Good morning, St. Matthew. We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.
And so we pray.
Holy Creator, ever since Eden, we have told ourselves that we can live without consequences despite literally EVERYTHING you have EVER shared with us. Somehow, we think we exist outside of you and therefore can hide our actions from you. But again, your word comes to us and convicts us that we simply do not exist apart from you! We are the dust that only comes to life when your breath enters us. We are the known knitting in our mother’s wombs. We are the branches, you are the Di-vine. This morning as we gather, break our hearts open yet again to accept and live into this reality that apart from you, there is no life at all, and all our money won’t another minute buy, or sin forgive. In your lifegiving name, we pray, Amen.
At the beginning of our consideration of today’s lessons, let me be clear – you all are aware that I am a tree hugging hippie. And for some folks, that stops the conversation right there, cuz that means I am a whack-a-doodle leftie who is gonna try to sell you some kind of communist agenda. But I am asking you this morning to sit in that potentially uncomfortable space as we talk about wealth and let the text speak to you. It is possible that we will both hear something that moves us from where we are to where God wants us to be.
Ok with that out of the way – we move now to the lessons and to what we hear God speaking to us. When we were created, drawn from the dust and given God’s breath to fill our lungs, we knew from the very ignition of life, that we had a loving parent in our lives. God was not far off and away on some mountain – God was there – walking with us in the cool of the evening and laying out the guidelines that were meant to make our lives all that we could ever want them to be. And more – God did not make us wind up dolls, but God said clearly in those guidelines, here are your choices. If you choose to love and receive love – life will follow. If you choose to reject love and seek instead paths that lead away from love – death will follow. What we focused on was not the truth of the consequence, but the tantalising freedom of choice. We were so excited by the power of choosing that we confused ourselves and refused to believe that our loving Creator could possibly really mean all those consequences were meant for us. So, when the serpent comes to tempt us, we are already halfway down the path to a stupid decision. “Look what I can do! I can dance on the edge of a knife, and nothing will happen!”
We all know how that turned out. In our refusal to believe God’s word and to trust that God was showing us the best path, we blasted our own lives. And in the dazzling way of humanity, we have continued to make wrong choices – even when we know that there is a better, God led path to follow. We have created systems and institutions that by their very nature, oppress, divide and enslave us. Perhaps you have heard the expression, “When you know better, you do better.” And that can certainly be true. But the reality is that often even when we know better – we still choose the path that leads us away from God. We want to steal all the shiny apples and not share a one. We like to hide in the garden, as Adam and Eve did, trying to believe that we can deceive God by our pretended obedience. Bu when God, of course, finds us, we like to whine that it’s not our fault – we were tricked or misled or didn’t understand. To illustrate this moment of artifice and confrontation with God, I am going to quote an old Bill Cosby routine. He would joke that he was raising brain damaged children, because he would say, “I have made myself some cookies. I am going to leave them here. I need to go back into the kitchen and get my pop. I am going to leave my cookies here. Nobody touch the cookies! If you do, there will be a spanking!” All the kids would solemnly promise not to touch the cookies. He would go to the kitchen, and, on his return, the cookies were gone. “WHO TOOK MY COOKIES?!?” And children with crumbed mouths and chocolate teeth would proclaim “I don’t know!”
We, who are God’s children, have all had that deer in the headlight moment of facing judgment, when we knowingly made the wrong choice, despite knowing the consequences. And then we have the audacity to say to God Almighty, “We didn’t know!” as if somehow God will be deceived. Well, guess what? Bill Cosby didn’t buy his kids’ claimed ignorance and God doesn’t buy ours. We know – we know – WE KNOW. So when we hear the words of the lessons today, do not think we can ever stand before the Lord and say “We didn’t know”; cuz God ain’t buying it. Not paying folks what their work is worth, accepting that some will fail, and others will be destroyed by the choices we make to pad our own lives – God sees it all. The consequences of not following the Lord and not loving God above all and not loving our neighbours as ourselves are clearly laid out for us. The prophet Micah states, God has told you, O mortal, what is good, and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?
That’s been the rule since forever! From the moment of creation, we were charged with making things grow and prosper – we were to be the managers who would have dominion over God’s kindom – and we had placed in our hands the ability to make it so, but also were told that we could screw it up if we lived without love. It was our choice! And here’s the thing – Satan is still slithering around, dressing up our bad choices as lovely, luscious apples just waiting for us to take a bite. Amos prophesies to a people who would tell you they are only making good business decisions. Look at all the money we make! Doesn’t God want us to use what we have in our hands to build bigger and better stuff? Doesn’t God want us to use the brains in our heads to turn a profit? I mean, the bigger the buck, the bigger the temple we can build, right? Won’t that glorify the Lord, and preach to folks how great is our God? Pft – You only have to look to Scripture to hear that answer – again and again, God proclaims I don’t want your stuff, I don’t want the temples and the pomp – I want your hearts. I want you.
And so we come to today, and the parable of the dishonest steward. We forget sometimes that Jesus could be really sarcastic. Like Bill Cosby looking at his fibbing kids and shaking his head in disgust at their audacious lies, Jesus looks at the people trying to say that wealth is God’s reward and the product of “good living” – with impatience. “Sure,” he says with snark, “do all the cheating you want and you will be rewarded. Don’t you worry. The bosses of this world will reward you greatly – then when it’s all up and you’re standing at heaven’s gate, you tell your Creator how much money you made and how happy your bosses were with you. Cuz we all know how much power they have the other side of heaven.” Can you hear his tone rig through the text when he says: “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.“ Who holds the key to our eternal home? We all know the wealth that counts in heaven is the wealth of love and concern for God, our neighbour and ourselves, yet we seem to think we can hide the apple cores of our failures to live that love inside ritual and show and that God won’t notice. Or even more arrogantly, we presume that God won’t care. But again, Scripture comes back to us, and we hear Jesus saying: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 And even the hairs of your head are all counted.” God sees and knows everything we do – because, having been born of God, we can do nothing apart from God!
The Psalmist sings 5Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high, 6who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? 7He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 8to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people. 9He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!” God is telling us where God is to be found – and it’s in all places, not just the chic and trendy ones! God is found in the muck and the mire, breathing life into places and people that the world dismisses and proclaims dead. The whole witness of Jesus – his very name Emmanuel – says that God is WITH us! Which means we can’t do our sinning away from the Lord – every person we cheat or harm, through systems of whatever “ism” we devise, we do that with God standing right beside us. And no amount of ritual or show will hide our sins.
That is not to say that ritual is in and of itself empty or without meaning. When it is performed with intention and love for its true purpose, ritual is deeply significant. Our Jewish siblings know a lot about ritual, and what it is meant to accomplish at its best. Jews will be celebrating the New Year next week – Rosh Hashanah– and in that tradition, observant Jews will spend time in prayers of repentance called Selichot. That’s a pretty great way to start the year! Rabbi Dr Reuven Hammer writes:
Sephardic communities begin reciting Selichot at the beginning of (the month of) Elul so that a period of 40 days, similar to the time Moses spent on Mount Sinai, is devoted to prayers of forgiveness. The practice among Ashkenazi Jews is to begin saying them on the Saturday night prior to Rosh Hashanah.
But even spending a week or a month properly asking for forgiveness – observing all the forms and rituals – means nothing to God unless we back it up with changed hearts and changed responses.
I saw a political cartoon recently that had two folks viewing a painting of hell. And one said to the other – if you need the threat of hell to behave, you aren’t looking for faith, but for a leash. God agrees with this – the law, Paul says, exists as a leash, breaking it has consequences. If we are living to the letter of the law and not the heart of faith, forgetting to empower and bring life to all, our ritual is empty and our faith is meaningless, no matter how big our cross, our endowment, or our television audience. Earlier in his prophecy, in chapter 5, Amos quotes the Lord, saying: I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. 22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them, and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.24 But let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
God isn’t looking the sizzle; God wants the steak! In other words, we don’t not take the cookies because there’s punishment if we get caught; we don’t take the cookies cuz they are not ours to take! And if we make the cookies our goal, it doesn’t matter how beautifully we pray or how magnificently we build our temples – God sees and knows that we haven’t given our hearts! And it’s not about the number of cookies we steal – taking even one, we have broken faith, chosen the wrong path and earned the consequences.
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. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own?
If we think we can cheat God, our neighbours and ultimately ourselves and then believe we can buy our way back – God doesn’t accept our bribe. God is NOT going to ask us about our checked off Sunday attendance, the size of our acreage, or our bank accounts. God’s going to ask – who did we feed? Who did we house? Who did we visit? What did we grow? What did we make better by being here? We absolutely cannot be the people of the bottom line and expect that God will say to us well done, thou good and faithful servant. The wealth we are given isn’t ours in the first place. We are only stewards of it. What personal wealth we do have to give is the wealth that costs us personally. We are to arrive at heaven’s gate, having poured ourselves out – every last little bit, every last breath and every last penny. The words of Christ, shoot down to across the centuries – You cannot serve God and wealth.
Today, the choice is ours. Will we hoard Satan’s shiny apples that only have worth this side of heaven and build our walls ever higher? Or we will spend our lives in unreserved love, pouring out all we have for God and each other, refusing to count the cost?