The Character of a Christian: Faith – September 22, 2019

by Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens

We continue with our sermon series “The Character of a Christian,”  we address a characteristic that is essential to our Christian life… and yet is it, in my opinion, one of the most difficult characteristics to maintain: FAITH.

FAITH is difficult: it involves believing in something… with no proof that THAT Belief will pay off. It involves investing one’s heart and soul and future in the hands of something or someone that is uncertain. 

Proverbs, chapter 3, verses 5-6 tell us this:

5 Trust in the LORD with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;  
6 in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight. 

Trust in the Lord, the Proverb says, and he will make your paths straight. God will help you when your way is blocked, when your paths are tangled and your future is unclear. Trust in the Lord. But do we? Do we trust in God, in the support and guidance and love God has for us, or do we trust in ourselves – our OWN plans, our OWN decisions, our OWN talents. Or do we trust in other sources of information – other small “g” gods? Just whom do we trust?

(What source of information do you consult before you believe? Bible? Google? Someone’s opinion you value?)

These two men – Jeremiah and Jesus – are separated by 600 years and just as many life experiences and a wide range of historical events that formed them: Each prophet was a man of his time, a faithful Jew speaking the words of God to God’s people. And in this way, their words and actions can be compared, but it is not an easy task. In fact, sometimes I wonder why the Established church put these texts together… But in these two readings I deciphered a common theme: And that is the question: Whom do we trust? In whom do we place our Faith?

In the case of the ancient Israelites, Jeremiah lamented the foolishness of Israel that turned away from their God to trust in idols. In the case of Jesus’ parable about the “dishonest manager” we witness the trust of money – an idol of our time – and Jesus illuminates an idea not only for the people of HIS time, but a wise warning for the people of OUR time: One cannot serve God and wealth.

But we begin with the writings of Jeremiah, from around 600 BCE, in chapter 8, verse 18-chapter 9, verse 1. We greet Jeremiah in the middle of his lament over the situation the people of God have found themselves in: he is torn between his love for his people and his loyalty to God and the message God has impelled him to share.

* This text from Jeremiah has three voices and so we will need three voices to explain it: I will read Jeremiah’s lines, and we will need a voice of God (blue) and you all will be the voice of the people (yellow):

Jeremiah: 18 My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
 my heart is sick.
19 Hark, the cry of my poor people
 from far and wide in the land:

People: ‘Is the Lord not in Zion?
 Is her King not in her?’

God: (‘Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?’)

People:20 ‘The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
 and we are not saved.’

Jeremiah:21For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
 I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
22 Is there no balm in Gilead?
 Is there no physician there?
 Why then has the health of my poor people
 not been restored?
1O that my head were a spring of water,
 and my eyes a fountain of tears,
 so that I might weep day and night
 for the slain of my poor people!

This is a multi-character poem about the situation: the prophet who is heartsick about the disaster that has come upon his own people; the God, who has been betrayed and is taking action; and the people, who have turned away and are facing the consequences of their trust in idols; their infidelity to their God.

*  And so, in light of this faithlessness, this lack of trust, God acted by severing the relationship. There is no cure to this betrayal, God said. And cut ties. If you are looking you may find a song title in the midst of this text: “There is a Balm in Gilead” is one of our United Methodist hymns and one that is used to refer to the healing power of God. But Jeremiah does not use the phraseology of the hymn-writer. Here Jeremiah refers to the result of the summer harvest – in which their baskets should be overflowing with abundance, but as verse 20 says, The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.’  And so Jeremiah evokes the most fertile part of the land, Gilead and its abundant grasslands. (1) 22 Is there no balm in Gilead?

And the answer for Jeremiah’s people is no. There is no balm in Gilead that will save them. There is only repentance and return to the ways of the Lord. 

Which is where we find Jesus, encouraging people to repent and turn to God. Here we find Jesus, painting a picture of the Kingdom of God, in which every person is valued and loved and cared for. Here we find Jesus, welcoming sinners and explaining to the religious elite and to common people alike, to trust in God.

This is a difficult parable, about a manager who deceives his workers and is praise by Jesus, used as a model of behavior. “Be like this guy!” Jesus says, and we are left asking, “HIM? Are you sure?” But, this parable follows a storytelling pattern that begins with to Jesus’ companionship with sinners (all of Luke, chapter 15) and moves into a series of passages concerned with money (in chapter 16). Therefore our parable of the Manager bridges these two sections, as the manager is a sinner (“corrupt”) whose affairs involve money. (2)

Rephrase the parable:

  • A rich man lives in the city, with a lifestyle of luxury made possible from the income of the estate he owns in the countryside. 
  • He’s hired a manager to run his country estate, and all of the work of planting and harvesting done by peasant farmers.
  • Well, the landowner fires the manager because of rumors that the manager was squandering the landowner’s resources. 
  • But, instead, the manager doesn’t leave quietly. He gathers all of the farmers who owe the landowner money, and he declares that their debts have been reduced!
  • The farmers believe the landowner is generous. And the manager looks good, too.
  • Eventually, the landowner comes for the collection and he gets a surprise: the streets are lined by cheering farmers. They’re shouting his name, telling him he’s a hero.
  • So the landowner has a choice to make: does he reveal the dishonesty of the manager (and look bad to the people) or take credit for the manager’s lie, and take the manager back into his employ?

Luke 16:8-13

8And his master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly;  (Well played, Manager.)

This man WAS dishonest in his scheme, but it worked. And it worked because he acted dishonestly, but to the advantage of the poor. He forgave their debts. And we know that Debt is used more than once by Jesus as a metaphor for sins and forgiving debts, for forgiving sins.  Author William Loader mentions that like the manager’s behavior can be a comparison for Jesus’ behavior: “Central to the story, “ Loader says, “ is the fact that the (manager) had no authorization to go around cancelling or cutting people’s debts. It was outrageous behavior. But Luke has been telling us that Jesus’ behavior was also outrageous. His opponents were saying he had no right to go about welcoming sinners and declaring God’s forgiveness to them.” (3)

But when we put our trust in God, we are moved to act on God’s behalf – to forgive those who need forgiveness, and the manager DOES forgive. He forgives things that he had no right to forgive. He forgives for all the wrong reasons, for personal gain and to compensate for past misconduct. This is the great emphasis for Luke: FORGIVE. Forgive it all. Forgive it now. Forgive it for any reason you want, or for no reason at all. (4) For just by forgiving, we advance the kingdom of God. Any act of forgiveness – whether it is from a pure motivation or not – is an act of faith and a spark that may light the fire of God’s reign.

For as Jesus says in verse 10 10 ‘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.

Be faithful and trust that God will provide and we have little need to amass wealth like a protective covering that will prevent us from harm. Trust God and be faithful to God’s mission and someday, you too may act so generously you are accused of outrageous behavior. Be faithful and trust God and we will see that … THERE IS A BALM in Gilead to heal us from our self-inflicted wounds and to protect us from turning away from God.  Let us have faith in the LORD with all our heart
and lean not on our own understanding; and in all our ways acknowledge God, and God will make our paths straight.  May God bless us our paths as they diverge and as they come together and may we TRUST in the Lord who travels the roads with us.