The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Preached at First Congregational Church, UCC in Elgin, IL
on September 22, 2013

Weekend Conference: Learning The WAY

It’s as if Jesus had just walked in the back door and was talking about us, isn’t it?  Not very kind of me to characterize all of you, my new Elgin friends with such a broad dysfunctional brush stroke, but I’ll own it.  The details might be different, but this parable of Jesus’ is the story of my pathetic life, and the life of the world I live in.

Lay aside the plot details, and stop worrying about the money part for just a minute and look at the picture of people that Jesus paints.  There is every sort of sin imaginable, and then some in this short but complicated story he tells:

There’s a closed-minded rich man, fueled by his own power,

and by gossip and innuendo:  What is this I hear about you? he

asks his manager…

 

There’s that internal gut-wrenching self-justification on the

part of the manager.  Any of you been there?  I sure have.  It

            would have been different, if only they hadn’t been so mean to me,

            or if circumstances hadn’t conspired against me, or if…  if…  if…

            You can fill in your own blank.

 

There are secrets and lies, and on top of the secrets and lies,

there are inconsistencies.  One debtor gets to halve his indebted-

ness by 50%.  Another by just 20.

 

The entire story stands on the premise of injustice and inequality:

the parable’s society is a system of hierarchy with winners and

losers, the haves and the have nots, sort of like the 1% and the 99

we’ve so come to accept as the new norm in our so-called land of

opportunity.

 

One more thing:  in this story that Jesus tells the kicker is that

dishonesty is commended.  The liars and the cheaters not only get

ahead, but in the end, they’re pointed out as the commendable      ones.

 

It is a perfect portrait of dysfunction.  Envy, greed, lack of care and

compassion.  To me – and this might just be me, the skeptical          Seattlite – but to me it sounds a whole lot like the world we live in.

 

Now if you’re still with me, I’m going to let out just a little more line and then see if by the end of all this I can reel it back in and have something we can all take home today and remember about Jesus.  And about his Church.  That would be us.

 

So here it is: You cannot serve God and anything else.  Period.  In this story, Luke has Jesus concluding his lesson to the religious elite of his day by saying, “You cannot serve God and wealth.”  But it could be anything.  You cannot serve God and anything else.  To the scribes and Pharisees standing right in front of Jesus and listening to this sordid tale, this means you cannot serve God and be stuck in your super-duper self-righteous religious self-justifying ways of doing things.  It’s a world that doesn’t work.  It’s dysfunctional.  Have you noticed?  You are not looking very much like a chosen, holy people, the people God has called you to be.  You are prisoners in your own land.  You are all but helpless.  And what you are clinging to is a worn-out system of ideas that is just like the one in the story – filled with lies and deception.  Fueled by self-justification.  Inconsistent and lacking in compassion.

 

This could very well be our own land, could it not?  Our own church, our own lives.  Don’t all those things that describe these parable characters also describe us?  We are not looking very much like a chosen, holy people, the people God has called you to be.  We are prisoners in your own land.  We are all but helpless.  And what we often cling to is a worn-out system of ideas that is just like the one in the story.  Ours is a story filled with lies and deception.  Fueled by self-justification.  Inconsistent and all-too-often lacking in mercy and compassion.

 

And then we wonder why the churches we know and love aren’t growing.  Why aren’t people joining up.   Why is it that we have lost our voice – that no one seems to be paying attention to us any more?  Why has the church been relegated to the sidelines?

 

Why?  Because we have lost our way.  We have forgotten:  we cannot serve God and anything else.

 

Those who might be enlisted as disciples of Jesus these days can smell hypocrisy a mile away.  They are looking in our doors and peeking in our windows and seeing just how often it is that we who bear the name of the lover of the world are often narrow, closed-minded, self-justifying and dysfunctional.  And they want nothing of it.

 

That is not to say that they want nothing of God.  Or even that they want nothing of Jesus.  But the world that we are called to serve these days is a world that looks and listens with careful scrutiny not only at what we say, but at how we live.  No slave can serve two masters, Jesus says.  For a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and anything else.

 

Now here’s where I’m going to begin trying to reel this all in, so bear with me, and let’s see if together we can set the hook.

 

What if First Congregational Church, UCC, Elgin, IL owned up to its dysfunction and hypocrisy?  What if we all did?  I’m not naïve, I know that’s not going to happen overnight.  But what if we started here – with a piece of honest truth the world around might feel truly refreshed to hear.  What if we said:  You know what, we are a mess.  We don’t always get it right.  We don’t have all the answers.  But thank God WE HAVE JESUS.

 

Of all the things in this world that we could choose to serve, we choose Jesus.  The Jesus who said, “love your neighbor as yourself.”  The Jesus who said, “let your light shine before others,”  The Jesus who said, “when you do it to one of the least of these, you do it to me.”

 

We don’t always get it right.  We don’t have all the answers, but we’ve got room.  We’ve got room right here for you.  For you to bring your questions.  To join your broken lives with our broken lives.  To walk with us and to be better together than we ever could be by continuing to maintain the walls that separate us.

 

We choose Jesus, because Jesus first and foremost chose us.  And in this place we believe that despite all appearances to the contrary, Jesus continues to choose us day after day after day.  We like you to come and be a part of that with us.  Let’s do this together.

 

It is as we reorient ourselves with every ministry, every meeting, every mission, every sermon, every song, every prayer, to have that wide welcome at the center that we honor the one who says to us again and again:  as you are faithful in this little, you will be faithful also in much.

 

We’re not going to get it right overnight.  This is not going to all change in an instant.  The estates where rich men and women reign and dishonest managers run our lives and lies and deceit are the rule of the day – these do not go away overnight.

 

But Jesus loved us all the way to the cross and empty tomb so that we could join him in making a better way.  Bit by bit.  Piece by piece.  Step by step along the way of the cross.  And once again today, with a new start that puts to death all our past faults and failings, Jesus invites us once more to take up our cross and follow him.  The one, the only one worth following.  The one, the only one, whose life will draw all people to a new creation.

 

In the name of the Father, and of the (+) Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.