A Sermon Preached on September 22, 2013 at Trinity Cathedral on Luke 16:1-13
This morning’s gospel passage from Luke is one of my favorite parables because you can’t just skim it. You have to read or listen to it carefully and then let it sink in. In a contemporary rendering, it goes like this:
There’s an investor who had a diverse portfolio with holdings in real estate, insurance, venture capital, and yes, a little payday lending on the side. He had a manager to take care of his business affairs while he spent summers in Maine and winters in Florida. The manager didn’t work hard or perform well, and some would accuse him of skimming off the top or adding a little extra commission for himself now and then. But, he knew the business: the investments, the holdings, and the outstanding loans.
Tax season came around and the investor’s accountant saw that there was a discrepancy in the books. While she had not ascertained exactly what was happening, there was enough evidence for the IRS to demand an audit. This made the investor both angry and anxious. So he called the manager and told him that he was going to cancel the management contract, and that he was coming to town in a week to meet with him and review the accounts.
The manager knew the game was up. He had to act fast in order to cover his back and ensure some sort of financial security for his future. He realized that he had ruined his reputation and would not be able to get other investments to manage. He didn’t have other skills, he couldn’t imagine getting a decent job, and he was scared of the possibility of prison.
This was a guy who lived by his wits, not by what he actually did, but by what he was able to manipulate. Lying awake in the middle of the night, he had a brilliant idea.
The next morning, he called on those who had outstanding and overdue loans. Representing his boss, he said to a few tenants, “Your past due rent is $2000. However, in order to avoid the costs of eviction and the inconvenience of an empty apartment, I’ve convinced the owner to make a deal with you. Just pay $1000 now and then stay current in your rent.” To a small business owner who had borrowed seed money, he said, “Your $10,000 line of credit is overdue, but I’ve persuaded my boss to give you more time, so just make it 4,000 and we’ll call it a day.” To delinquent customers of the payday lending scam, he said, “Your loan of $500 is due – make is $200 and I’ll see to it that you’re free and clear.”
Naturally, since most of them were over-extended and living on the edge of financial survival those in debt to the investor were thrilled, but they now were also indebted to the manager who had come to their rescue.
When the investor arrived for the meeting, the manager was able to present a much better looking set of accounts. The investor commended the manager. Why? What had he done that deserved applause, you might ask?
The answer is quite simple. When the first discrepancies came to light, the manager showed enough talent, creativity and determination to turn even failure to his advantage. While we don’t know if he lost the management contract, Jesus tells us the investor was impressed with his shrewdness, and that the guy clearly made friends with those who were indebted to him. Jesus lifted up this scoundrel as a model of discipleship – not because of his honesty and integrity (or lack thereof) but because of his ingenuity and initiative.
Jesus told the story of a sleazy and dishonest guy to help us understand that money is a complicated but necessary aspect of life, and that it’s good for us to be smart, astute, sharp, on the ball – in short, shrewd in our financial dealings. If we translate the teaching of this parable, we can conclude that there is nothing wrong with bargaining for the best price on a car, getting a number of insurance quotes, negotiating for a lower mortgage interest rate, taking advantage of tax deductions that are allowable under the law, investing wisely in 401K’s and IRA’s, and picking an honest and capable and shrewd financial advisor.
Money is not inherently evil, but Jesus wants us to use it wisely. In fact, recognizing that we are stewards of all that we have on this earth, including our money, Jesus said that it is our moral duty to be shrewd but honest and honorable as we manage our financial resources and relationships. And following the example of Joseph who was sold into slavery by his brothers and became Pharaoh’s manager in Egypt, it is especially important to learn how to be smart stewards so that we, and others, might survive during hard times and lean years. My hunch is that many of us, over the last few years, have learned this lesson – perhaps the hard way.
As a trustee of the Episcopal Church Pension Fund and its $10 billion portfolio, I am profoundly aware that I have a fiduciary responsibility to the clergy, lay employees and members of our church. If we were not shrewd (but ethical) investors, there would not be enough funds to ensure a decent retirement for those who faithfully serve the church and thereby weaken the ranks of ministry for years to come. Truth be told, the pension assessment that congregations pay is not enough to ensure a decent retirement for those who have served God and God’s church; it has been because of astute and shrewd investing that the Fund is able to keep up with the cost of inflation.
The vestry, staff and governing committees of Trinity Cathedral recognize that we have a fiduciary responsibility to you, the diocese, the wider community and future generations to preserve the property and conserve the resources entrusted to our care. And so, we monitor our investments, investment managers, spending policies, programs, operating revenue and expenses, pledges, pledge fulfillment, and real estate costs; and we make course adjustments as needed. In fact, we are in the midst of a very careful review of our assets – our real estate, endowment and ministry, seeking to discern how we can be good and faithful stewards and servants of Christ, ensuring mission-driven financial sustainability over the long run.
As people of faith, each of us is called to demonstrate the same kind of ingenuity and initiative as the scoundrel in this morning’s gospel reading, but we are called to do it with integrity and honesty, and for the good and wellbeing of God’s commonwealth. If the church was really shrewd in the procurement, allocation, investment, and stewardship of its resources, just think about what could happen. This kind of astuteness and initiative fuels the community development movement that is helping to rebuild our cities; it is at the heart of faith-based organizations like Greater Cleveland Congregations; and it is the work that The Trinity Cathedral Vestry is doing right now.
We need to say “thank you” to every member of the Vestry and the governing committees of this Cathedral for the many hours of volunteer time they are giving of themselves to ensure that we are on the right course for our future. In fact, I would like to ask right now if you are a member of the Vestry or one of those committees to stand and let us thank you. You work really hard and I want to say in the presence of this congregation, I am profoundly grateful to you for your leadership, courage, hard questions and dedication to this effort. You are a blessing to Trinity Cathedral, to past generations, to us and to those yet to come.
Jesus said, “Make friends with your money.” I understand this to mean that we are called to be generous with our resources. Over the summer, I read a book by Adam Grant entitled, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. The author, who is the youngest tenured professor at the Wharton School of Business, suggests that there are three kinds of people: takers who strive to get as much as possible from others; matchers who aim to trade evenly; and givers who contribute without expecting anything in return. Grant argues that givers actually come out ahead in the end. Thus, by being smart or shrewd with our money, we can increase our wealth, not just to increase our standard of living, but also (and maybe more importantly) our standard of giving.
Jesus observed the limits of wealth when he remarked that when our money is gone – not if it’s gone – we will still have friends in the eternal homes. You’ve heard the saying: “You can’t take your money with you to the grave.” Our wealth will do us no good after we die, and there’s no amount of money we can pay to gain entrance into eternal life, for God’s grace is absolutely free. So knowing that wealth is going to be of no use to us in heaven, we should manage it shrewdly, use it wisely, and give it generously on earth, hopefully leaving behind a thoughtful inheritance for the people and places that matter. If every member of this congregation remembered Trinity Cathedral in our wills, we would ensure that the endowment built by the generosity of our ancestors would grow into perpetuity.
Jesus often talked about money. He talked about it more than he talked about sin, sex, heaven or hell. In fact, our Lord talked about money more than anything else except the Kingdom of God.
When Jesus proclaimed, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” he was saying something really important about our relationship to wealth. It’s like a heart monitor by a hospital bed or a dashboard on a car. Our relationship to money is an indicator of our spiritual health and wellbeing. And if we want to stay spiritually healthy, we can’t allow money to become our master.
Perhaps, some of the prosperity preachers are right. God doesn’t want us to be poor; God wants us to become prosperous, but God does not want us to be controlled or enslaved by our prosperity, but rather to invest our prosperity in the Commonwealth of God.
In Jesus, God shows us how to find prosperity, even in the midst of scarcity – how to turn water into wine, feed the multitudes, throw a great party, multiply our talents, search for lost coins, give to the poor, and invest in the kingdom.
“No,” says Jesus, you cannot serve both God and money; but “Yes,” says our Lord, you can use your money in the service of God, and I expect you to do so, being as creative, ingenious and shrewd and honest as possible.
To those who are fortunate to have much to invest in God’s Kingdom, great things are expected – entrepreneurship at its best. If you have a lot, then use it as wisely, creatively and shrewdly as possible. “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48).
And, if you have a little, do the same. The truth is that most of us are entrusted with a little rather than a lot. But, “whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”
Let us be faithful in what we have, let us be shrewd but honest and faithful stewards. Let us wisely manage our money, let us generously share it, and let us not be enslaved by it.