Shrewd Children of Light

A Sermon Preached by Rev. Osy Nüesch at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church on September 22, 2019

Luke 16: 1-8 (9-13)

I must begin today with a humble attempt at rehabilitating the reputation of our last family dog, Robinson. For those of you who were not here last Sunday, I mentioned Robinson as an example for the tendency to do what comes most naturally. I thought he was a good illustration of a historic theme of the Reformed Tradition: Left to our devices, we fall into idolatry, (selfishness) and tyranny (See Book of Order F.2.05). In other words, our natural tendency has become to make idols that will serve our needs and, if we need to throw others under the bus – so be it.

That’s not what God intended. And that is why we need a Savior.

In my eagerness, I may have left some of you with the wrong impression. Robinson could be a loving and grateful dog and there was much about him that was good. And he was very smart, in a primal sort of way. He was a survivor; he lived 16½ years; and he was very friendly (like Vixen, our current dog).

There was this time, when Robinson saw these 2 large dogs being walked by one of our neighbors and he pulled and pulled to get closer so he could greet them and play with them. As they got closer, the leashes got all entangled, and the elderly neighbor lost control of one of the large poodles and the dog tore after our Robinson. The dog’s aggression took all of us by surprise – most of all Robinson – who just wanted to play but instead quickly became the victim of some ferocious behavior! To his credit, Robinson quickly assessed the urgency of his predicament. His first reaction was to assume a submissive attitude or stance. That’s what dogs do to determine the leader of the pack. The one lays down acknowledging the superiority of the other who then backs off. But that big dog did not play by nature’s laws: that mean dog proceeded to bite Robinson around the neck! As I tried to separate them, Robinson’s leash came off of his neck and he managed to free himself from the nasty dog and for a moment seemed to regain his composure. Realizing that the poodle was not playing nice, Robinson did a very uncharacteristic thing: He growled and showed his fangs in a menacing way. That failed to impress the attacker who resumed his assault and lounged at him again! I watched helplessly while Robinson quickly considered his options. Submission hadn’t work. Matching aggression with aggression didn’t work, either. What else could he do? His survival was at stake. What course of action was left? Run for your life. Which he did. He took off and outran the dog home.

I was very impressed by his cleverness. After all: Discretion is the best part of valor. I managed to catch up to the neighbor’s dog and grabbed his leash and returned him to his owner, who was a bit shocked at her dog’s behavior.

In the safety of our home, Robinson licked his wounds, more emotional than physical, I’m glad to report. Later I reflected on our dog’s natural instincts facing a bizarre and dangerous situation: He understood/analyzed his predicament, he appraised the options available to him: Submission, aggression, retreat. One of those should guarantee survival.

I didn’t intend for this to turn into a sermon series: Canine Wisdom Part 2 0r What We Learn from Dogs – Part Deux. But the lesson is simple: In moments of crisis, don’t we do pretty much the same thing? There is an aspect of practical wisdom that we all share, that is pretty universal. At a very basic level, we are very good at self-preservation. “Life will find a way!” (in the immortal words of Jurassic Park).

Today’s Gospel lesson takes a parable that Jesus told about a servant who had managed to climb the household’s ladder of responsibility and reached the level of manager. There were allegations of impropriety and the boss got wind of it and asked for a financial audit. The manager realized he was about to get caught so he used shady practices to save his neck and land on top.

What could he do? A strategy begins to form in his head. He had to react in a crisis situation. And he does. And at the end of the day, he is praised, not for his morality, but for his ability to act effectively and creatively. We have to admire: The way the manager displays an intelligent understanding of his predicament; his ability to appraise what viable options he had available to him; and the wisdom of the action ultimately favored.

“What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me?” Whether the allegations are true or not, the end seems pretty much a forgone conclusion. “I’m going to be out of a job. I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.”

Fair enough: Those 2 options are out (“I’m too lazy and weak; and I do have my pride”). “What do I do to ensure my future? I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as a manager, people will still welcome me into their homes.”

Having relationships with other people going forward would make the difference in the quality of his future. Something to take from this story. And that motivation leads the manager to make a survival decision. There may have been other possibilities; certainly there had to be other more ethical decisions. But those would not make for a memorable story. It’s the combination of all these elements that makes this both memorable and unsettling story. Some have called this one of the most difficult of Jesus’ parables. They question the lessons that it could possibly teach by suspending honesty, justice and principle. What is the point? That “all’s well that ends well”? That “the ends justify the means”? These hardly seem like appropriate lessons for a sermon. After all, we are in church and church is expected to be in the morality business. Everybody expects that when you come to church you will be told what is right and what is wrong, what is ethical and unethical. And we expect Jesus to cooperate – to tell stories about how people follow the rules, do what is expected of them, and when they don’t, then they should get what they justly deserve!

I remember a visitor who brought her daughter to church one summer Sunday. She told me she was looking for a church for her daughter where she would learn about sexual abstinence. I couldn’t remember when my last children’s sermon dealt with abstinence, but I assured that mother that our educational program would give her daughter a sound biblical and theological basis whereby she would learn to make responsible decisions. (I don’t think that impressed her: She didn’t come back!) That’s what people expect of the church: a place that will teach you values and morals, encourage ethical behavior, make you an honest and dependable person. If that was your expectation this morning, our text does not sound like good news right about now.

This is how one preacher put it: “Jesus assaults us with this story of a little thief who got caught, who realized the precariousness of his situation and took drastic, though not too commendable, action. And the master commended the servant for his savvy. It is a surprising, disrupting way to end the story. But maybe that is just what Jesus wants to do to us – surprise and disrupt us.” (William H. Willimon, “Outrageous Graciousness” in Pulpit Resource, Vol. 29, No.3, Year C, p. 52) And Jesus is a master at doing things like that with humor and creativity. And that’s what makes this a fun story. It’s a story about a manager that sticks it to the boss by thinking outside the box, in a very creative way.

“So, summoning his master’s debtors one by one, he asked the first, “How much do you owe my master?’ He answered, “A hundred jugs of olive oil.’ He said to him, “Take your bill, sit down quickly, and make it fifty.’ Then he asked another, “And how much do you owe?’ He replied, “A hundred containers of wheat.’ He said to him, “Take your bill and make it eighty.’” (I don’t like you as much as I do the other guy.)

So here we have: conspiracy to defraud; price fixing; embezzlement. Great!
But notice he didn’t cook the books. He brought other parties into his scheme. He was the mastermind. If this plot came to light, he could claim plausible deniability. “You say. He says. I say.”

Working with this story this time around, I was taken by the creativity of the manager in engaging other people to make his plan work. We often think that genius, creativity, originality are found in individuals working alone. And so much of our culture admires that individualist approach. The maverick/rebel. Maybe you had one of those typical college dormroom posters: Freud with his cigar, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the pulpit, Picasso looking wide-eyed at the camera, Einstein sticking out his tongue. These posters often carry a poignant epigraph — “Imagination is more important than knowledge” — or something like that. But what’s the underground message coming through? What is being conveyed by the solitary pose?

The truth of the matter is that none of these men were alone in the garrets of their minds. Freud developed psychoanalysis in a heated exchange with the physician Wilhelm Fliess, whom Freud called the “godfather” of “The Interpretation of Dreams”. Martin Luther King co-led the civil rights movement with Ralph Abernathy, a Baptist minister who was his close friend and mentor, whom King referred to as “My dearest friend and cellmate.” Picasso had an overt collaboration with Georges Braque — they made Cubism together — and a rivalry with Henri Matisse so influential that we can fairly call it “an adversarial collaboration.”

Even Einstein, for all his solitude, worked out the theory of relativity in conversation with the Swiss/Italian engineer Michele Angel Besso, whom he praised as “the best sounding board in Europe” and who introduced him to the sources that led him to the exploration for which he became famous. (I can’t remember where I borrowed this from, but it’s not original.) Necessity, not isolation, is the mother of invention.

And we don’t give collaboration enough credit for its role in creativity. And yet, it’s such an intricate aspect of how we interact as Presbyterians. We don’t have a Bishop; we make decisions as a Presbytery. Our Session uses committees with diverse representation. Even our understanding of the sacraments holds to a communal aspect.

And the point that Jesus is driving home is the role of ingenuity and creativity that makes things
happen: “And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly; for the children of this age are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light” (16:8). Or if you’d prefer: “If only the children of light were as wise and determined in pursuing righteousness/justice as this manager was in pursuing his own security” (Brian K. Peterson, Exegesis, Lectionary Homiletics, August-September 2007, p. 65) and survival. Or we could put it in one of those “Then How Much More” arguments Jesus used so powerfully: “If a dishonest person for selfish reasons can come up with options to achieve a larger goal, then, how much more should people of faith, with good intentions and godly savvy, be able to accomplish so much more?”

Resourcefulness and ingenuity are in short supply in churches today. We are fond of that phrase: That’s how we’ve always done it. Sometimes faith works against us. We want to rely on God, follow Christ, depend on the Spirit. And that’s all well and good:

• But how much does the Spirit do for us and how much should we do ourselves?
• What can we rely on God to do and how much will we have to dig deep into our wallets and make possible now with the resources available?
• Where are the partners we need to engage in order to achieve great things?

Children of light should venture. Children of light should not be afraid to risk. Children of light should put their heads together and seek to make a difference with the resources available now. Christ challenges us to dare to be different even as he was thought to be unorthodox – teaching by using a crazy story like this. Christ challenges us to look critically at the world around us since he risked seeming ridiculous in order to advance the claims of the kingdom of God. “The Kingdom of God is near,” Jesus assured then and assures us. How does that vision guide us today, to think, plan and act creatively, engaging others? “Children who walk in the light of the Lord understand this: We not only are entrusted with the vision of the kingdom of heaven; we are given the treasures of the King!” (Helen Montgomery Debevoise, Pastoral Perspectives, in Feasting on the Word, p. 96).

Let our light shine by reclaiming who we are, renew our vision for God’s kingdom, and work cleverly to make it happen. In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.