Monday, September 19, 2016

Are we willing to give up playing the perfect role and become faithful to our reality, 
to own the truth that is deep inside us?

 Everything Belongs.
A Sermon on Luke 16:1-13
For the Community of First Austin: a baptist community of faith
On the Eighteenth Sunday following Pentecost
September 18, 2016

God of Incarnation, we ask that you once again take the Word and transform it into a living and breathing reality we can all together experience. Be present here in this space and in these words God for if you are present here then nothing else will matter, but if you are not present here then nothing else will matter. In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Comforter.  

Vince Lombardi, the beloved coach of the Green Bay Packers in the 1960’s, infamously said: “Winning isn’t everything- it’s the only thing.” The quote is displayed in countless locker rooms, is part of pregame pep talks and has been the theme of a great many end of the year sports banquets. And the quote has sparked many a debates on if it’s the basic tenant of sports or if it shows us everything that is wrong with sports: should the winners only get a trophy or should everyone who plays get a trophy.

However behind all of that there is a whole other life to this quote. To start with, Lombardi is not the author of these words, they belong to UCLA Bruins coach Henry Russell from a 1950 coaching conference. Lombardi is quoting him. Lombardi himself struggled with the quote and what it came to mean in sports and on his deathbed, Lombardi lamented the saying and how it seemed to spiral out of control. He said: “I wish I had never said the damned thing. I meant the effort… I meant having a goal…. I sure as hell didn’t mean to crush human values.”

Lombardi saw that a success only and success at any cost viewpoint was crushing the human spirit. And as a coach he knew how much we love success, how addictive that could become. And he regretted the words attributed to him that played a role in that. “I wish I had never said it…”

This week I read these Scriptures over and over again, trying to figure out what Jesus was saying and having spent 5 years in the South before returning home, I know it’s not polite to argue with Jesus but come on this morning, this parable of the Shrewd Manager begs for some arguing… So I argues and I listened…. And then when I thought I began to understand them, I went to the last words of Jesus and furiously searched for the missing 8th words which I knew had to be there somewhere and just over looked for way too long: “I wish I had never said the thing…. That whole parable about the manager acting shrewdly… and the whole ‘whoever is faithful in little, will be faithful in much’… yeah I wish I had never said that because it has become something that I did not mean it to become.” 

But I could not find him saying that and the parable continued to baffle me. Because there is a whole theology of to whom is faithful in little, more will be given…. And that theology’s epicenter is here just a few miles east of us, 162 miles to be exact, where another congregation is gathered in a room much bigger than this and Joel Olsteen is giving a pep talk (bc I cant’ stomach calling it a sermon) about God wanting us all to be blessed and happy and successful. And I refuse to believe that. 

Because some of the best folks I know, some of the wisest folks I know don’t have lives that at all look blessed or happy or successful, or at least in the way we view those things. 

I think about a friend who has struggled with an addiction to drugs and that addiction has cost her almost everything, but she’s sober and clean today and she’s vulnerable and real and raw and the most honest person I know and she knows who she is so much more than most of us do…. I think about a friend who lost his son and the pain of that which almost paralyzed him. I once asked him how he ever got over the pain and he stopped and looked at me and with tears running down his face said, “Don’t ever think I have gotten over the pain because I have never gotten over the pain. It still hits me each day a thousand times. But I learned to see into it and through that I see beauty in places you don’t see yet.” And he does, he sees more beauty in this world than I have ever seen…. I think of a woman who was once appeared to be very, very wealthy but the money was not as deep as others thought and after some poor financial decisions, which added stress to an already difficult marriage, she was left divorced with very little financial resources and she has not returned to the life of luxury, but got a job and she now is one of the most content folks I know, deeply involved in the mission of her church and raising her grandchildren….

None of those people fit the worldly model of success… they are not the people who are going to make the cover of Fortune 500 and they are not typically the people you pray your child falls in love with and their journey is one you might admire from a distance, but you don’t want to walk. It’s not success as our world sees success. 

This week during his talk at New Baptist Covenant, President Jimmy Carter (our baptist) said this: “maybe we need to remember that neither a long life, a wealthy life, or a privileged life were what Jesus had.” And there Jesus goes again, Jesus redefining things and taking us off center to the true center.

And that is the whole problem. This parable that we struggle with it’s not about our world, it does exactly what a parable is supposed to do, it shows us another world. It’s about the Kingdom of God and when I finally came to terms with that, the parable had a whole new meaning for me. 

There once was a rich man who had a manager who was taking advantage of him or at least that’s what he thought. So he called the manager into his office, I want to know why things are not looking better at the bottom line because business is not looking so good, we are in the red again. So the manager began to scurry about trying to figure out what he could do because he was too proud to beg and he could not do the work of digging so he went to some folks who were in debt to the owner, folks it was his job to manage, and he made some deals with them… To the olive oil company which owed him 100 bottles of fine olive oil he made them a deal and collected 50 bottles…. To the wheat farmer who owed a hundred sacks of wheat, he made them a deal and collected 80 sacks of wheat… and he brought it all back to the manager and the rich owner was not only satisfied, but praised the manager.

And as I sat and though about this parable it dawned on me that everyone in the parable was struggling…. It began with the words of the manager, who was too proud to be honest about his condition but also did not want to do the hard work (and suddenly I knew the manager because I have said that before- I am too proud to be honest, but I don’t have what it takes to do the work just yet) and that gave me a whole new picture of this parable bc you know how did not say that, the olive oil maker… obviously it was a bad year for the rich owner, but it was also a bad year for the olive oil maker who could not fulfill his obligation of 100 jars of olive oil for the wealthy land owner and it was a bad year for the wheat farmer who could not produce 100 bags of wheat for the wealthy land owner…everyone was in the red this year, maybe there had been too little rain and the land was not producing, maybe there had been too much rain and the crops washed away, maybe it was just a year of bad luck, whatever the case, everyone was struggling… no one was having the farming year they wanted to have and yet they did the best they could with what life had handed them. 

And for that Jesus praised them.

And for that Jesus said, “That is what the Kingdom of God looks like…. Those who are able to use what life hands them and produce something from it.” 

And that can only make sense for us when that message comes from a Savior whose life of success looked nothing like success but instead involved a cross….. who lived a life that reminded us that failure and disappointment and death are vital parts of the core of the Kingdom of God living. 

And that helps explain Jesus’ follow up statement to this parable, the saying about those faithful in the little things will be given more… maybe it’s not that they will be given more, maybe it’s just that once you learn to see beyond this world, your life opens up into a new space and a new way of being. 

It’s when we finally take up the Cross and complete the journey of the Cross, then and only then we can have resurrection. 

This parable does not invite us to think about success like the world thinks about success, this parable invites us to look at our own lives and what life has handed us and to ask how can we be faithful with that? Because when we learn to be faithful there, we are going to have much bigger lives. 

But that means we have to own it all and not hide it, which is what the manager learns that day from the olive oil maker…. “I can’t pay you back 100 bottles of olive oil, I don’t have it this year, but I have 50, will that do?” You see he was willing to own that it had not been a great farming season for him, he did not produce as much as he desired or expected, he gave up playing to role of the perfect olive oil maker and instead was just honest and faithful with what had been given to him.

He gave up the perfect role and was faithful instead to reality, and that means this parable might be calling us to give up the images and roles we think we are supposed to perform and put on for the world and instead to be faithful in our reality.

There is so much that we hide and we hold back from one another. 

And that hiding and holding back goes against the very economy of our God: it’s only when we have truly given all we have- all- that we can really experience the full reality of God. 

That is the very message of the Cross and the Tomb- to fully experience God, we must be willing to give our very all. 

To be faithful in all that life has handed to us… which might mean that we need to be honest about the crushed dreams, empty bank accounts and broken relationships which we have been hiding. It might mean talking about the fears we have of aging and it might mean crying the tears we have held back over lost loves. It might be finally addressing all the anxiety we bottle up and facing it head on, dealing with the questions that keep us up all night but bringing them into the light of day and asking others to help us answer them. It might mean finally getting around to the forgiveness thing… forgiving those who have hurt and wronged you or maybe it simply starts with forgiving yourself. Maybe it means owning the doubts that just might be the step stones you need to lead your further into the faith. Maybe it’s a hard conversation you have put off having with your spouse. 

Which is all to say, it’s owning the truths hidden deep inside us. It’s standing in front of the mirror and finally facing what you know is buried inside you. 

In the words of the writer Raaya Elias: “The truth has legs, it always stands. When everything else in the room has blown up or dissolved away, the only thing left standing will be the truth. So since that’s where you are going to end up anyway, you might as well start there.”

It’s owning what life has handed you and more than just owning it, being faithful in it and then seeing what God is going to show you next…. 

The parable could have played out differently. The manager when hearing the owner was angry with him could have run off to never be seen again. The manager could have been fired right there on the spot. The manager could have put the olive oil maker and wheat farmer in jail for not being able to pay their debts. The manager could have started making all sorts of excuses for why things were not going right. 

But instead when it was pointed out, he dealt with what life had given him and in doing so he found his way further into the kingdom of God….

May the same be said of you and of me. 

May we be faithful in what life has given us- and that is key there, what life has given us not what God has given us…. May we be faithful in what life has given us and may that lead us further into the Kingdom of God. 


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