‘You Can’t Serve God and Wealth’ – a Stewardship Sermon for Lectionary 25C

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Outside Christ Lutheran in Pierce early on a Sunday morning.

It was a joy to be with the good people of Christ Lutheran Church in Pierce, Nebraska today (Sunday September 22, 2019). Thank you to friend, Pastor Cara Jensen, for the invitation and to the whole congregation for the warm welcome. We gathered before worship for a cross-generational conversation on stewardship and money, and then in worship I was invited to share a word of welcome and greetings from the synod during the announcements, and then lead the Children’s Sermon and sermon. The manuscript that I mainly stuck to preaching from, is as follows. It is based off the appointed readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost/Lectionary 25C, especially Luke 16:1-13 and Amos 8:4-7

Grace and peace from God in Christ who is with you, for you, and loves you. Amen.

That’s quite the story, isn’t it? Jesus is talking to the disciples, continuing his teaching from where he’s talked about the joy of celebrating when one repents, rejoicing when finding the lost (like the lost sheep, coin, and even the Prodigal lost son). He told those stories to the whole crowd who had gathered, but this story today he specifically tells to the disciples. Though the Pharisees overheard it as well and had their gripes with it, which I suspect many a member of congregations ever since Jesus said these words has griped about them.[1]

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One of the conversation tables during our time of cross-generation conversations about money and stewardship. They willingly and happily dug into talking and thinking about money and some of the tough things that are in this week’s gospel story.

It’s really a fun story. Well, if you don’t mind being challenged by Jesus to think some about things that might be hard or uncomfortable to talk about. Jesus today isn’t hiding what he thinks. “You cannot serve God and wealth.”[2] And with those words, it’s probably no surprise that people have been running from the church or angry at the church whenever they talk about money since.

Digging into Today’s Story
Jesus is speaking to his closest friends, intimately. He is warning them about the dangers of wealth and money. Not because wealth and money are bad, necessarily, but to have them recognize that with God, life changes. Decisions and choices change. It’s no more just about me, it’s about all of us, and there’s an invitation as a disciple to wonder and listen for what God might be calling us to do. So, what Jesus is getting at clearly is that when in right relationship with God, one’s approach and relationship with money will be different.

The story Jesus tells today about a manager who is a steward of his master’s estate, is an odd one, to be sure. When the manager’s ineffective and “squandering” ways are found out, the master says, “What is this that I hear about you? Give me an account of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.”[3] The manager is faced with a dilemma. He has been found out. What will he do next? How will he provide for him and his family? Who will support him and accept him? A dishonest man, a failure as a steward, someone whose career is about to end or at least change drastically. This is the type of story in the gospel that you might feel Jesus would use to point to the importance to repent, confess our sins, admit our wrongs, and turn back to God. But Jesus doesn’t exactly go this way in teaching today.

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Another cross-generation conversation group recalling their first memories about money. (Including how it used to cost 10 cents to go to a movie.)

Instead he tells us about the manager who plans so that he might be welcomed. Jesus goes so far as to say that the master commends the manager, that he “acted shrewdly.”[4] The manager is looking out for himself. But wrapped up in all of this is a sense of welcome, relationship, community, and hospitality. Given the role, you would expect the manager, as a steward of the rich man’s estate, to be faithful to his master. But he’s in a unique position here. The manager can make life a little better for those who are in debt. So, the manager cuts the olive oil bill in half and he takes 20% off the bill for the wheat for another.[5] In this regard, perhaps Jesus is highlighting the manager as an example of one, who though he has done wrong and sinned, he has found a way and means with his position, privilege, and authority to help those around him?

This isn’t to say two wrongs make a right. But Jesus does say, “make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.”[6] Now from the Greek it should be noted that the word for wealth here is “mammon,” and that has its roots in a Semitic word which closely means, “that in which one fully trusts.”[7] So, though this is a story about wealth and the use of it, it’s also a story about trust.

Jesus is telling this, because in calling the disciple’s attention to wealth, property, and things, Jesus knows well that these are all things that we as human beings might put our trust in, at times as much if not more so, than we do in God. This isn’t an easy parable to unpack. But what does seem to be true, again, is that Jesus’ understanding of the earthly and money is different than that of society’s.

Jesus talking about money
As we talked about in the Children’s Sermon, Jesus talks about money, wealth, and possessions more than any topic other than the Kingdom of God. Why? Because he knows how important this is for our lives as Children of God. He knows how hard these things can be for our relationship with God. And God in Christ so very much wants to be in relationship with us.

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Whose wealth is it? God’s! I loved seeing this banner that hangs behind the pulpit.

Jesus concludes, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”[8] But perhaps it would be helpful to remember whose wealth it is to begin with? Stewardship starts with an understanding like that of the psalmist, that “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it…”[9] Put another way, all that we have and all that we are, is God’s. God entrusts us with all that we have. Perhaps then, God is the master in the parable today? In which case, if God entrusts to us to care for, use, manage, and steward, then perhaps the manager finally wised up in the end, by using his resources entrusted to him to care for those God calls him into relationship with? Caring for the needy and poor like the prophet Amos warns?[10] Or perhaps the master isn’t Got at all, but one much more nefarious? The devil perhaps?

Regardless of the interpretation, you cannot run from Jesus’ conclusion, that “You cannot serve God and wealth.” You have to wrestle with that statement, because at the heart of stewardship is the idea of relationship- our relationship with God, and our relationship with each other whom God calls unto. If we are more focused on the stuff and things of this life, we may well forget the relationships we are in, or at least may not prioritize them as we ought.

Money in and of itself is not bad. Wealth is not in and of itself bad. But when they are given power, and made ends in and of themselves, they have become barriers to our relationship with God and each other. However, when they are seen as things that are tools and resources entrusted to our care, through which we are called to use them to live abundantly, to care for our neighbors through our means and vocations, and to also return a portion of that which God entrusts, back to God, then they are hopefully more in right order. After all, whose wealth is it? Ours or God’s?

What is Stewardship?

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One of the ways Christ Lutheran stewards its resources, is by joining and continuing to hold its sister congregation Bethany Lutheran in Axtell, in prayer. This visible reminder sits behind the altar in the sanctuary for all the see.

Money is but one part of stewardship. When we remember that all that we have and all that we are, is God’s, we return to an understanding of who we are, and whose we are. We are God’s children. Created, beloved, and claimed in these baptismal waters. Equipped and empowered with gifts, strengths, and talents and called into vocations as disciples and stewards of God’s love. Sent out in the promises of God in joy and gratitude for all that God has done, continues to do, and promises to do, for us.

Claimed, marked, gathered, and sent, once and for all, by the one who gave himself for us. So, when we remember this, perhaps stewardship is all about reorienting ourselves to remember again why we are the disciples and stewards we each are, and more intentionally and deeply thinking about how all that we have and all that we are, helps us live full and abundant lives; how through some of it, God’s work is done through us, in us, for us, and around us; and through which we give thanks and praise to God by returning a portion of that which God entrusts.

Think big picture here. Not only are we to steward our money, treasure, finances, and assets of all kinds, because we can’t serve God and wealth; but we’re also to care for and steward our lives, health, bodies, souls, hearts, minds, and relationships; our time, presence, talents, vocations, passions, strengths, gifts, stories, ideas, and even questions; and all of creation that surrounds us and we are a part of. All of this and so much more, God entrusts to our care so that we may have life and have it abundantly, but also so that through us, some of God’s work might be done.

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The gathered faithful in the beautiful sanctuary for worship at Christ Lutheran in Pierce.

Stewardship in Action- at Christ Lutheran and through Mission Share
I know that you get this. You’re a congregation whose story I have heard, and not just because of the many disciples that you have gathered and formed here over the years. I know this because I have seen it in the way you have responded to this year’s floods through donating sheet rock and drywall to people in need around Pierce and Osmond. I know this because of the way you have generously supported Lutheran Disaster Response and the Synod Disaster Fund through your time and financial means. And I know how generous you are with your time- with leading Bingo with the nursing home, preparing and serving mercy meals, quilting, participating in ELCA good gifts, and so much more.

And I know this is true too, because as the Director for Stewardship, I have the joy of not only seeing and hearing the stories of what God is up to, I have the honor to come and say thank you to all of you, Christ Lutheran, for these ways that you serve as the stewards and disciples that you are, but also for your continued participation in mission share. Mission share is the undesignated offering your congregation shares with the Nebraska Synod and the larger ELCA, through which you do ministry that spans the globe, changing lives.

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It’s hard to see with the glare. But a young Brian Maas is pictured here with his confirmation class. He is one of the many disciples that have been raised in faith at Christ Lutheran, and through the congregation’s faith and support, he would discern a call to ministry. (And later, to being open to the Holy Spirit’s call to being Bishop.) Thanks Christ Lutheran for raising him up! 

Through it, you help raise up new pastors, deacons, and leaders of our church. Through it, you spread the good news of the Gospel that God is for you, with you, and loves you, in part through supporting and sending missionaries around the globe, and sponsoring new and renewing ministries right here across the Big Red State. Through it, you also spread the news of God’s deep love for youth and young adults through supporting Nebraska Lutheran Campus Ministry and Nebraska Lutheran Outdoor Ministry, including Camp Carol Joy Holling. And through mission share, you offer the presence to show up for those in need to listen and do what needs to be done for our neighbors near and far, through joining in and supporting our church serving arm partners like Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran World Relief, Lutheran Family Services, and Mosaic, just to name a few.

There is so much that you are a part of and that you do as part of God’s work in the world. Thank you! Thank you for being present in the world that God calls you into. Thank you for doing the work that God calls you and entrusts you with resources to do. And thank you, for being a part of this church together. Together, we all do so much more than we could ever do alone.

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Pastor Cara Jensen and myself. It was a joy to be with you and the whole congregation. Thanks for the invitation!

Putting it altogether
When Jesus turns towards his disciples in today’s story, he does so because he loves them deeply and he wants them to hear. He talks about money, wealth, possessions, and all the stuff that we have in this life, because he cares, and wants them to not put their trust in these things, but rather orient themselves towards God, and be in relationship with the one who gives abundant and meaningful life. It’s a radical move. It’s not an easy ask. But it’s one he gives them, and invites us all to follow too. To wonder what might God be calling us to see and do today as bearers of God’s love? To see those in need around us, like the manager sees those in debt in the story, and he does what he can to make their life a little better.

This is the sort of life and work we’re all called to. And we know whether it be flood or blizzard, job uncertainty, health challenges, or more, the life of being a steward and disciple isn’t always easy, there’s a cross, a symbol and means of death at its center. But when turning toward God, that fear and death is turned on its head to the abundance of resurrection life- a life of hope and deep meaning, a life grounded in the promises of our God who loves us, is with us, and is for us. And for that, we can’t help but all give our thanks and praise. Thanks be to God! And thanks be to God for all of you- God’s stewards and disciples gathered here in Pierce today through whom some of God’s work is done. Amen.

Citations, References, and Notes:
[1] Luke 16:14ff, NRSV.
[2] Luke 16:13, NRSV.
[3] Luke 16:2, NRSV.
[4] Luke 16:8, NRSV.
[5] Luke 16:5-7, NRSV.
[6] Luke 16:9, NRSV.
[7] Marion Lloyd Soards in, The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Michael Coogan, ed., (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), page 128 New Testament.
[8] Luke 16:13, NRSV.
[9] Psalm 24:1, NRSV.
[10] From this week’s first lesson, Amos 8:4-7.

1 comments on “‘You Can’t Serve God and Wealth’ – a Stewardship Sermon for Lectionary 25C”

  1. I recognize most of those faces (but 10 cent movies were before my time). A great place to call home, filled with faithful saints. Thanks for being there, Timothy!

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