Sermon: Streetwise Christians

Preaching Text: “I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right…” (Luke 16:9) MSG

The classic Hollywood depiction of pastors, at least until recently, might be the character of Father Mulcahy, from the hit TV show M*A*S*H, who is shown to be unfailingly optimistic, friendly, and kind, possessing an almost incorrigibly sunny, good-natured personality.

Of course, on the flip-side, he is also shown to be hopelessly naïve, bumbling, and lost in the theoretical good. He knows nothing of the real world and is treated by the rest of the MASH unit as a kind of amiable dunce, beloved but not to be counted on for anything having to do with the real stuff of life. He’s a lovable pet whom they care for and protect.

This image of the kindly, naive pastor in some sense still applies, though nowadays there’s also a far darker, competing narrative – that of clergy as child-rapists, bigots, and self-righteous prigs. Here the perception is less the lovable buffoon as the hypocritical extremist.

I was ordained at a time when, for the most part, pastors were still seen as more like Father Mulcahy than the pastor of Westboro Baptist. I remember any number of instances in my first church that betrayed this sunny view.

I noticed, for instance, that people would act as if I’d never heard a swear word in my life though, admittedly, I don’t swear and don’t particularly like it.

More to the point, well-meaning people often assumed my worldview was so limited that I couldn’t possibly know what atheists think, for example, or even that there are different theological perspectives out there.

No, the idea for some was that, like Father Mulcahy, I knew little about the real world, my knowledge being confined mostly to a very narrow, bookish view of the Bible.

The truth of the matter, however, is that the divinity school I went to taught almost nothing but the intellectual problems and challenges to the traditional gospel. Virtually every critique one could think of, both secular and religious, was thrown at us. In fact, I’d almost go so far as to say that very little of traditional Christianity was ever mentioned!

This was, in retrospect, both good and bad. It was good because it has helped me understand and counter the various challenges to Christianity, from both inside the church and out. The not-so-good part is that the school assumed everybody was already up-to-speed on biblical Christianity without having to teach it. I had some catching up to do.

As I say, my education has helped me over the years to respond to Christianity’s critics in a (hopefully) more informed way. It also has helped me appreciate more fully the merits of the gospel (in contrast to the many alternate views of life), and to speak more effectively (again hopefully) to an increasingly skeptical and disbelieving age.

Consider the difficult passage this morning from the gospel of Luke. Here Jesus seems to recommend the unchristian actions of the “dishonest steward.” He even seems to be advising the church to do the same.

But listen to how Eugene Peterson presents this same passage from his The Message, beginning at verse 8:

“Now here’s a surprise!” Peterson’s Jesus says. “The master praised the crooked manager! And why? Because he knew how to look after himself. Streetwise people are smarter in this regard than law-abiding citizens. They are on constant alert, looking for angles, surviving on their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way – but for what is right – using every adversity to stimulate you to creative survival, to concentrate your attention on the bare essentials, so you’ll live, really live, and not complacently just get by on good behavior.”

In other words, don’t be a Father Mulcahy. Don’t live as if within a gated community of mind and spirit. Don’t pretend the world doesn’t exist. Use the gifts you were given skillfully and wisely. Don’t rest on your laurels.

As many of you know, Apple recently announced the release of their new iPhone 7. Based on the media coverage, you’d have thought the salvation of the world is finally at hand!

But bluster and hype aside, one can’t help but marvel at the technological genius found in the new iPhone. In addition to the creativity and skill that went into designing and manufacturing this miraculous little machine, one must credit the hard work and sacrifice that took an inspired vision and made it reality, turning it into a tangible, usable product.

Think of all the technicians, designers, finance people, advertisers, factory workers, and network of distribution outlets that make it possible for you to hold it in your hand. As I say, it’s a remarkable use of human ingenuity, skill, diligence, passion, and hard work.

Jesus’ message to the church is that it, too, ought to invest the same time, talent, dedication, hard work, and creativity toward the work of the gospel!

He is not recommending we live dishonest lives, as the passage might otherwise suggest, but that we should use all our God-given gifts and talents in ways that promote and strengthen Christianity and the Church, with the same vision and passion the secular world uses in pursuing its interests.

The traditional Christian understanding of the Sabbath, itself a continuation of Jewish practice, is that it is the most important day of the week.

Not only is it the first day of the week, but all other days are understood to revolve around it. During the three days following, the faithful are asked to reflect on the Sabbath past. Then, during the three days prior to the next Sabbath, they are asked to eagerly anticipate and actively prepare for its arrival.

Our modern secular mindset views the Sabbath instead as but the tail end of the week. The real action, in other words, is Monday through Friday, when the important work is done. In this context, the Sabbath is merely a day to recharge our batteries in preparation for the week to come.

Thus, unsurprisingly, people often say they don’t go to church because they’re too tired from the work week. Or if they do go to church, they see it as perhaps the icing on the cake of the week, nice but not essential. The idea is that if there is any energy left over, they might apply it toward cultivating their faith.

In biblical Christianity, however, the Sabbath is the precursor of the life yet to come, a slice of heaven yet to be. In worship we experience and practice this future existence, one that someday shall be ours in full. It is, as such, of central importance.

The point of Jesus’ message is that because faith is central to our existence, we should approach it with the same inspiration, intelligence, resourcefulness, and creativity we use in pursuing other less lofty, secular purposes.

Imagine what our world would be like if we all took this to heart. Amen.