Sunday, September 23

Sermon: "Spirits in the Material World"

Proper 20, Year C
Texts: Amos 8:4-7, 1 Timothy 6:6-19
Gospel: Luke 16:1-13
September 23, 2007
Preacher: The Rev. Laura Gottardi-Littell

Today’s Scripture lessons encourage us to avoid making false divisions between the spiritual and the material. They’re about the complex relationship between matter and spirit. They remind us that we need to keep these two opposing poles in balance, and transform the material by way of the spiritual.

Someone said: “God likes matter. He created it.” Genesis tells us that matter is just fine. God created the earth and its creatures, and God saw that it was good. And then there was the fall. Sin and death entered the world. So God sent us some correction. First the law. Then the prophets. Then the Christ. Through the Incarnation, God as Jesus came into this world as one of us. He didn’t shun or reject our planet. He didn’t think it was disgusting to be human. He didn’t like a lot of things people here were doing, but he loved people fiercely nonetheless. In Jesus, God came here to live and die among us, to take on our human condition, and in so doing save and transform creation. God is simultaneously in and beyond the world. And God is also transforming the world.

As Christians, we too are supposed to be in the world but not of it. We’re not called to condemn or escape the world. We’re called to use the world’s tools to help transform the world.

One of these tools is money. Another is our human intellect.

In today’s gospel, Jesus tells us to be shrewd, like the dishonest manager. To use our intellect and to use money. But use them both for good. Jesus draws an analogy between how we handle our finances and how we handle our spiritual lives.

At first it seems like the dishonest manager is a villain. He’s squandered his master’s money, and is about to be fired. So he contrives a scheme to make friends with people who owe his master money. He greatly reduces the amount they owe the master. He figures that after his master fires him, he’ll be welcome in the homes of these folks. They’ll feed and house this dishonest manager, because they’ll owe him a debt of gratitude.

After he reduces their debts, the master praises him. And after Jesus finishes this parable, he tells his disciples to be shrewd like the dishonest manager. So this shady character, this charlatan, turns out to be a role model. Go figure.

I think God is a lot like the master. And we humans are like the dishonest manager. Who in this room hasn’t squandered a resource or wasted something? Who among us is unfailingly 100 percent honest? All of us are tainted by sin and imperfection. We squander our true wealth -- our ability to love and serve God and neighbor. We fail to be good stewards of creation. Collectively, we’re not good managers of God’s property. It’s a fallen world. But God has plans for us.

There are two morals in this story. 1) Just like the dishonest manager, we all may have to face an impending crisis. We too may have to justify ourselves before our master. So we’d better get our act together and our accounts in order. How swiftly and effectively can we respond to the Christ? Are we as good at dealing with our spiritual lives as we are with our clothes, our cars, our bank accounts?

2) We’re called to disburse resources, but not for selfish gain. When faced with the impending crisis, the visitation of his Lord, the dishonest manager further disburses his master’s wealth, but in a way that makes life easier for folks by reducing their debts. We too are to use our resources to make life easier for others, and to build up the kingdom.

In this parable, Jesus is linking the material and spiritual in a very intricate way and saying, you know what? We’ve got to deal with both. And how you deal with one may very well indicate how you deal with the other.

Jesus says in this parable we have to get our act together spiritually and materially. We’ve got to be shrewd. What good are we to the kingdom if we’re naïve? Yes, the perfect is coming. But we’re not there now. So, meanwhile, be in the world and know how to play the world’s games, without being conformed to the world. Don’t be seduced by the dark side. Be as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove.

Sting writes that we are spirits living in the material world. Madonna informs us we are living in a material world and she is a material girl. Ok. But for Christians it’s all about how we use the material. To what purpose are we using our resources? It’s about letting our spiritual lives guide and transform our relationship to matter.

Jesus tells his disciples. “Use money to win friends and influence people. For the sake of the gospel. Use resources wisely. Reduce others’ debts and improve their lot. Get your rich friends to help you build the kingdom. But don’t get confused in the process. Money is a means, not an end. It’s not God.”

All of today’s Scripture readings take up this theme of balancing the spiritual and material. In today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Amos is up in arms because things in Israel are out of whack. Spirit and matter are not in balance. Amos rips the people who can’t wait for the religious festivals to be over so they can get back to making money. For them, religion is a shell game. They trample on the poor, and charge exhorbitant interest. In so doing they transgress against the Law, which gives everything and everyone a place, even the poor. Remember that in ancient Israel, when grain was harvested, some was to be left on the fields for the poor to gather. People who deny rights to the poor upset the social balance. Amos says God will hold people accountable for such behavior. Greedy folks won’t be able to hear God’s word when they need it. We’ve got to let our religion transform us, or it’s no religion at all. The spiritual has to mediate and inform our material choices.

In today’s epistle reading, the author of 1st Timothy likewise speaks to the union of spirit and matter. He tells us to pray for kings and others in positions of worldly authority. As Christians, we’re not to abandon the world to its own devices, but to influence the material by way of the spiritual. So if we have friends in high places, let’s pray for them, not condemn them. Christ has come for everyone. We are to bring the world to God and God to the world. It’s an incarnational spirituality.

Jesus tells his disciples to make friends by means of dishonest wealth, which can also be translated as worldly wealth. This world is an imperfect version of the one to come. We live between the already here and the not yet. We’re messy people dealing with messy stuff. Like money. So deal with the grunginess. Don’t be so idealistic or naïve you can’t deal with the reality of money, which is inherently dirty. You never know where it’s been. But deal with it in such a way that your own hands are clean and you can look the master in the eye when he calls you to account. Deal with it in a way that transforms it. Use it for good, not selfish gain. If God can trust us with the imperfect, perishable resources of this realm, God’s going to trust us with the perfect, imperishable riches of the next.

When we forgive neighbors their debts, our debtor status is likewise forgiven by our master. God praises us when we forgive. Yesterday was the Jewish high holiday, Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Part of getting our spiritual act together, part of atonement, is forgiving others their debts, even as we ask God to forgive us. Some debts are financial, others emotional. There are many ways to reduce debts.

Today’s Scripture lessons ask a lot of us, don’t they? Balance the spiritual and material. Be in the world but not of it. Deal with the world as it is, while seeking to transform it. Use resources wisely and fairly. Use your shrewdness for good. Help the poor. Win friends for the master. Forgive debts. Bring the world to Christ and Christ to the world.

Tall order? Sure. But thank God we don’t have to do it all at once. And we don’t have to do it alone. Here at Reconciler we have a Bible study series in the works – to talk about money and debt and how we as Christians can handle our resources wisely and responsibly. So stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we can start the conversation right now, in silent reflection, and then with each other if the Spirit so moves. How might God be asking us to strike the right balance between spirit and matter? Where is he calling you and me to account?