Are you a shrewd operator?

Pentecost 18 Traditional Sermon

? Go on take the money and run..oooh oooh…Go on take the money and run! It may be the devil, it might be the Lord, but You gotta serve somebody…If I had a million dollars, I’d be rich ?

Just a few songs about about money that I thought I would serenade you with. Oh and there are dozens more out there, but I’m not going to butcher the entire catalog of American pop music just to  make a point. What’s the point? As the artist fondly known as Snoop Dogg rapped, “got my mind on my money and my money on my mind.”

And it’s not just an American thing or a 21st century thing. Our mind has been on our money and our money on our mind for a LONG time. And it’s not just a secular thing, the Bible spends a good amount of time talking about money, finances, and just practices. I read somewhere that Jesus talked about money more than He did Heaven and Hell combined. He talked about money more than anything else except the Kingdom of God. 11 of 39 parables talk about money. 1 of every 7 verses in the Gospel of Luke talks about money.

And one of those parables we hear today.

So let’s talk about the parable of the Dishonest Manager. Let’s just say it’s an odd story. Let’s get that out there. Jesus is teaching and advising his disciples about repentance and forgiveness and relationships and how it all relates to the kingdom of God. But the parable itself is an odd duck.

There are clients who haven’t paid their bills. A boss who’s unhappy with his manager. And a manager whose in deep trouble. If you heard about the story in the news today, you would hear phrases like “embezzlement” or “fraud.” At the very least the manager is not going to get a letter of recommendation when he’s booted out of his job. He may never work in the business again.

The manager tries to save his hide, so he goes to the clients who haven’t yet paid their bills and gives them a big discount. Pay now and you can pay less. And he gets the job done. By giving the clients a discount he’s actually cutting out his take on the deal. And he gives the proceeds to the boss, without paying himself. The plan paid off and the boss commends him. It’s a hinky parable because it leaves us wondering–where’s God in all this. Is someone skimming off of God? Are we the clients or the manager? What gives? Here’s some advice…don’t focus too much on the details. You’ll get swamped in them.

What we can focus on is the boss’ reaction at the end. He commends the manager for being shrewd. So thinking about how you are at work or how you handle your money, are you a shrewd operator?

That word shrewd sometimes has a negative connotation to it.

A while ago I was reading a poetic version of the beginning of Genesis. I read about the Garden of Eden, the place of innocence, a place where humanity was described as nude…and then we get to chapter 3 where it all falls apart because of disobedience and desire to be like God. This chapter begins with the words “now the snake was more shrewd than all the living things of the land”… or as my Old Testament professor would say,

The folks was nude and the snake was shrewd.

-Pastor Sarah’s Old Testament Professor

Even the phrase ‘shrewd operator’ takes on a sense of a big time operator or a wheeler and dealer. The folks that you may hear about in the news who get bonuses while their company goes down in flames.

The other week I was watching the movie “The Big Short.” A great movie featuring Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt…and it focused on the Wall Street guys who saw a housing bubble back in the mid-2000’s and bet against it. Shrewd yes. Many of them made millions on their bet. But they bet against their own companies, their own economy and watched as the economic systems around them crumbled, their colleagues losing jobs, and neighbors being evicted out of their homes. And it wasn’t just them acting, that real estate bubble was created by a lot of shrewd, ethically questionable practices. Practices that lured people into thinking that they could spend more than they could and cloaked weak assets inside seemingly strong securities. And ten years ago few people could tell you how all this shrewd, risky behavior would lead to a global wide recession.

When the bubble burst I was down in Naples, Florida serving as a vicar. It was one of the harder hit areas in the country. The housing market down there collapsed. Jobs disappeared. Houses lost. Whole families from our church had to move. Neighborhoods and job sites looked like ghost towns.

The snake was shrewd, and the folks was nude.

That’s one side of being a shrewd operator. Remember what Bob Dylan said, “You gotta serve somebody. Might be the devil or might be the Lord but you gotta serve somebody.” In the case of the housing crisis…there was a definite worship of wealth and mammon and shrewd behavior led to a lot of lives being ruined.

But…that’s not the only side of being shrewd. There’s another part of the book of Genesis where Joseph, you know the technicolor dream coat kid. He had 11 other brothers who didn’t always like him, so they kicked him out and he found his way to Egypt. He was shrewd.

You see God gave Joseph the gift for dreams and a good gift at using his resources well. And his boss…the Pharaoh… recognized Joseph to be a shrewd operator. One who was needed because there were signs that a famine was coming and the boss needed a manager who could spend and save wisely. One who could keep peace through food distribution. Joseph was the shrewd operator who could assure that his people would be fed and cared for.

Being shrewd is not an evil thing.

Being shrewd is using the good sense that God gave you to be his person in the world.

When you’re a shrewd operator for God you may have your money on your mind…but it’s keeping a mindfulness for God’s desire that drives how your mind is on your money.

I think about some recent stories of how the church is being shrewd. Last month a question that came up at the ELCA churchwide assembly in New Orleans. The church was wondering about our financial investments. They wanted to ask the question do we feel good and right about investing in companies that focus on fossil fuels when we know that there is an environmental concern out there and our reliance on crude oil. And some great shrewd operators posed it this way, “Do you think that we can make change for the good outside of the system or while we’re inside of it?” That is…we can be a force for change in how fossil fuel companies do business by being part of their business so that we can make it their business to be good stewards of the resources that God has given us.

God wants shrewd people in the world. Likethe story of Mike Ullman, who’s been the on and off again CEO of JC Penny’s. JC Penny’s whose known financial woes and needed a steady leadership. Ullman is a shrewd operator and was asked to come on board to help bring service back into the mission of the company. He didn’t need the money or recognition, but agreed to take the role because we wanted to help 25,000 employees see that their work matters. He took the position because he believed that God called him to a particular position of service at a particular time and place. And he’s credited for stabilizing a company in jeopardy and bringing a sense of mission back to its workers.

God wants shrewd operators. That word shrewd that we encounter in our Gospel today has similar meaning to words like “clever, mindful, thoughtful.” It’s the same word that was used by the Apostle Paul when he implores that you

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

–Philippians 2:3-5

That mindfulness and shrewdness is how God works in the world. Think about it our heavenly Father sent his son into the world and plunked him in the middle of no-wheres-ville. He could have placed him in the cushy seat of a palace or the powerful walls of an embassy, but rather he sent him with the humble and needy.

Why? Because God is shrewd.

And God knows that the most powerful acts in history occur through grass movements and the Son of God spread the good news of relationship and hope and forgiveness. He gave his own life so that our debts could be forgiven. And the Son was risen as a sign of what can be…that even in our deepest mess ups, when bubbles burst when recessions and global depression ensue, even in our darkest places, there is hope for forgiveness and renewal.  And this Son, Jesus the Christ taught the value of being a shrewd operator to his disciples who then taught them to other disciples so that the word of God spread—and the message of hope spread even in the most dire of circumstances. God’s shrewd operators continued to let their lights shine for all to see the glory of the Lord.

So I ask you again, how are you acting as an agent of God, and are you a shrewd operator?

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Rev. Sarah Teichmann

Pastor of Christian Formation

Pastor Sarah served as Pastor of Christian Formation at St. Peter’s from 2014 – 2021. She now serves the wider church as a partner at Kirby-Smith Associates.

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