, lamenting that another friend, who had just had a baby, had taken her name for her future baby. The value of a name seems to be in it uniqueness.

But back in the days of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, names played a different role. Names are never just names. But rather, they describe who you are. Just a couple of weeks ago in Confirmation, we looked up the meaning of our names. Few of us know the meaning of our names anymore. For example, Dalton means “from the valley town”, and Victoria means “winner, conquerer.” Jonh means “God is gracious” and Emily means “to strive or excel.” And back in those days, the meaning of your name meant something about who you were.

The main character from our Old Testament reading is Jacob. And the name Jacob means the cheat. The cheater. And it is the perfect name for Jacob because that’s who he has been. A cheat. When he and his twin brother Esau were born, Jacob was holding onto Esau’s heel. He’s always grabbing at people’s heels trying to pull them back so that he can get ahead. He is the smooth-operator, the slick used car salesman, who is always trying to strike a deal that benefits him and him only. He swindled his brother out of his birthright and blessing. He scammed his uncle, Laban, taking his uncle’s daughters, livestock, and fortune all for himself. He is a scoundrel. He is a liar. He is Jacob – the cheat.

At this point in the story, after 20 years away, Jacob has decided to return home. Not an easy task, seeing how last time Jacob saw his brother Esau, Esau wanted to kill him. And for all Jacob knows, he still wants to kill him. And that reality seems to be coming true, as Jacob receives word that his brother is coming out to meet him. With an army of 400 men. And Jacob is terrified.

Living up to his name yet again, Jacob decides to try and bribe his brother off, by sending gifts, and livestock, and money up ahead of him.

And then it happens. He finds himself all alone. With nothing and no one to protect him. So often, it is when we are alone that we finally have to look in the mirror to face who we really. The dark parts of our life. The disappointments. The guilt and the shame. That’s why comedian Louis C.K. says we are all so addicted to our smartphones. Because if we can constantly be doing something – texting, calling someone, looking up the score of the game, stalking on Facebook – then we will never have to really confront the sadness that lurks inside of us.

All alone and in the dark of night, Jacob must face the reality of who he is. And it slams into him like a knee to the chest…literally. Our text paints it as a wrestling match between Jacob and a stranger. And with a myriad of half-nelsons, choke-holds, double-leg takedowns, and barrel rolls, the two struggle against each other all night long. At daybreak, the stranger dislocates Jacob’s hip and demands that he be released. Unrelenting, Jacob makes his own demands – “I will not let you go until you bless me.” There is something about that dark night of the soul. There is something about having to face who you really are. And then knowing that you desperately need a blessing. “I will not let you go until you bless me,” Jacob says.

And then, this stranger makes an unexpected request. He asks Jacob, “What’s your name?” And I have this sense that he didn’t ask because he wanted to know Jacob’s name. He asked because he wanted Jacob to know Jacob’s name. Who are you? Do you know who you are? And Jacob, in an out-of-character moment, tells the truth.

“I am Jacob”, he says, knowing full well the meaning of his name. The cheat. In this dark night of the soul, Jacob finally comes face to face with his own self and he must speak his own name. I am Jacob. I am the cheat. I am a liar. I am…a fraud.  This stranger has pulled out of a Jacob nothing less than a confession about who he really is. To speak that kind of truth – to see who you really are – can feel like death. Now that Jacob has been revealed, he’s got nothing left.

But then. But then, this man. This stranger in the night says to Jacob, “Your name shall be no longer Jacob, but Israel, for you have struggled and wrestled with God and humans, and you have prevailed.” You shall no longer be Jacob, the cheat. But you are Israel, the one who wrestles with God. Suddenly, Jacob is given an entirely new identity. A new name. A new story by which to live. And that can feel a lot like resurrection. Which must be why Jacob can only assume that stranger in the night was God. For who else can give such a painfully beautiful blessing, an entirely new identity. Who else can raise the dead to new life but God?

Sometimes the greatest blessing can be having the truth about us revealed. And then to hear that that isn’t the whole truth. That that is not all you are.

I realize that our first names – Jon, Karyn, Rich, Joyce, Mark, Paul, Lisa, Jan – do not function like they did back in the days of Jacob. But I do think there are those names that we have been called by others, whether on the playground, or at school, or at work, or at home. Or those names that we call ourselves.

What names have you been called in your lifetime? Or what names have you called yourself? “What is that name you can scarce speak for fear or shame. Scoundrel, cheat, or phony like Jacob? Unworthy, irresponsible, unfaithful? Discouraged or burnt-out? Divorced, deserted, or widowed? Coward or bully? Unloved or unloving? Stupid or a know-it-all? Disappointed or disappointing? Abused or abuser? Ugly or abnormal?” [1]

Those are the names that can haunt us at night. They can diminish us and keep us down. And perhaps your greatest fear, and mine, is that they might actually be true.

And whether they are or not actually doesn’t matter because they aren’t the whole story about you. Not according to God.

You see, this story isn’t just a story of long ago. It is a story about what God is still doing to each of us. This very day, God invites you to God’s table. A table where there is always a place for you, no matter what name you carry with you. And it is at this table where you are given a new name. Beloved child of God. In this tiny piece of bread and cup of wine or a blessing on your forehead, you are reminded that Christ died not for just anyone. But that Christ died for you. And we hear it in the words. This is the body of Christ, given for you. This is the blood of Christ shed for you.

So when you come up here this morning, take all of those names that you have been called in your life that tear away and eat at you. Bring them up here and leave them here. So that you can depart from here as nothing less than children of God.

So again, I ask you, who are you? Or should I say, whose are you? For you belong to God. Now and forever. Amen.


Sunday, October 13th, 2013 – Sermon on 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. 2 Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 

7 When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.” 8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.” 11 But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage. 13 But his servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, “Wash, and be clean’?” 14 So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. 15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present from your servant.”

Some of you might remember that this past February, I said that if I were a really good preacher, if I really spoke the gospel to you, you would want to throw me off a cliff afterwards. But there have been no threats on my life or my ministry here yet, so perhaps I have failed. But the reason I said that is because the gospel text for that Sunday was Jesus’ first sermon to the people in his hometown. Jesus preached that he was sent to bring good news to the poor, to release the captives, and to let the oppressed go free. And then he gave a couple of sermon illustrations of what that looks like. And one of the illustrations in Jesus’ sermon was our Old Testament text for today about the healing of Naaman. What we need to know about Naaman is that Naaman is the enemy of Israel. It is a story about God’s grace and mercy having no boundaries. That God’s mercy can even reach over the walls and borders into enemy territory. Now, after Jesus preached that sermon with that illustration…the people in his hometown tried to kill him.

And so we are reminded that to be a follower of Jesus is to proclaim God’s love and mercy for the most unlikely. To be a Christian is not to be a good person, it is to be a risky person.

Now, let’s dig deeper into this story of Naaman. Naaman is the leader of the Syrian army. We hear a lot about the violence in Syria today. It sounds like the same was true back in those days. In this text, we learn that Naaman is the leader of this army. He is powerful; he is victorious on the battlefield; he is a powerful and mighty warrior. But he also has leprosy. A flesh eating disease. In those days, leprosy did not simply mean the rotting of one’s skin, but to have leprosy also meant that you were a social outcast. You were to be kept out of society, unseen. And when you were seen, people were to keep their distance from you. Meaning people with leprosy were never hugged. Were never touched. No one ever said to them, “It’s good to see you.”

My friend, Alan Storey, gave me great insight into this story. And I use much of it here. He says that while Naaman’s armor could protect him from outside enemies, it could not protect him from that which was eating him up from the inside. While the armor can’t protect him from his leprosy, it can help hide it. And so Naaman is leading this double life – he is this mighty and successful warrior and he is a leper who suffers silently. Always afraid that the truth might come out. He is fearful that he might someday be found out for who he really is.

The same is true for us, isn’t it? So often we don’t want our double life exposed. We don’t want that which eats us up from within to be revealed. And keeping it hidden is exhausting.

I have a confession to make – I lied to a friend this past week. It was one of those lies I thought was best for everyone involved. You know, the white lie. I thought it was maybe justifiable. That no one would get hurt. But then when I was with him this week, I spent much of the time fearful that he might find me out. Does he know? Can he see it on my face? Can he hear it in my tone of voice? Does he know, does he know, does he know…? And it was exhausting. Trying to keep hidden that which was eating me up from the inside.

Do you know that feeling? Have you ever worries about something coming out about you? And it just weighs on you. And so you do everything you can to keep it secret. And it is so tiring. I think that’s how Naaman felt as a warrior with leprosy.

Now as the story continues, Naaman’s army has captured and taken a young girl from Israel. You can see why Naaman is considered the enemy of Israel. He captures their children. And this young girl becomes the slave to Naaman’s wife. This girl has been taken from her home and her family. At the core of her being, she should hate Naaman. And yet, in the story, she is the very beginning of his salvation. Knowing of his leprosy, because she is the slave, she is the one who does laundry. She knows all the secrets. And she says, “If only he could see the prophet in Israel who could cure him.” Rather than telling the secret of her captor, she begins the process of his healing. As Alan Storey says, in the story this servant girl is nameless, as is so often the case of those on the bottom of society. But we know her name – her name is Grace. She offers love to a man who doesn’t deserve it.

In Confirmation, we have been talking a lot about grace and we have a definition we say every week. That grace is the unconditional love of God that is free and forever and for all. This servant girl’s name is Grace, because that is what she shows – the unconditional love of God that is free and forever and for all. Even Naaman, the enemy. So if you wonder what the grace of God looks like, it looks like this young girl.

So Naaman’s journey toward healing begins with the grace of another. Sometimes in order to be healed of that which eats us up inside, we have to be willing to receive the underserved love of another. So Naaman takes this servant girl at her word at travels to Israel the prophet Elisha sends the message to Naaman, “Go, and wash yourself in the river seven times. And your flesh will be restored.” Now, Naaman didn’t like this. Why? The text says that he was hoping Elisha would just come and wave his hands over him and heal him. Washing in a river seemed too simple. He wanted the magic healing. Which is so often how many of us want to be healed of our hurts, right? We don’t to have to put any work into it, we just want God to heal it. But maybe healing doesn’t work that way. Maybe healing isn’t instantaneous but is more of a process. A journey that takes time. But I also don’t think Naaman like the idea of washing in the river because in order to do that…he would have to take off his armor. And that demands him to be vulnerable. To expose the hidden thing. To reveal the secret.

I thought I could get away with lying to my friend. But then I was found out. It came in the form of a text – he knew. But here’s the thing, a part of me was relieved that he knew. Because I could feel the wait of my sin on my shoulders and within and I needed it to be healed. But only until it was exposed, until the armor of hiding was removed could the healing begin. I thought it was a little white lie and I thought it was for everyone involved. But it wasn’t. And it hurt my friend. I betrayed his trust; I didn’t deserve his love. But a couple days later, he wrote me an email. The subject line was “Forgiven.” And he said this: First and foremost, you are my friend whom I love unconditionally…” Remember healing always begins with unconditional love. He goes on, “I am hurt. I knew you knew but I needed to hear it from you. I can’t talk to you right now, but I will soon.”  It was an emailed filled with grace – the unconditional love of God that is free and forever and for all. Even me. Our relationship is not healed yet,  but it’s on its way. All because what I was hiding was exposed.

Friends, part of healing involves exposing what hurts. Naaman is asked to wash in the river. Which means he has to take off that which he uses to protect himself. What armor do you wear to hide your hurts? Do you act happy all the time, acting like everything is all good and then you cry yourself to sleep? Or are you just angry and bitter all the time, like an abused dog that snaps at anyone who comes near – that way no one can ever get close to really know who you are? Or do you spend your time caring for other people’s hurts, keeping yourself so busy so that no one asks what hurts you keep hidden? If we want to be healed of something, we’re going to have be exposed.

Take off your armor, Elisha the prophet says to Naaman the leper. Bath in the waters of the river and you will be cleansed. And Naaman does. And he was healed.

This story was close to Jesus’ heart. It was in his first sermon and it almost got him killed because he spoke of God’s love for the foreigner and the enemy. I wonder if Jesus had this story on his mind when he encountered those ten lepers. One of them being a Samaritan, the enemy of Israel as well.

God loves you. And God loves your enemy. The way God loves us is to intrude in our lives and to remake us into something that is lovely.[1] So, what do you keep hidden that needs to be healed? And how might that unconditional love of God be inviting you to bring it out into the light so that it might be transformed into something lovely?

We begin a study on Islam this week. Sometimes I think Muslims are viewed as the enemy of Christians, the enemy of our culture. And today we have two stories about the grace-filled, healing love of God that breaks all boundaries and extends even to our enemies. Perhaps this class is away for God to heal us as Christians. To heal us of our prejudice. To heal us of our ignorance. To heal us of our fear these neighbors that God has placed in our lives. And perhaps by exposing us to that, God will be at work, remaking us into something lovely. AMEN

[1] Tom Long quoting Janet Soskice – Sermon preached at Luther Seminary on October 9, 2013.

Sunday, October 6th, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 17:5-10

Luke 17:5-10

5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. 7 “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table’? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’ ”

The opening line of our gospel for today comes as a strange and unexpected demand from the disciples. The disciples say to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” Well….why?! Why do the disciples want Jesus to increase their faith? And is faith even something that increases and decreases? Can you have a big faith one day and a small faith the next day? Does faith work like that? It begs the question: what is faith? Is faith something that exists in your brain? Is it just a set of phrases you believe, like the Apostle’s Creed? Or is faith something different than that? And when the disciples seemingly demand that Jesus increase their faith, is this just a shallow and selfish request?[1] Give us more, Jesus. Give us more.

We have to remember that Scripture is always placed in a context. It is always located in a story, where there is always a background or a setting. And for some reason the verses at the beginning of this chapter have been left out of today’s reading. And I don’t know why, because I think they are crucial for understanding why the disciples asked to have their faith increased. Listen to a few verses just before our reading:

Jesus says to his disciples, “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

Just before our reading for today, Jesus has just told his disciples that if someone has wronged them, they must forgive them. And even if they have wronged them over and over and over again, 7 times a day, they still must forgive them.

I’m willing to bet that must of us can think of someone in our life who has done something where it is really hard to forgive. And maybe they are a person who has hurt us or let us down over and over and over again…

No wonder the disciples are asking for more faith. Jesus has just set the bar for discipleship pretty high and they don’t know if they can do it. And so notice, they aren’t asking for more knowledge about faith. They aren’t asking for more info about God or Scripture. They are asking for courage. For trust. Courage to do the hard thing. To forgive the person who is hard to forgive. And to trust that there is something divine, holy, and sacred that exists within forgiveness that is underserved. And that can be really hard sometimes, right?

Jesus is setting the bar really high for what is means to be a disciple. And the disciples aren’t sure they can do it. Which is good news for those of us who aren’t sure we can do it either. We are in good company when we fail to do what Jesus asks of us. So the disciples, when they ask Jesus to increase their faith, they aren’t asking for something to believe or something to know. Their asking for something to do. And the courage and the trust to do it. Like forgiving that person who keeps screwing up over and over again.

And then Jesus does this interesting thing.  He tells them that the faith they have is already enough. He is saying, “Look if you have faith the size of a mustard seed (which is very, very small), you can tell a mulberry tree to go jump in a lake and it will obey you.” Now, Jesus is being playful here, I think. He’s being a little sarcastic. I don’t think he is saying you can literally move trees with your faith. If any of you try to start moving Mulberry trees with your faith, I’m afraid you will be sorely disappointed. But he’s saying that even the smallest amount of faith can do amazing things. Hard things. Seemingly impossible things. Therefore, whatever faith you have is enough.

But then right after that, Jesus tells this strange story about a slave. And it can be difficult to hear this parable with our 21st Century ears, where we know the atrocities and inhumanity of having and owning slaves from our own country’s history. While we reject the Bible’s view on slavery, we can still get Jesus’ point. Jesus says that being faithful, doing acts of faith, is sometimes just as simple and ordinary as doing your job. Doing your part. Like a servant serving its master, sometimes being faithful is nothing heroic or newsworthy, but rather sometimes being faithful to the work of God can be doing what you’ve been asked to do. Just doing your job with what you got. Because it needs to be done.

How often do you think of the ordinary things you do each and everyday as being part of God’s work? Have you considered that the regular things you do each day – like going to work or school, paying taxes, going to sports practice, putting dinner on the table – just might be what God needs you to do that day for the sake of a better world?

A couple of weeks ago, I took a tour of Viracon with Steven Thompson. And as he was showing me around, I kept seeing all of these pictures of all of these beautifully tall buildings that looked like they were made entirely out of glass. And I realized something – if someone here doesn’t do their job very well, if a window isn’t made right, or fitted correctly, someone could be seriously hurt. And how often do the workers at Viracon go to work knowing that the work they do is important to someone else’s well-being hundreds of miles away.

Imagine the good and ordinary things you did last week. And now, imagine if you hadn’t done any of those things last week. What if you didn’t help your friend with homework. What if you didn’t make lunch for your daycare kids. What if you didn’t go to work. What if you didn’t sing your child to sleep. What if you didn’t wish that person a happy birthday on facebook. What if you didn’t feed the cows. What if you didn’t tip your waitress at Olivia’s. What if you didn’t show love to your students at the alternative school.

If none of these ordinary, everyday things that we do happen, the world would be a darker place. But because you have done them, because God has put you in a place to do them, the world is better because of it.

Many of you have heard of Mother Teresa, that Roman Catholic nun so well-known for her work with those in severe poverty. In 1979, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. When Mother Teresa received the prize, she was asked, “What can we do to promote world peace?” She answered, “Go home and love your family.”[2] Sometimes it just ordinary things that God is calling us to. Go home and love your family.

A couple of weeks ago, our very own Brenna Nelson told her parents something very important. She said that everyday she is thankful that her parents took her to church week after week. Here’s the thing, some of Brenna’s friend at college think that church is a waste of time. Who believes that crazy stuff about God and Jesus anyways, they say. But whenever her friends start saying things like that, she isn’t shy about telling them why she is so thankful her parents took her to church. She says that church for her isn’t about what you believe – it’s not about how much faith you have, it’s not about the head knowledge you carry with you.  But rather that for her, at church she has a community of people that she knows loves her and cares for her and prays for her.  And because of that care she received here at church, she is more willing to go out and help other people in whatever community she is in. Faith isn’t about what knowledge you have in your head. Or what statements in the creed you believe. Sometimes faith is just about showing up and getting the work done. Making sure people know they are loved and cared for. Who knows – maybe just by you showing up here today, maybe you’ve helped someone else here feel like they are part of a community that loves and cares and prays for them.

Sometimes we think we need more faith, a better faith to do anything that is of God or to do anything that God would be proud of. And today, Jesus tells us this good news: the faith you have today is enough. Now go and do the work you’ve been called to do. AMEN

Sunday, September 22nd, 2013 – Sermon on Luke 16:1-13

Luke 16:1-13

1 Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. 2 So he summoned him and said to him, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ 3 Then the manager said to himself, “What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. 4 I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 5 So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?’ 6 He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 7 Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?’ He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.’ 8 And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. 9 And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes. 10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Well, friends, the gospel of Luke isn’t doing us any favors yet again. Some of you may remember a couple of weeks ago when I had absolutely know idea what to say about the gospel and, I have to be honest, we are kind of in the same boat again today.

Jesus is speaking to his disciples and he tells them a parable. A story of corporate corruption: There once was a very rich man, who owned a business. And the manager of that business was not managing it very well. In fact, he was reckless and foolish with the rich man’s business and money. And so the owner fires him. “Hand in the books, clean out your desk. You’re done!” he says.

And so now this manager is in all out panic mode. He’s just lost his job. He’s doesn’t have many other skills. He’s not strong enough to work manual labor up at Viracon. And he’s too prideful to beg for money in central park. So what’s he going to do? He thinks and he thinks and he thinks, and then, aha!, a light comes on. He realizes that there is something he can still do. Something that will get others to welcome him into their homes and care for him, now that he has lost his job. His idea is this: he calls up all of the clients from his boss’s business and starts reducing whatever it is that they owe. An immediate discount. One guy owed 100 gallons of olive oil and the manager said, “You know what, make it 50 gallons.” And then another guy owed 100 containers of wheat and the manager said, “Let’s take 20% off and make it 80.” And so that’s what he did. He went around to all of the clients, reducing their debt, thinking that they would be so appreciative of what he has done for them, that when they hear he has been fired….well, they’ll help the guy out by taking him into their homes. He scratched their back and now they will scratch his.

And this is where the parable starts to twist and turn. Because, you would expect that the rich man, the owner of the business, would be furious with this guy. I mean, he has just screwed up the business even more, offering all of these discounts that he was not given permission to give. He’s been even more dishonest and malicious than he was before he got fired. But that’s not what happens. The owner does not get angry with him. Instead, the owner comes to him and commends him. He celebrates that this man was smart enough and scheming enough to find a way to not be left out in the cold when everything is said and done.

You would think that Jesus would condemn the dishonest manager. You would think he would condemn his selfish desires for wealth and his dishonest means of getting it. But Jesus doesn’t do that. In fact, it seems like Jesus praises this man for what he has done. It almost seems like Jesus honors dishonesty.  And then even worse, he asks it of his disciples! Jesus says to the disciples, “Make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.” What does that mean? “It sounds as though Jesus wants his followers to use dishonest wealth—say laundered drug money or casino gambling proceeds or the profits gleaned by cheating migrant workers out of a living wage—for godly causes[1].” Is that what he is saying? No. You see it is not about good money versus bad money. It is not the money that is corrupt; it’s our culture that can be corrupt. Jesus is not talking about dishonest money versus good money. He is talking about all money, every last penny of the currency of our culture. Jesus wants us to take all of the money we have and “make friends for ourselves with it.” He wants us to use money to build up relationships. Not tear them down. Let’s be honest, money can divide families and friends and communities. And in the end, it can destroy relationships. I’ve seen it happen too many times.

Whatever we think about this dishonest manager, we can acknowledge the fact that in the beginning he used money to horde it for himself, but then later he used money to create relationships. To make friends, which means we can presume that maybe he didn’t have any. Whatever we may think of the manager, maybe we can recognize that there are better and worse ways to use money, and using money to establish relationships is better than hording it.

Is money something that divides us or does it bring us together? Does it make us one or does it tear us apart? I think because money has that kind of power, the role money plays in our life has a spiritual dimension to it. What we do with our money says something about what we believe about God. How often do you think about the way you use money as a spiritual act? I mean it says it right there on our money, “In God We Trust.” And so on some level we have to know that the role money plays in our lives says something about our spiritual life.

Did you know that Jesus talks more about money than almost anything else in the gospels? I’m not sure what this parable means, or what it is trying to say, but I do think it says this: the way money functions in our lives has an effect on our faith life.

And the irony is that as followers of Jesus, we are so often not comfortable talking about money. In fact, just last night I got a text from the groom of the wedding I did this weekend. He asked if we had discussed what they owed me. And when I started to reply to him, I wrote, “No, we haven’t talked about money yet” but then I stopped and I changed the word “money” to the word “payment” because money just sounded so…rude? Greedy? But the word “payment” sounded a little more official. A little more proper.

We are so uncomfortable talking about money. Just this past week at our council meeting, it was brought up whether we should do a pledge drive here at Aurora. You know, where people make a financial commitment to the church for the next year, saying, “I will give x-amount of money to the church.” And almost unanimously, no one wanted to do it. Because so often when the church talks about money, all people hear is the church asking for money. And there is this sense that when the church is asking for money, we’re less likely to want to give, right?

I mean, is it just me, but whenever I am at a worship service and offering plates are passed around, I always start to get a little nervous. I’m either panicked because I didn’t bring any cash with me or I’m embarrassed because I wrote my monthly check last week and now I’m just wondering what others will think of me when I don’t put anything in the plate! Every Sunday, we take an offering. And while I can’t be certain about this, some times I wonder if this plate feels more like paying dues than it does offering a gift to God. And what I can’t figure out is when did that happen? When did taking an offering during a worship service become more like paying rent and less like making a sacred offering to God, giving back what has been gifted to us so that it might be used to enrich the lives of others? These plates up here are not about paying dues. Rather, they are about giving back to God. They are about offering a gift to God for God to use for the sake of a better world. For the sake of uniting us, rather than dividing us.

Preacher Tom Long tells the story about one Sunday day when he was worshipping at his church. Because his church is located in the heart of a downtown area, there were many homeless people who lived on the streets around the church. Some of these neighbors have chosen to worship at his church and they became part of the congregation. On this particular Sunday, Tom saw one of the street people, a man dressed in an old and worn suit, seated just a few spaces away on the same pew. This particular church had note pads in the pews, where people would sign their name and list where they were from. They were called “Friendship pads.” When the “Friendship Pad” was passed, the man signed his name, and in the space for the address, he wrote “homeless.”

During the announcements, one of our pastors noted that the congregation would be taking up a special offering that morning. She told them that this offering would go to victims of the hurricanes on the Gulf Coast and of the tsunami in Asia. She urged them to give generously and to place their offerings in the “special envelope” they could find tucked into the worship bulletin.

Tom found the envelope in the bulletin—there were blank spaces on the front for one’s name and for the amount enclosed. He reached for my wallet, taking out some money to put in the envelope. As he did this, he winced. It suddenly dawned on him what he was doing and the effect it could have on the homeless friends who were among them. Most of them had no wallets or purses, no available cash to stuff into the envelopes.

This offering, he realized, was only for those who had something to give, and this seemingly generous act actually drew a sharp dividing line between the haves and the have-nots. To Tom’s surprise, though, he saw the homeless man find the offering envelope in his bulletin. Using the pencil in Friendship Pad, he wrote something in the blank spaces on the front. When the offering plate passed by, the man’s envelope was on top, and there he had written two things: his name and a short message to victims of the hurricane and tsunami. It read, “I love you so very much.”

These offering plates are not where you pay your dues to the church. Rather it is where we offer what we can as a gift to God for God to use for the sake of a better world. For the sake of uniting us, rather than dividing us.

Friends, I don’t know what this parable means. Few people do. But what I do know is that it reminds us that the way money operates in our life says something about our faith in God. And money has this unbelievable power to bring people together in relationship or tear them apart. And God’s hope for the world is for us to be one. So how will we use our money?

A couple of years back there was a seminary student who was the son of an inner city pastor. While on Christmas vacation at home, he spent an afternoon talking to his father about ministry. He talked about what he was learning in seminary, and his father talked about the difficulties of ministry in the inner city. As the conversation continued late into the day, father and son decided to get some fresh air by taking a walk around the neighborhood. As they walked, they continued to talk together, and near the end of their walk, the father said, “It’s almost dinner time. Let’s call the pizza shop and order a pizza to be delivered to the house. By the time we get home, it will be there.” So they walked over toward the nearest pay phone, only to encounter a homeless man blocking their way.

“Spare change?” the man asked. The father reached deeply into his pockets and held out two heaping handfuls of coins. “Here, take what you need,” he said to the homeless man.

“Well, then, I’ll take it all,” said the surprised man, sweeping the coins into his own hands and turning to walk away.

But before he had gotten far, though, the man’s father realized that he no longer had any change to make the phone call. “Excuse me,” he called after the homeless man. “I was going to make a phone call at a pay phone, but I have given you all my change. Could I have a quarter?” The homeless man turned around and walked back toward father and son, extending his hands. “Here,” he said. “Take what you need.”

We can use our money to divide us. Or we can use our money to, as the parable says, make friends. The choice is ours. Amen.

[1] Tom Long, Sermon “Making Friends”, 2006.