18 Pentecost: Everything is replaceable

"abundance" by Jessica Lucia, on Flickr

Amos 8:4-7
Hear this, you that trample on the needy,
and bring to ruin the poor of the land,
saying, “When will the new moon be over
so that we may sell grain;
and the sabbath,
so that we may offer wheat for sale?
We will make the ephah small and the shekel great,
and practice deceit with false balances,
buying the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals,
and selling the sweepings of the wheat.”
The Lord has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

Luke 16:1-13
Then Jesus said to the disciples, “There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property. So he summoned him and said to him, ‘What is this that I hear about you? Give me an accounting of your management, because you cannot be my manager any longer.’ Then the manager said to himself, ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg. I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.’ 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.’ 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. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes.

“Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

It was during the middle of the day in the midst of the flooding a few weeks back, and I was sitting helplessly on the couch in our living room. I’d spent my day thus far watching the water in the river rise well past flood stage, watching the water in our basement rise despite one, two, three, four pumps running, watching neighbors and spectators alike parade down our street to climb the dike to see what the river was doing, listening to them start speculating about whether they might start evacuating us. Meanwhile, news alerts kept telling me what I already knew - that the river was rising and had yet to crest - and they were advising people to take flood precautions, including moving items to higher floors of houses. I looked around our first floor and wondered out loud to Matt what stuff would be the most important stuff to move upstairs if the waters kept rising and we were evacuated. Would we move our computer? Our wedding album? Some of Sam’s toys and books? Files from Matt’s desk? Kitchen stuff that we didn’t want to lose? Our TV? My knitting projects?

Matt looked at me simply, and said only three words: “Everything is replaceable.” And inasmuch as I knew he was right, that truth was still hard to swallow.

As much as I wanted to believe that all of these things we had collected for ourselves and our home were things worth loving and caring for and protecting, I realized that I had somehow also started to believe that these things were loving and caring for and protecting me, when the truth is that all the stuff around me is just stuff. Temporary. Replaceable.

It’s been the challenge of Jesus to his followers these last many weeks: to deny themselves in order to follow him. He’s been talking a lot about giving up things and priorities and even people, for the sake of putting God’s calling at top priority. He keeps challenging us to revisit and reorder our loyalties. He keeps hitting hard at our need to let go of the things of this world, things that are ultimately temporary and replaceable, things that don’t actually give us the life and fulfillment that our souls desire, things that actually get in the way of freely serving God in the world.

Whether we admit it or not, we are pretty devoted to our material wealth - our stuff. We define ourselves and one another by the stuff that we collect around us. We decide how to decorate our living spaces to reflect our personalities. We decide how to dress in a way that makes us feel attractive and authentic. We decide which items in our lives are worth splurging on and which items can be cheap and disposable. We make choices about which policy-makers we support based on how they intend to spend our money, using our votes to voice our support for increased education spending, or increased military spending, or money spent on welfare, or money spent on the arts, or money spent on healthcare, or tax breaks that put money back in the pockets of the middle class, or the poor, or the rich. We make choices about our livelihoods based on balancing our desire for meaningful work with our desire to make a decent living, if we are lucky enough to have a choice about such things. We make decisions about whether and when to retire, if we are lucky enough to have a choice about such things.

Our lives revolve around the pursuit and protection of our money and our stuff, far beyond what we need to keep our mouths fed, our heads covered, and our bodies clothed.

Amos watches as the merchants and money-holders swindle the poor in their midst, as they fix the exchange rates and weight the balances and fill up their the stores of grain with chaff to make the packages heavier and more expensive to buy. Amos knows that when you have material wealth, you have power, and when you have power, you are the one who sets the scales, and when you are the one who sets the scales, you can tweak them to tip in your favor. Amos knows that dishonest wealth breeds dishonesty, and that you can get away with a lot when you are cheating the poor, because the poor can’t afford to stand up to the system. He knows that the impetus to do justice and to love mercy wanes the more stuff you have, because stuff seems like security, and when your life is going just fine, even by dishonest means, you have no reason to need God’s blessing or to work for God’s justice.

Not much has changed from Amos’s time to Jesus’s time to our time. We are still always at risk to be enslaved by our stuff. This is why some of the harshest things that Jesus has to say about the life of discipleship have everything to do with the question of money, and stuff, and our loyalty to the material wealth of this world.

Elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus tells a rich young ruler that to be a disciple, he has to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor, and the young man walks away, dejected. Jesus stands with his disciples at the treasury and chastises the rich folks who give showy offerings out of their abundance, but commends a poor widow who gives two coins, which is everything that she has left. Jesus tells a crowd of would-be disciples that they need to deny themselves and give up everything to follow him. Jesus says that nobody can be a disciple unless they give up their possessions.

And today, Jesus tells a terrible and baffling parable about a rich man who is about to fire his manager for rumors of corruption and mis-management of his wealth. The manager, afraid that he is about to lose his job and lose everything, slyly cuts the debts of some of his master’s clients, in order that he might find favor with them down the road, and in order that he might make his master look good and generous, in case that will somehow help his plight. The rich man commends the manager for his cleverness, and Jesus pretty sarcastically says that we would do well to be as invested in the work of God’s kingdom as the manager was invested in cutting his losses and saving his own skin.

Jesus says that we can live in service to our wealth or that we can live in service to God; that we can be slaves to only one or the other, but not both at the same time. Both God and wealth promise to protect us, to bring us life, to give us security, to make us joyful, and to offer us a future. Only one of those two masters can actually make good on those promises.

Ultimately, the one-two punch of Amos's words and Jesus's words this morning tell us a few, simple, important things:

1: Human systems of wealth, economy, and class are filled with as much brokenness and sin as are the humans who inhabit those systems. But we have to trust that God can bring good even out of corrupt and broken systems.
Look at what happened in today’s gospel: A questionable system of wealth that up until this point has only benefitted the master turns into a corrupt and questionable system of wealth that somehow benefits the master, the manager, and those for whom debts have been cancelled. It is a parable where a lot has gone terribly wrong, and yet ill-gotten and undeserved benefits have abounded. We, too, are stuck in the midst of an economic system that both oppresses and benefits its members. We are stuck trying to recalibrate the balances so that the poorest in our midst find relief. We are called to advocate for fair labor practices and equal pay. And we do this important and Godly work of economic justice, no matter how slow we are to see the fruits of our labors.

2: Detachment from material wealth is a virtue of our faith.
Plain and simple, Jesus tells us over and over and over again that the life of faith is liberated when we detach ourselves from the stuff of this world. Jesus is walking to the cross to give up literally everything. In our own lives, what good is it for us to collect up barnfuls of extra grain when, at the end, our mortal lives, too, will be demanded of us? This past Wednesday morning, I was holding vigil at Freda Jacobsen’s bedside during her last hours on this earth, and as we looked around her room at the few remaining furniture pieces, artwork, family photos, and greeting cards, the comment was made, “You live your life, and at the end, everything that really mattered to you fits into one room; into one box.” In many ways, our whole lives are a cycle of coming into this world with nothing and then leaving with nothing. Everything is temporary. Everything is replaceable. This is why Jesus challenges us to detach from the things of this world, so that we can focus on things that are eternal.

3: Our material wealth finds its greatest purpose and value when it is used to lift up the plight of the poor. Jesus in today’s gospel says that if we are to be trusted with the eternal things of God’s kingdom, we’d best be practicing our faithfulness on all the lesser things of this world; that we need to be faithful with the things that we have, whether we have a lot or a little. And it turns out that being faithful with the stuff that we have, if you really read the Bible, means giving it up and giving it away as best as we can. Because everything we have is first and foremost a gift of God the creator, a blessing that comes from and belongs to God. Our job is to to steward and manage these blessings on God's behalf in the world.

Friends, I know that all of this money talk doesn’t seem to carry with it any word of grace or any manner of good news. So let me give you at least a few words of promise:

Our eternal souls are bound up with Christ, who gave everything that he might gain back for us life itself. God promises to renew the face of the earth and to bring everything back into balance when the new heavens and new earth come to us. God promises us that we do not have to be anxious about tomorrow, because if God provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, how much more will he provide for us. We worship together in the promise that even a mouthful of bread, a sip of wine, and a splash of water are enough to give us everything that we need and more.

It is in this context that we can ease into a life where we daily recognize that God’s grace is eternal, and all of our other stuff is temporary.

Because the things that are ultimate - life, hope, grace, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, resurrection - are things that cannot be bought or earned, but only received as freely as they are given to us by God, and shared with one another just as freely.

Our bodies will age. Our possessions will fade and crack. Our wealth - honest or ill-gotten - will be taken from us. And that is okay. It is more than okay. Because it is in losing everything that Christ has returned to you the things of eternity. It is in giving his life that Christ has returned to you everlasting life. Everything else is replaceable.