"The Depth of Our Faithfulness"


Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 23, 2007

I Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 16:1-13

    
    Our lesson for today is a stand-alone parable found only in Luke’s Gospel.  This parable is probably the most unique in the Gospels because Jesus is using a story line that has no parallel in any other lesson.  Biblical scholars for years have differed about the message Jesus was teaching his disciples. For example, why would Jesus tell a story where all the characters are substantially bound to the material world? Even the rich man who is being swindled by his manager applauds the ingenuity of the plan being used for the settling of his accounts.               

     Perhaps the clearest understanding of this parable comes from two places.  Jesus taught, “the people of this world are much more shrewd in handling their affairs than are the people who belong to the light.”  Secondly, “If you have not been faithful in handling worldly wealth, how can you be trusted with true wealth?”             

     As the St. Matthew’s church family approaches the time when we consider our personal tithes and offerings for the growth of our church, the depth and quality of our financial faithfulness will be tested.  We live in a day of oil costing over $80 a barrel.  Our utilities have gone up substantially.  I am sure all of you are eagerly awaiting my stewardship message!             

     If we remain faithful to the parable Jesus used, the manager’s wealth was in his skill in dealing with material issues.  He made a deal with those who were in debt to his master to pay only a portion that they owed him.  He served his master by negotiating at least some return on what was owed to his master. Plus, he served himself by building a relationship with the people who owed his master.  How we deal with the issues of our material world reveals a great deal about us.  This was Jesus’ point.  

     For example, a young man was beginning his life’s work as the night manager of a small hotel in Philadelphia.  On one particular stormy night an elderly couple entered and requested lodging for the evening. They had been searching for a place to stay for quite some time, but all the hotels were filled because a number of conventions were being held in the city.             

     The manager explained that his hotel was filled as well.  As the three looked at each other, the young man said, “I cannot send you two away on such a nasty night.  It’s one o’clock in the morning!   Let me see what I can do.”             

     The manager returned in 20 minutes and asked that they follow him.  When they arrived at their room, the older man said, “Son, this is your room isn’t it?”  He said, “Not any longer.  I really want you to have it.  I’ll make do.”  The man said, “We can’t impose on you like that.”  He said, “I insist. Please take the room. You have fresh towels and linens on the bed.  You are all set.”  The couple thanked him for his kindness.           

     When the gentleman was paying the bill the next morning he said, “Son, you have made a lasting impression on me.  You are the kind of man who should be managing one of the best hotels in our country.  Perhaps some day I will build you one.”  The manager broke into a big smile at the eccentricity of the older gentleman’s comment, bid them a safe journey and forgot about it.           

     Two years passed.  One day the manager of that small hotel received a round-trip ticket and a note asking him to come to New York City.  He boarded the train and off he went.  Upon his arrival, he was met by the same gentleman he had helped during that stormy night years before.  The two of them traveled to the corner of Fifth and 34th Streets.  Pointing to a tremendous new building, a virtual palace of reddish stone, the older gentleman said, “There she is!  This is the hotel I promised that I would build for you.  Will you come and manage it for me?”           

     The young man did not know what to say.  He blurted out, “You are joking?”  “No indeed,” he said.  “When I stayed at your hotel several years ago, I signed my name W. W. Astor.  My full name is William Waldorf Astor and I plan to call this new hotel, “The Waldorf Astoria.”  With eyes as large as saucers, George C. Boldt took the job and managed the hotel for many years.            

     Abraham Lincoln once wrote, “Rather than striving to become well known, it is better to strive for the qualities that would make you worthy of being known.”  We never know who is watching.  We never know what our faithfulness to small tasks might do in creating within us the fulfillment of all that we seek.           

     The quality of our spirit is always entwined around how we deal with our material world.  Just as George C. Boltz’s spirit helped him climb to higher ground, there are those whose attitudes have caused them to miss the mark.  Who we are eventually becomes transparent to others.           

     One day a woman made an appointment to see the President of Duke University.  She had indicated to his secretary that she would not take much of his time.  She waited more than twenty minutes beyond her appointment time.  When he opened his office door to invite her to enter, he noticed that she was wearing was an old, faded and outdated hat.  Her coat was frayed.   

     As he ushered her into his office he said, “I am a very busy man and I only have 15 minutes that I can spare for you this afternoon.  Please sit down.”  She responded, “I’m sorry, then, that I have bothered you.  What I wanted to discuss would have taken longer than 15-minutes.”  She left his office.  She walked down to the Methodist Church on campus and made arrangements to pay for the multi-million dollar church that now stands very visible on Duke’s campus.  That President’s sense of self-importance and his lack of appropriate priorities cost the university a multi-million dollar gift that she had intended to give to the university.               

     A similar incident took place in the office of President Eliot of Harvard University.  A couple wanted to place a monument on Harvard’s campus in memory of their son, Leland, Jr., who died near his 16th birthday of typhoid fever.  The president was not prepared for such a request.  Without any further inquiry about what they intended he said, “We can not turn our campus into a cemetery. Why people would be requesting that we erect monuments everywhere.”  They said, “We were thinking of giving a building that we could name in his memory.”           

     He said, “Do you have any idea how much a building would cost?”  They didn’t know.  He excused himself for a minute and came back with the amount Harvard had just spent on their most recent building.  To President Eliot’s chagrin, the wife looked at the numbers and said, “Is that all a building costs?”  They thanked him for his time and left his office.  The couple boarded a train bound for Palo Alto, California where Leland and Jane Stanford provided the money to build Stanford University in memory of their son.  Leland turned to Jane and said, “The children of California shall be our children.”           

     These are two of the more illustrative stories of how people in power grossly miscalculated whom they were talking to.  People who are only entertained by these anecdotes can easily miss the point of how they apply to each of us.  Our economic status, the size of our investment portfolio, the ease with which we manage the external elements in our world can easily influence the spirit by which we live.  We do not have to be the president of a university to display the same attitudes.             

     Jesus said, “If you have not been faithful in handling worldly wealth, how can you be trusted with true wealth.” Obviously Jesus was well aware that worldly wealth had little value when compared to the inheritance that will come to those who are skilled in their understanding and use of their true wealth  

     No matter how well we disguise who we are while in the presence of others, we know precisely who lives under our skin.  This is divine justice.  God does not have to make a choice about any of us.  We will receive according to the level of our skills of spirit.           

     Let me illustrate what I mean.  A number of years ago, one of the largest general contractors in the United States had a foreman who had worked for him for years.  This man was a master craftsman who knew every aspect of the building industry.  Through the years, his responsibilities grew to enormous proportions.  He oversaw the construction of projects that were a half billion dollars in value.           

     One day he invited his foreman to take a trip in his Jeep to a magnificent 30-acre parcel of land that overlooked an expansive lake.  He said, “Henry, if you were going to build a house on this site where would you place it?”  The foreman, who knew the property well said, “My favorite spot is on the knoll over there.”             

     The owner of the company said, “I want you to build a house for a long time friend of mine.  I want you to put into it everything that you would want in your own home.  Spare no expense.  Build everything out of the best materials.  Put all the appliances and amenities in the house that you would want.  I respect your judgment and your opinion.”  He told his foreman that he would be out of the country for an extended period of time working on a number of large international deals for his company. 

    The foreman’s saw an opportunity to make a sizeable amount of money for himself on this project.  Although he knew better, greed seized him during a moment of weakness.  He knew how to cut corners and use inferior products where no one would see.  He knew all the tricks of the trade.  The way he figured, he could easily make about $48,000 for himself when the job was done.             

     His boss, who had returned many months before, had wanted to see the house only when its construction was completed.  That day arrived.  As the two men were standing in the large living room, looking out through the spacious picture window at the view of the lake, his boss said, “Henry, you have been such a faithful foreman for our company all these years.  I decided to give this house and the 30-acres to you and your family as a way of saying “thank you” for your faithfulness.  I know you will enjoy it!”            

     In the same way, God loves each of us.  The life we live is the one we build.  Our lives are God’s gift to us.  What we do with them is up to us.  What Jesus said in his parable was that we could never be successful in disentangling who we are from our wealth, our identity and our sense of discipleship.  They are inextricably entwined.            

     At the end of our lesson, Jesus delivered his conclusion.  He understood that we have to live in a material world.  He also knew that we are spirit beings who have enormous potential to do even greater things than he did.  As a warning to his disciples, he said, “No one can serve two masters. You can only be loyal and loving toward one of them.  In essence, we cannot remain in harmony with God’s will while at the same time remaining faithful to the aspects of this world that are always changing.   

     The depth of our faithfulness is always being tested.  Every moment of every day, our identity is on trial.  To whom are we going to be loyal – this world or the world that we will one day inherit? The choice we make will be visible in everything we do, think or say.  My prayer for all of us is that we will choose wisely.  

THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER

     We thank you God for the many forms in which love comes to bring healing to our lives.  A prolonged illness has a way of teaching us the value of our health.  A failure has taught us to become more empathetic for what others have experienced.  A “yes” to a new responsibility has often surfaced new skills from within us.  Our increased financial generosity to our church has taught us how faith can overcome fear.  Thank you for your presence during our personal storms caused by worries, our struggles with unmet needs and our confusion from unrecognized fears.  Teach us to greet change with opened arms.  Help us to understand that to resist change often leads us to choose blindness over insight, security over growth and death over life.  Guide us, O God, to be at peace.  Amen.  

THE PASTORAL PRAYER

     Always faithful God, we enter this place eager to find the peace that has the power to still our spirits and kindle once again our trust in your constant presence.  The highways of our minds so often seem clogged with the traffic of our own creation. Always it appears as though the little things are the most troubling and disruptive.  How often, O God, our own pride and lack of understanding cause us to stand in our own shadow.  There are moments when we look with dread upon responsibilities that are clearly ours to perform.

     Yet, we marvel at the many forms in which your spirit comes to us.  How often during a moment of doubt, we have heard you whisper to us, “Trust me, we can do this together”?  How many times have we found ourselves in the midst of a fragile moment, when someone appeared who gave us the insight that inspired our courage to face the occasion?  How many times have we learned that when we move away from our own preoccupations, your guidance is clear?  Your love evokes such peace, tranquility and hope.

     We find ourselves in a world where political figures tell us that they have the answers to so many issues that prevent community.  They have the formula for what it takes for men and women to live together in cooperation and peace.  While others use their words to describe a world few of us have ever seen, help each of us to become teachers, diplomats and peacemakers, thus making visible what it means to be a disciple of Jesus Christ who taught his disciples to say when they prayed . . .