Being Shrewd Like the World for the Sake of the Gospel

Lectionary 25 (17th Sunday after Pentecost)
Luke 16:1-13
Sunday, September 19, 2010

Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, who was, and who is to come.  Amen.

This past Wednesday evening Derek Jeter,
    the New York Yankees shortstop who is respected even by fans like me,
        who otherwise harbor an unnatural and irrational dislike for the Yankees,
    stood at home plate in Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field, bat in hand,
        waiting for the opposing pitcher to hurl the ball.
The pitch came inside, and Jeter jumped to get out of the way.
But apparently he didn’t get out of the way fast enough.
As the ball bounced gently toward the pitcher’s mound,
    Jeter jumped up and down at home plate,
    grabbing his arm and wincing in pain.
The team trainer came out to inspect his arm,
    and the umpires huddled.
Within a few moments, Jeter was awarded first base,
    the umpires ruling that he was hit by the pitch.
But the only problem is this: he wasn’t actually hit by the pitch.

The pitch hit the bottom of Jeter’s bat, not his wrist or arm,
    and Jeter’s antics were little more than an act worthy of Broadway,
    an act that got him on base as the tying run in a close game.
The Tampa Bay crowd booed a resounding boo,
    chants of “Jeter Cheater” echoed in the domed stadium.
The manager for the opposing Tampa Bay Rays, Joe Maddon,
    knew that Jeter was faking it, and he was livid. 
He argued nose-to-nose with the umpire,
    and was ejected from the game,
    likely for saying something to the ump that is not pulpit-worthy.
Yet after the game Maddon commended Jeter’s farce:
    “I thought Derek did a great job, and I applaud it,” he said.
    “I wish our guys would do the same thing.”
Angry at one moment of having been wronged,
    by the end of the game Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon
    was commending the dishonest act of an opposing player.
There’s a certain respect in the game for players who do what it takes to win –
    even if it takes a bit of exaggerated acting and clever antics.
Praising the cheater – it’s not the kind of thing we usually do.

Earlier this week I told my daughter that we were going to read a very odd story today,
    one in which Jesus tells us that we should be like a guy who cheats and steals.
    She just thought that was weird.
And she’s right.
In many of Jesus’ parables we hear stories of lavish grace and unrestrained celebration –
    forgiveness given to one who didn’t even ask for it,
    invitations for the poor and the lame to come to a banquet,
    and a party to celebrate the recovery of a lost coin.
While these parables might challenge our sense of proportionality –
    throw a whole party just for a coin? –
nonetheless, we basically understand their message:
    celebrate that what was lost is found,
    give thanks that what was separated has been united.
Jesus tells us that in the Kingdom of God these celebrations are over-the-top,
    because God’s love and grace is over-the-top,
    disproportionate to our human sense of propriety and restraint.

But that’ not what we’re dealing with today.
Today Jesus sets before us not a lavish celebration
    foreshadowing the never-ending feast of the Kingdom of God,
    but the desperate, neck-saving dealings of a lazy manager who,
    by all accounts, has failed to do his job and is too proud to do any other.
Fired from his job as manager of the vast holdings of a wealthy landowner,
    he quickly goes out to curry favor with those who owe his now-former boss a debt.
“What do you owe?” he asks each debtor.  One by one he reduces their debt,
    not eliminating what they owe, but making it,
    perhaps, a bit more manageable for them to pay.
This, he hopes, will endear him to the debtors,
    who just might invite him into their homes
    after he is left without a job.
The landowner sees this work and, we can imagine, laughs an appreciative laugh,
    commending the manager not for cancelling the debts or squandering the property,
    but for being a shrewd dealer,
        going to rather creative lengths to get what he needs.
It’s that kind of hustle that Jesus commends …

My sister-in-law, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania,
    has conducted research on cadets at West Point
    and students at a select Philadelphia high school,
        among other settings,
    trying to figure out why some students perform better than others.
Even when you factor out intelligence and a number of other attributes,
    you’re left with something my sister-in-law refers to simply as “grit.”
Grit, that concoction of focus, determination, creativity, and drive,
    is the determining factor in whether one achieves success or not,
    according to her research and that of others.
I wonder if we see a bit of grit in today’s parable,
    and if Jesus here asks his followers
    to use a bit of grit to do what the kingdom demands of them.
That is, I see in this text that Jesus commends not the squandering of property
    or the dishonest cancellation of debt,
    but rather the clever tactics this man takes to save his own head.
It’s as if Jesus says,
“Oh that you, children, who have receive this good news,
    would be as wise and cunning in proclaiming the Kingdom of God
    as this manager is with protecting his own interests!”

Yet the church has, over the years, tended to talk about resisting the ways of the world,
    about not wanting to bring the ways of the world into our churches,
    since we, the thinking goes, are to act differently.
Of course, that thinking is both true and a bunch of nonsense.
It is true that we in the church have a God-given mission
    that calls us to live and to act in accordance with the way of the cross,
    to model our lives on the life of Christ;
    and that the church, corporately,
    is to model itself according to the life and practice early church,
        gathering for prayer and worship, serving others and living simply.
And it is true that these callings often stand in stark contrast
    to the ways of cultural and corporate elites.
But at the same time, the idea that the church ought to reject outright the ways of the world
    is rather naïve, since many of the good and holy things we do in this place
    are done in ways that are influenced and enhanced by the ways of the world.
From our language to our dress to our rituals,
    to the ways we organize our committees and church constitution,
    to various social norms that govern coffee hour and Sunday School
        and pretty much everything else we do …
    it’s all part of a big cultural movement that shapes how we do
        the God-given things we’re called to do.
The way we live into and give expression to our faith is wrapped up
    in all kinds of cultural wrapping paper.
And that’s ok.
Attempts to tease apart culture from faith are dead-end pursuits at the least,
    dishonest at the worst.
For the Word became flesh and lived among us,
    and it continues to come to us in this day –
        not through supernatural feats of heart-stopping proportions,
        but through the means and modes of our world.
The Word put on the crass
clothing of flesh and humanity and our culture,
    he came to us, dared to walk with us, taught us and healed us as one of us,
God so loved the world that he sent his Son to enter into the world
    to speak to us as a member of this world,
        not rejecting it wholesale but embracing the world for the sake of the Gospel,
        a Gospel which renews the world and sees it as the dwelling-place of God.

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
    the question is not whether we will engage the popular culture
        and the ways of this world,
    but rather, the question is how we will do that.
What tools, what insights, what perspectives do we bring to our ministry of the Gospel
    from the broader culture?
We don’t check influences, thoughts, feelings, insights or learnings
    when we walk through these doors!
No!  We come into this place as whole beings, as cultural beings,
    as situated in time and place,
    creatures of God, yes, but also by God’s design, creatures of culture,
    blessed to be part of the Spirit’s on-going movement within the church,
        and also beyond it.
What does it mean for us to unapologetically
    engage our culture with honesty and with integrity
    with the questions and challenges and joys of our faith?
What does it mean for us to take a cue from culture in how we live our faith?
For starters, it means striving to break down the unnatural and irrational divide
    of sacred and secular in our lives,
    of Sunday faith versus Monday living,
    that threatens to compartmentalize faith from the rest of our lives.
It means seeking God in here, but also out there;
    giving thanks for the presence of the Holy in here,
    and looking for and expecting to find it in the world.
It means believing in a God who did a rather shrewd thing
    by taking on flesh and becoming one of us.
It means daring to be shrewd ourselves,
    for the sake of the church, for the sake of the Gospel,
    and indeed, for the sake of a world that needs to hear the Good News that
    God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
    so that everyone who believes in him my not perish but have eternal life.  Amen.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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