I would like to start this morning’s sermon with somewhat of a confession. As many of you may know, before seminary I coached basketball at the junior high level. I was a pretty good coach; I worked well with my players and fielded a competitive team year after year. I garnered enough of a reputation to be approached by a well-known AAU basketball club in Southern Maine about coaching one of their younger teams. AAU stands for Amateur Athletic Union; they offer opportunities for sports teams to play at regional and national levels. AAU by its nature is more competitive than playing for your school or at your local Y, and thus a higher pressure environment. There are certain practices you would see teams employ at this level that may not be employed at other levels of youth sports. One of these practices that I found myself taking part in is akin to what we call in the church as “sheep stealing” or “steeple chasing.”
We would start the tournament season with a small roster of 8 through 10 players knowing that after the state tournament when we’d be preparing for regional and even national tournaments, some of the more localized teams would be wrapping up and we could cherry-pick their better players. Yes, arrogance was often the mark of some of these bigger basketball clubs, and play beyond the state tourney was often assumed. So this cherry-picking was easily justifiable. I mean after all there were worse things that we could be doing, and many teams did. Besides, we were giving these kids more opportunity to play.
We didn’t talk about the damage it did. And it did some damage. Firstly it altered the relationships on our team, relationships that we have been working on developing for at least two months. It also put these players in a situation where they would have to choose the following season between playing with a bigger basketball club or the more local travel team—their friends and neighbors who they have been playing with for years. This decision was also sure to alter relationships. Not to mention the distortion of a child’s self image and his sense of priorities that often happened in these situations. After three seasons of involvement, two of which ended with trips to Florida to compete in the Nationals, I decided that this scene wasn’t for me and stuck to coaching for the school season.
You guys may be asking why am I telling you this. Well much like the dishonest manager, I was often commended for my shrewd behavior even if it wasn’t entirely righteous and something to be proud of. This is a parable that the church often has a hard time with for this very reason. People often are confused and wonder if Jesus is really commending the dishonest behavior of this questionable character—and if not what, exactly is he trying to teach?
Brothers and sisters, Jesus doesn’t commend him for his dishonesty—neither does the fictitious rich man in Jesus’ parable. What he is commended for is his shrewdness. A quick survey of the word “shrewd” likens it to such words as “astute,” “sharp,” “perceptive,” “keen,” and “intelligent.” None of these adjectives mean “dishonest” in their own right; rather shrewdness I think speaks to knowing how to succeed and being able to make it happen.
Unfortunately, brothers and sisters, shrewdness in a system characterized by sin will sometimes lead to questionable ethics. Knowing how to succeed and having the ability in a fallen world, where the very definition of success is subject to the whims of the human condition, will sometimes put us at odds with God’s divine will. This is why Jesus tells us this morning we can’t serve God and money. We will come to hate one and love the other. As Christians we have a decision to make: will we serve the will of the world or the will of God? Will we answer the world’s call—to look out for Numero Uno, becoming the kind of people that Amos prophesies against this morning—or God’s call to live as God’s children loving and nurturing the world he made, while swearing allegiance to God’s kingdom?
You see, brothers and sisters, choosing to serve God is the right choice but not the easy one. For in making this decision we are not swept away to another world that is subject to another set of rules. No indeed, we still live in the fallen world, but our rules and perspective change. Sometimes it seems like we’re playing a board game with friends and family, and we are all playing by different rules. But, brothers and sisters, I’m not talking about a game—I am talking about your faith, your relationship with the God who created and redeemed you. And the question that today’s parable dares to ask is how do we live as Christ’s disciples in the world that crucified him? Called to be shrewd children of God, what does it mean to be successful in living a Godly life?
I think it begins by realizing that our very definition of “success” is altered. Worldly success is based on results: making money, growing a company and receiving accolades, for example. Success in God’s kingdom however has nothing to do with results. That’s because the results lie not in our hands but in God’s. You see, perceptions of eternal salvation that emphasize human choice or behavior are applying the world’s rules to God’s kingdom and getting stuck on result as a measure of success. I think that success in the Godly life can be seen in two ways: relationship and faithfulness—two things that do not often line up with a secular view of success and can actually, directly contradict it.
You see God became incarnate in Jesus Christ to empower us to be in relationship with him in a way that was never possible before. And I promise that as our relationship with God deepens, the relationships around us will be deepened as well. In contrast to worldly success which often includes exploitation of others to move up the social ladder—a la today’s reading from Amos, the relationships formed by living Godly lives help make God’s kingdom manifest and as a result are life-giving.
Faithfulness to God and God’s vision of the world is another mark of success in Godly lives. Faithfulness leads disciples to trust and obey things that don’t come easy in a world where trust often leads to pain and where obedience is often seen as weakness. However by acknowledging that God’s plan for the world is what ought to be and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in and through us to be a part of that divine plan, obedience and trust become second nature.
You see, brothers and sisters, it is easier to oppress and exploit others than to love them. It is easier to pursue our own desires than it is to discern the will of God and to do our part to fulfill it. But easy isn’t better and it sure isn’t right. And we serve a God whose love for us has transcended any rules. He became human to bring us closer to the divine and he died so we may live. The problem with the rich man in Jesus’ parables was that he was subject to the same limits and laws as his manager—so he had to fire him. God, on the other hand, is free from the shackles that bind humankind and in Jesus, has freed us from those shackles us well. So we in turn can live in this world by God’s rules—not ours.
Please pray with me:
We thank you that in Jesus Christ, you have chosen us—claiming us as your children and offering us life without end. Lord, I pray that you in turn can give us the courage to choose life as your disciples, not as the world’s slaves. In Christ’s name we pray. AMEN