Journey in Faith

Sermon Preached at St. Mary's (Stone Harbor)
September 23, 2007
Proper 20C

Perhaps one of the most common metaphors for talking about our faith is that of a journey. We talk about our spiritual journeys, our faith journeys. My list of books to read includes such titles as The Sacred Journey, A Journey with God in Time, The Journey into God, Strength for the Journey, Bread for the Journey. Tomorrow night, I’ll be facilitating the first of a five session course called Journey in Faith – there’s a sign-up sheet on the bulletin board in the Parish Hall, by the way (shameless publicity stunt, I know!). The point is that journey is a common metaphor for our life as Christians.

This is not surprising when you consider many of the early stories of our faith. Abraham left his homeland to follow God’s call. Moses led his people out of Egypt into the wilderness and from their they journeyed into the promised land. Jesus traveled from place to place teaching and healing. The very core of our faith – our sacred texts – are stories about journeys. Huston Smith in his book Why Religion Matters cites Rainer Marie Wilke’s description of God as more of a direction than an object for our devotion.[1] And I think that’s right. When we think of God as a direction we avoid the temptation of confusing God with other objects we desire – money, power, status, and so forth. God is not an object, but is rather the primary direction – the true north on our compass – on our journey in faith.

The story Jesus tells his disciples in today’s gospel is confusing. A dishonest manager has not been collecting his master’s debts as he was hired to. Upon being caught, he makes an effort to collect from the debtors by greatly reducing the amount they owe – in one case by as much as 50%. Now, when we might expect his master to be angry with him for cutting these debts so significantly, instead, we are told, “his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly.”[2] Then, as if to make the story clear, Jesus says to the disciples, “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.”[3] Huh?

Here’s how I’ve begun to make sense of this confusing story in Luke’s gospel. Squandering his master’s property is certainly unethical and deceitful and the manager is not commended for this behavior. When he is called to task, he wonders 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.”[4] The manager, for all of his dishonesty is not concerned about the person he has betrayed nor is he concerned about the debtors he has cheated. No, he is worried about himself – his status in society and his reputation. Then there is the epiphany and the manager announces, “I have decided what to do so that, when I am dismissed as manager, people may welcome me into their homes.”[5] Now, we may continue to question his motives – is he still more concerned about his position and reputation than he is about the wrong doing he has been engaged in? Probably. And, in the actions that follow, the manager does, in fact, make friends of the debtors – that is, he maintains his place within the society. But, he does this by greatly reducing their debts and, for this action, he is praised by his master.

At the moment he is praised by his master, the story has taken a turn. Because I think that in order to make sense of the story, the master at the end of the story – the one praising the manager – cannot be a reference to the master, the rich man, at the beginning of the story. I think that the master commending the manager at the end of the story is, in fact, Jesus and he is commending him for his attempts – regardless of motive – at a redistribution of wealth. The reading from the prophet Amos would certainly support this reading. Amos does not mince words, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land. . . The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob; Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.” Other passages in the gospel of Luke would support this reading as well. The Song of Mary, for example, says, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty”[6] and the many stories of Jesus sharing a meal with society’s outcasts – the sinners and tax-collectors of last Sunday’s gospel reading.[7] So, while the manager’s behavior is still not 100% on track with God’s intention for humanity, he has made a turn for the better. Instead of having wealth as his master, the manager has found his compass and is headed in a new direction – toward Christ, his Master.

The Opening Collect for this morning calls us to do the same. “Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure.” Money, power, and status are powerful object gods in our culture. But they are not to be confused with the Triune God of our faith journey. A God who calls us again and again to repent – to change directions, to continue our journey towards the love of God and away from the temptations of “earthly things.”

The word repent is itself a journey word, a word of choice and movement. Often when we think of the word repent, we associate it with guilt or shame or an easy “I’m sorry.” But Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemman says that the word “repent” implies a “sustained, long term resolve to act differently.”[8] In today’s gospel, we are invited, like the manager, to turn away from the false gods of material possession and social status and to make a commitment toward Jesus’ call to use these possessions and our status to bring about justice in the world – a “sustained, long term resolve to act differently.” This is the repentance we are called to today; for “no slave can serve two masters.”[9] We can’t serve both, but we can and are invited to use one in service of the other. Once we have turned our lives toward God, we can begin to discern the new vision God has for us. Our commitment to and our belief in this new vision of God’s reign will carry us on a journey in faith along a path that will lead us in the direction of God’s mission for justice in the world.

[1] Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief, (San Francisco: Harper, 2001), p. 6.
[2] Luke 16:8.
[3] Luke 16:9.
[4] Luke 16:3.
[5] Luke 16:4.
[6] Luke 1:53-54.
[7] Luke 15:1-10.
[8] Walter Brueggemann, Reverberations of Faith: A Theological Handbook of Old Testament Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), p. 170.
[9] Luke 16:13a.