“On Wealth” Colchester Federated Church, September 22, 2019, Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Luke 16:1-13)

One Sunday after church a little boy went through the receiving line to shake the Pastor’s hand.  As he shook her hand the little boy said, “When I grow up, I’m going to give you some money.”  “Oh, well, that’s very kind of you,” said the Pastor.  “But why would you want to give me money?”  The little boy replied, “Because my parents say that you’re one of the poorest preachers we’ve ever had.”

Oh, my friends—we need to ease into today’s sermon a bit because we’re talking about wealth.  Not the most comfortable topic in our personal lives, let alone in churches.  Today we heard Jesus tell a parable about the dishonest manager.  The overall meaning is that the dishonest manager was prudent in using the things he had to work with in this life to ensure the future.  It seems that he was dishonest in squandering his master’s estate.  But when he’s confronted about that mismanagement, he called in the debtors and reduces their bills (in part by eliminating his own commission.)  So in the end, he’s actually praised for his actions.  He is shrewd in using material goods to win gratitude from the debtors of his master and even the master himself.  Though Jesus ends it all by saying that nobody can serve two masters, nobody can serve both God and wealth.  So all of this is in effect a warning about the dangers of wealth.

Now it would be so easy to say—well that’s fine to hear this parable because this doesn’t affect me at all—I’m not wealthy!  Hold on a moment, let’s consider wealth in the world.  There was research done several years ago by the Pew Research Center about how Americans compare with the global middle class.  The statistics may surprise us as Pew researched 111 countries representing 88% of the global population and found that the United States stands well above the rest of the world when it comes to wealth.  56% of Americans are high income by the global standard and another 32% are upper middle income.  As Rakesh Kochhar from Pew explains, “In other words, almost nine-in-ten Americans had a standard of living that was above the global middle-income standard.”[1]  This doesn’t mean that there isn’t poverty in the United States or that people don’t struggle with income inequality, unemployment, underemployment, the cost of housing, paying for higher education and student loan debt, and so on.

Though we have a high standard of living here in the United States compared to the rest of the world.  Some folks may live on little more than $10 a day and we would consider those folks poor.  Though compare living on $10 a day here in the United States to living on $3 a day or $1 a day in other parts of the world and we can begin to see that we are much better off in this country than so many other people.  As an aside, can we remember just how well off we really are when our Pledge Campaign begins in the next couple of weeks, please?  These statistics are important, and it can make us consider not only how the rest of the world may be living and viewing us, but also how we view ourselves.  Who is rich?  Who is poor?  Who are we comparing ourselves to when we make these evaluations?  Think about all of those poor people who are living on less than a dollar a day and it changes our perspective about wealth.

Today we hear bluntly from Jesus in the Gospel according to Luke, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”[2]  Considering those statistics from the Pew Research Center, most of us are fairly wealthy if we take into account not just our neighbors here in Colchester or even Connecticut or the United States, but in comparison to folks the world over.  It’s not an easy verse (let alone parable) to understand.  Or perhaps we just desperately don’t want to take The Parable of the Dishonest Manager to heart.  Jesus’ words force us to confront what really matters.  Jesus’ words cause us to ask ourselves how this applies to us, knowing that we are the people he’s addressing directly when he speaks about serving God.  We cannot serve God and wealth.

To see how this play out, let’s take an extreme but not uncommon example.  When we observe how people behave in the face of natural disasters (whether it’s a flood, forest fire, tornado, earthquake, hurricane) we may notice that most people are quick to abandon their homes full of their belongings to save themselves and their families.  Stuff you can replace—big house, small house, it doesn’t matter.  But the lives of those you love?  That’s irreplaceable.  When people refuse to evacuate when state governments and emergency crews tell them to leave, we may understand that desire or the life’s circumstances that sometimes compel them to stay.  Yet we may still want to encourage them to think about what really matters, about what can be replaced and what can’t.

When we watch interviews of victims of natural disasters after the event is over, it’s easy to observe that when people do save stuff, it’s often the nostalgic family mementos that might not be worth much money, but they are priceless to that family.  We observe that people saved a photo album or a small picture of their great grandpa or some old piece of jewelry or that box of letters Uncle Andrew sent home from the war.  The point is that even when people may have a choice to make, a choice of what stuff to save in the face of the unthinkable; it’s easy to observe people choosing those few nostalgic items as opposed to the most expensive objects in their home.  This seems right on many levels, and this is what Jesus was talking about.  If we prioritize our wealth over the more important things in our lives, this mentality takes us further and further from God and from one another.

A good movie example of this conundrum about wealth is a classic scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  At the end of the movie, the crazy Nazi woman Elsa has the Holy Grail in her hand.  She crosses over the seal in the Temple where she was warned not to go, and the whole cave starts shaking and caving in.  A crevice appears in the ground and all of a sudden she slips and is hanging precariously over the ledge, clinging to Indy’s hand (played by Harrison Ford) as he tries to pull her back up and save her life.  With her other hand she reaches for the Holy Grail on a little ledge below.  And of course they lose their grip and she falls into the chasm to her death.

As is typical in action/adventure movies, the tables are immediately turned, and Indy falls into the crevice.  His father (played by Sean Connery) is holding onto his son’s hand while this time Indy tries to grasp the Holy Grail on that ledge a little bit below him.  The scene doesn’t repeat itself because the father calls his son back to what actually matters.  In fact, he calls him by his first name and not just “Junior” as he had the entire movie.  He says, “Indiana, let it go.”[3]  This was the object of the father’s scholarly pursuits and research for years and the cup of Christ was finally within his son’s grasp.  But choosing between even a priceless object like the Holy Grail and his son’s own life is not a difficult choice after all.  He chooses to hold fast to his son and asks him to take his other hand to lift him up out of the crevice to safety.

In the end, all this talk about two masters and who we can really serve and Jesus flat out saying that we can’t serve God and wealth is important.  Maybe the choices we make will not be as stark as the one Indy and his father faced or victims of natural disasters.  Though what can you and I do about this warning from Jesus especially in light of the fact that we’re doing pretty well from a financial perspective in this great big world of ours?

To answer the so what question, Presbyterian Pastor Helen Montgomery Debevoise uses this parable about the dishonest manager to call Christians to task.  She says, “This manager, this person of questionable character, understood something that ‘children of light’ have had difficulty grasping: dishonest or not, this man understood how to use what was entrusted to him to serve a larger goal.  Believers take note.  How much more, then, must the children of God understand the riches entrusted to their care.”[4]

The first step to actually taking Jesus’ words to heart is understanding that we have riches entrusted to our care in the first place.  When we consider the wealth in our country versus other parts of the world, it’s almost embarrassing how well we live.  More often than not, we don’t seem to acknowledge this reality.  We don’t truly consider how other people in other countries get by on so little.  So let’s start by acknowledging that we are the people Jesus is speaking to in this morning’s parable.  We are the ones that Jesus is speaking to when he tells us that you can’t serve God and wealth.

So what does it mean that these riches that we have (we admit it!) are trusted to our care?  It means that we are stewards of God.  We can use our gifts in light of our relationship with God and with one another.  We can think about wants versus needs.  Perspective, prioritizing, responsibility as God’s stewards and caretakers of one another and this earth we call home—this is how we can serve God by using our wealth to do good.  May it be so with us, and thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Rakesh Kochhar, “How Americans Compare with the Global Middle Class,” The Pew Research Center,  July 8, 2015, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/09/how-americans-compare-with-the-global-middle-class/
[2] Luke 16:13, NRSV.
[3] Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
[4] Helen Montgomery Debevoise, Pastoral Perspective on Luke 16:1-13 in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 4, 94.