September 22 2019 “Who Ya Gonna Serve?”

SCRIPTURE READING   Luke 16:1-13   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. 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.’  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.  I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’  So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, ‘How much do you owe my master?’  He answered, ‘A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, ‘Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ 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.’ 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. 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. “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.  If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 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.”

MESSAGE      “Who Ya Gonna Serve?”                                Rev. James R. Renfrew

I remember my Seminary professor Walter Wink asking us what Jesus talks about more than anything else in the Gospels.  Teenagers?   Weather?  Marriage? Law-breaking?  Prayer? Sex? War? The surprising answer is that Jesus talks about money more than any other subject.

It appears that people in those times had a lot of questions about money.  And Jesus had a lot of things to say about money.  He talked about fair wages and fair prices, contributions to the temple, inheritances, discovered treasure, and taxes. Everywhere he went, the subject on people’s minds was money. How about you, is money on your mind, too?  It’s something you think about every day.  Let’s test this.  I bet you are carrying some money right now! Am I right?

Yet we preachers hear again and again from people inside the church and also outside of it who complain that all preachers ever talk about is money.  I’ve heard that the biggest reason that people avoid churches is because it seems like we’re always asking for your money.  Perhaps it is best summed up in this simple sermon I once heard about:  “The bad news is that the church doesn’t have enough money. The good news is that the solution is in your pockets.”  Ouch!  I once went to a church one time where they passed around the offering plate, and then a little later the plate was passed around a second time, because there wasn’t enough offered the first time.  I suspect that you might tell me that preaching about money every now and then is OK, but not all of the time, and probably not by laying on a lot of criticism and guilt.   And I’m guessing that you wouldn’t want the second offering plate, either.

But then we get to THIS reading in Luke’s Gospel.  It’s all about money, from start to finish, so I can’t avoid the topic.  The reading is very challenging, challenging to understand, and very challenging to live by.

One interpretation is that the reading is about what to do if you know you are about to be fired from your job for embezzlement, and how to cover the evidence of your dishonesty by cooking the books.  But, wait a minute!  This is Jesus saying these things.  Is Jesus really recommending that we live dishonestly and hide it with a pack of lies?  It sure doesn’t sound like something Jesus would teach!

So a second interpretation is needed that Jesus is not at all teaching us to be dishonest.  His point is that if dishonest people can be smart enough to hide their dishonesty, you, as a child of the light, need to be equally smart about making good choices to live a life of faith.

Still, I’m not really happy with either of these interpretations.  It shouldn’t be such a puzzle to figure out.  Jesus is usually far more direct.  We would normally expect him to say something like this:  “if you are a dishonest employee you’re going to have to pay back what you’ve stolen or go to jail.”  That would make better sense, not something confusing, like follow the example of the dishonest employee … but not really.

Then we reach the final verse of the story, the summary.  Nothing about dishonesty or shrewdness here to confuse us, but spoken clearly and directly:  You cannot serve God and money.  God or money, one or the other, not both, and which one will you choose??  God or money?  That’s simple, right to the point.  One or the other.  That’s easy!  But is it?  Have any of us successfully chosen God over money?   While I like to think I’ve mastered that one, the truth is that  money keeps creeping back in, earning money, borrowing money, owing money, spending money, saving money, worrying about money.  It may be a simple choice, but it’s nearly impossible to live by.

Some translations of this text use other words instead of “money”: “wealth” and the Hebrew word “mammon”.

These alternative words suggest that it’s not money per se, it’s not the twenty dollar bill in your wallet or purse or your last paycheck, it’s the accumulation of excessive wealth. “Mammon” in this way is not just money, it is the idolization and personification of wealth, moving God to second place in what matters. It comes dangerously close to worshiping ourselves for having successfully obtained it.

One example that comes to mind is Charles Dickens’ character Scrooge, who keeps his employee Bob Cratchit and his family in acute poverty by paying hi hardly anything.  Scrooge is so fixated on pinching every penny that on a freezing cold day he gives Bob just one lump of coal to stay warm in his office.  Mammon is wealth lacking conscience, wealth without generosity, wealth out of control, wealth serving only itself, wealth worshipping itself.

We don’t need to look far to find modern, real life examples of wealth like this.  It is a fact that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.   The richest 1% now control over 40% of the entire nation’s wealth.  Is this why Jesus has something to say about money, because the economy is so out of balance?

The text asks us, which way will you live, in pursuit of God or in pursuit of wealth?    Which one will you serve?

I once lived in a house where I was surrounded on all sides by the music of Bob Dylan.  Every song he ever wrote or performed was on the shelf.  I also learned that Dylan, who was born Jewish, had a  Christian phase at one time, and he recorded an entire album of  songs with his own take on Christian faith.

One of the songs is titled “Gotta Serve Somebody”.  Here’s the first verse and the chorus.

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls.

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

I immediately thought of Dylan’s song when I reached the end of today’s reading.  “Who ya gonna serve?  God or Mammon?”  It captures the final challenging verse of today’s text.  Ya gotta serve somebody, who will it be? God or Mammon?

On Thursday, I was listening to a recording of a Bill Monroe tune from the 1940’s.  The song is called “The Old Crossroad”

Oh, my brother take this warning, Don’t let ol’ Satan hold your

Hand. You’d be lost in sin forever, You’d never reach the promised land.

The old crossroad now is waiting, Which one are you going to

take? One leads down to destruction, The other to the pearly

gate.

Some of the recent Sunday readings bring us right to the Crossroad, don’t they?  Possible or impossible, lost or found, God or Mammon, next week heaven or hell, there are choices to be made. Choices to be made every single day.

Which direction to follow, which road to take, how to live, how to treat others?  Each one of these questions can leave us feeling defeated, but that’s not what Jesus is doing here, not just preaching at us, but walking with us into whatever intersections we face.  This is the best part about being a Christian. We are no facing these things alone.

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