Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Jesus Cheats... at Money's Game.

Sermon 9-18-16

Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, Amen.

Have you ever played “The Game of Life”? You start out with a car, a pink or blue peg, and ten thousand dollars in the bank - just like real life, right? As your little car travels along the game board, you experience life events. Some you get to choose, like whether to start college or a career. Others you don’t get to choose, like whether or not you get married, or how many children you have, or what kind of house you buy. The goal is to drive your little car with your little family and live your little life until you retire, the winner being the one who retires with the most money.

Once you understand all the rules, playing “The Game of Life” is pretty easy and straightforward. Roll the dice, move your car, take the rewards or misfortunes as they come. Living the game of “Real Life,” however, is not quite so easy or straightforward. Real life is much more complicated. The choices we make in real life are not exactly based on dice rolls or the luck of the draw. Real life is messy and confusing and complicated… and very much like the parable that Jesus tells to his disciples that we heard just a few moments ago!

Now, when it comes to what Bible readings we hear in church every Sunday, there is a pre-set order of game play. They are not chosen willy-nilly, based on what Pastor Egan or I feel like saying on a Sunday. Certain texts come up during certain parts of the church year, following a three year cycle –always a reading from the Old Testament, the New Testament, a Psalm, and one of the Gospels. Many years ago some very learned scholars – Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, and more – helped organize and plan these readings in an attempt to draw from many different parts of the Bible.

But similarly to landing on a space telling us to “go back three spaces” or a “skip a turn,” every so often we roll a doosey. And today is one of the doosiest – this particular parable has the reputation among pastors for being one of the toughest texts to preach on. And so it makes me feel a little better than even two thousand years later, most Biblical scholars and most seminary preaching professors still don’t exactly agree on how we should be understanding what Jesus is trying to get at here. Awesome.

This story Jesus tells his disciples sounds much more like the plot of an episode of that Netflix political dystopia House of Cards, or perhaps an episode of the reality TV show Undercover Bosses. Much like in Undercover Bosses, the boss finds out that his trusted steward is cooking the books, and as a result is give him a pink slip. Hasta La Vista, cheater!

Though, there is something sort of refreshing about the honesty and creativity of this steward that I can’t help but kind of like like, and despite myself, I sort of want to root for him and see him succeed. Much like the conniving and manipulating politician Frank Underwood on House of Cards, who also breaks the fourth wall and lets us know what he's thinking, the steward lets us in on how he intends to scheme himself out of this jam, his brilliant plan being to us his access to swindle his boss out of EVEN MORE MONEY.

And, amazingly, it WORKS! Though perhaps not in the way the steward intends. The rich guy was actually impressed, perhaps because this is the same way that made the rich man likely his wealth- sneakily and dishonestly.

And perhaps even more amazing of all – JESUS applauds the steward too!

Really, Jesus? Should we really have as our model a man who scams his boss, then tampers with the evidence to save his own skin? We all know that THIS KIND of cheater is a dime a dozen. We see on the news daily about people who come out on top for finding loopholes or exploiting people who have no other options.

And this steward fits right in - he certainly knew how to play by the rules to his own advantage – the rules of money, that is. As it was then, it still is now –in this world, money talks, it is money who is king, demands our devotion, and makes the rules that govern our daily lives. 

Rules like: Whoever holds the money holds the power. That your worth is based on what and how much you can buy, how big your house is or what school you can afford to send your children too. To spend before even thinking of saving or giving. That money is something we can never truly have enough of, and must be hoarded at all costs. Money dictates our time, consumes our thoughts, and demands our loyalty. One book about faith and money puts it this way: “we’ve followed a script written by someone else … We’ve slipped unconsciously into lives of bondage to bosses, debts, lifestyles, and expectations.”  Another line goes, “Life is a game. Money is how we keep score.”

And so, when we slip into this kind of bondage, and follow this script money lays out for us, what is our reward? How do we know if we’ve “won” at the game? Like in the game of life, the one with the most money at the end wins. But the thing is, as Jesus also points out, when life is over and it’s time to enter into our eternal, rather than retirement, homes, and where is the money? Well, it’s gone, because “you can’t take it with you”!

So, are we doomed to follow these rules that will, in the end, cheat us out of life and in fact give us nothing? Is there another king to follow, another set of rules for us to live by? The answer of course is yes, there is another ruler to follow, and his name is Jesus. This Jesus came to say, yes, yes there is. God’s Kingdom rules are the alternative. And we as children of light are called to follow by these rules instead.

Be faithful even in the little things. Be good stewards of and take care of what has been given to you by God. Which by the way, is our very life. Be a slave to God and serve one another, rather than serving the demand of money.

Both God and money demand your life. But which master would you rather serve? The small “G” god who’s bottom line is power, manipulation, and fear? Or the Big “G” God of love, grace, and mercy? The truth is, we can’t play the game by both sets of rules. We cannot serve both.

We are citizens of the Kingdom of God who are living in the Kingdom of Money at the moment. Which makes life confusing and complicated. All the playing pieces look the same. But we are called to play by different rules and to have a different strategy, because our goal is not the same. Our goal is not to win. Our goal is to follow Jesus. Which will probably lead us into all kinds of trouble.

My personal theory is that Jesus liked the rascally steward because he was the type of guy that Jesus tended to hang out with. Jesus was often accused of eating with sinners, scandalous women, and shady characters with glaring flaws – and this steward fits right in. He knew how to cleverly and creatively play by the rules of his world. According to The Message translation, verse 8 and 9 of Luke 16 reads “streetwise people… are on constant alert, looking for angles… using adversity to stimulate… creative survival.”

And so, that’s why I think that Jesus wants us to take a page out of the steward’s playbook of creative survival: when things get tough, DON’T give up. See what’s happening around you, and make a plan. Find those angles and exploit them for the good of the kingdom. Be alert to new opportunities.

And WHEN – not IF – we fail, we can get right back up, dust ourselves off, remind ourselves that we are baptized and beloved children of God, and every day is a new day. This is how we live, because we know that life is not really a game we manipulate, that there are actually no winners and losers, and we cannot simply strategize our way into the kingdom of God.

Jesus won a place for us in the kingdom already, by not playing by the world’s rules. In fact, you could say he cheated. He “won” the game by losing – losing any opportunity to gain worldly possessions, power, or status… even losing his very life, and ultimately, cheating death. All to prove that we cannot win our way to God.  The game has already been won, because there is no game. And so we have been freed – we no longer have to play by money’s rules.

Though we no longer have to play by money’s rules, we what we do with our money still very much matters. And so too, along the way, we ask ourselves, how can we as people of God flip the scrip, “cheat” at the game, and make our money SERVE US as WE continue to be called to SERVE GOD?

How we answer this question matters, because here we are, still on the game board, far from the finish line. The game of life has already been won for us, true, but in the meantime we still make choices and roll the dice. So along the way, Jesus challenges us to turn to the Dishonest Steward’s playbook, finding angles, keeping alert, keeping our wits about us, creatively surviving, until we reach the finish, in order challenge the game. Well, look out world, challenge accepted. Game on. Amen.