September 18, 2016
I like to golf. I only get out two or three times a year, but... On Labor Day, David, Matthew and I tried nine holes here on the local course. Here's how my first hole went: first shot- a dribbler to the left about 80 yards. By the way, I just missed a woman walking on the shoulder of the road. Well, I took a mulligan—everybody know what that is? An extra shot taken if you don't like your first shot. Not really legal but I figure a duffer like myself can get by with it. So I teed it up again. Dribbler down the left side about 50 yards. Well, I have certain friends who allow a second mulligan but I resisted. I watched David and Matthew hit their drives—David 200 yards down the center, Matthew about the same off to the right. So I walked up to my mulligan, lined things up and hit a dribbler about 75 yards but in the right direction! Now I can start thinking about reaching the green. Took my stance, a couple practice swings and hit a dribbler 20 yards or so. I quickly step up to just whack that …. ball. Hit a dribbler 75 yards. I'm lying four already and just barely past David's first shot. I did hit my next shot up in the air and next to the green and got down in nine.
This may be a good time to tell you what my acronym title stands for. I discovered it on the web and it is G.O.L.F: Game of Lifelong Frustration! I do get frustrated with my golf game, such as it is. I was a below bogey golfer when Dad and I golfed regularly which makes starting with a 9 on a par 4 very frustrating. But I'm not here to talk about golfing, not entirely. I'm here to talk about the very unusual gospel lesson I read today. And my theme is going to be the frustration we can feel in living this life we've been given even as we live in and under God's grace.
Let's review the gospel. It is one of the weirdest stories Jesus ever told. It is a parable but the lesson is well hidden; many interpretations have been written and there is little agreement on its meaning. Author and preacher William Willimon wrote about interpreting this passage for us preachers, “Looks great, you let it in, you poke around inside the thing; and you run to the Old Testament or epistle reading to see if one of them is preachable.” But I'm gonna try to give an interpretation that will fit our lives today. A recap of the story: An imaginary rich man had a crooked business manager. The rich man was trusting his manager to handle his business affairs. But this manager was not trustworthy; he was stealing from the company. So the boss called him in and fired him. “Put the books in order before you go.” he told him.
Well, he put the books in order all right; in order to make life easier for himself. One by one he invited his boss's debtors in to the office and wrote down their debts, lowered what they owed, so that when he was put out on the street he'd have plenty of business people who were indebted to him. He was crooked while on the job and crooked while leaving the job. So what did the master have to say about his dishonesty? He commended the dishonest manager! And that makes no sense coming from the lips of Jesus, in a parable teaching us how to live. Why? Why does Jesus seem to commend this crook? From Willimon again, “We school our children to be honest and then Jesus commends dishonesty? We school our children to be thrifty, hard-working and then Jesus celebrates laziness and waste? Maybe Luke dozed off while writing this one down. Maybe something was lost is translation.”
A few things right off the bat. First, Jesus didn't commend the crooked manager, the imaginary boss did. And second, Luke didn't doze off, this is here for a reason. And thirdly, Jesus does give us a clue as to why he used this story. If we look at verses 8 and 9, they help with the why of the crooked manager: “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 by their wits. I want you to be smart in the same way.” Jesus isn't calling us to be dishonest, but to be streetwise, smart, shrewd. Too often Christians are seen as weak, as stepping-stones for the world to step on and over, as patsies who won't stand up for themselves. As quitters. When the going gets tough in the world, the Christian quits, leaves, quietly retreats. And this is where my thoughts on frustration come in. I think it is easy for us to get frustrated trying to live out Christian values in a world that no longer (if it ever did) holds on to our values.
The world has different values, they also have a different view of, let's call it providence; the belief that God guides us, that God is in control. That is an understanding that is foreign to them. I use “the world” as those who have no room for God or a god in their lives other than what they can see and touch. They believe they've got to make it on their own; no divine guidance, no indwelling Holy Spirit, no personal God. And so they are willing to do whatever it takes. The must, it is all up to them! The day I wrote this paragraph, Julie shared this on Facebook from Max Lucado, “Acts 17:27 says, “He is not far from each of us.” Each of us. God doesn’t play favorites. From the masses on city streets to isolated villagers in valleys and jungles, all people can enjoy God’s presence. But many don’t! They plod through life as if there is no God to love them. As if the only strength is their own. As if the only solution will come from within, not above. They live God-less lives.” end quote. And so they must rely on themselves. We have proclaimed our belief that Jesus is Lord. We are seeking to follow his leading in our lives. We have a future that is secure, not necessarily that nothing can hurt us in this life but God has promised to be with us even to the end of the age. Is God big enough to take care of us? When life gets to us, when we've reached the end of our rope, when frustration and anger and temptations are getting the best of us; that's when we need to answer that question. Is God big enough to see us through whatever life throws at us? And as Christians we are to claim all the promises that tell us God is big enough. To finish Lucado's quote, “You will never go where God is not! The psalmist determined: “When I am afraid, I will trust in You, God” (Psalm 56:3). Put your hope in God. You will get through this!” Jesus in our parable seems to be encouraging us to get some of the gusto of the crooked manager into our life as we fight to overcome adversity, to fight through frustrations; to live in hope.
The apostle Paul wrote of a time he was frustrated. He had an undisclosed problem he called a thorn in the flesh. Three times he prayed that God would deliver him from his pain. God answered him like this, “'My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.' So, (Paul wrote) I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.”
The point is this—as Christians, shouldn't we trust that the grace of God is sufficient for us? Shouldn't we be able to overcome the frustrations, the setbacks, the trials of this world much better than those who do not know the Lord? Easy to say. I'm not aware of any particular thorn in my flesh right now...other than my terrible golf game and I have lost my ability to throw a football far or straight. But there have been times, there are times for some of you or there will be times when the road is hard and the good times seem distant. Prayers haven't been answered. Grief fills our hearts. Questions for the God we acknowledge are on our lips. Listen to these words from the Old Testament reading today, from Jeremiah, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” Is there no relief, no balm for our suffering? We've been there. And the secret, the message for today is to trust in God for the long run. We proclaim that we trust the victory to God. We don't always know what that victory will look like. It may be a victory like Bonnie Kittle demonstrated to her Old Testament literature class at Yale Divinity School.
Bonnie had cancer, she fought it quietly for years. Few knew about it, no one in her classes knew.
She came into class one day and lectured on the speech Moses gave to the people when it was made known by God that he, Moses, would not enter the promised land. It was a lecture of such special excellence that the class arose and gave her a standing ovation. Visibly moved, Ms. Kittle returned to the front of the classroom and told everyone to sit down. She told them that this would be the last class with them. She was going to the hospital and wouldn't be back. They were stunned. They had no idea.
That last lecture became even more meaningful. Moses had led the Israelites through the wilderness for 40 years. He wanted to enjoy the culmination of that journey. He wanted to enter the promised land with the people. But he couldn't do it. Death awaited him. And he accepted that judgment in faith, trusting in the providence of God. The class recognized the parallel, Bonnie Kittle had lived and would die with faith in God's providence.
At her funeral, Dean Keck spoke, “She bonded with the one on whom death no longer holds a claim. And in her sometimes lonely battle for life, she knew that salvation is nothing if it does not deliver us from death. This is the victory of the victim we celebrate.” The victory of the victim. Seems like an oxymoron. In our parable, Jesus seems to be saying bad is good. But what the parable teaches us that we ought to be living life to the fullest. Not cringing in fear of death or ridicule or what the future holds. It has been said until we learn to die, we don’t know how to live. Again, counter-intuitive much like today's parable. We are reminded today and every Sunday, we are children of the God of the universe, the Savior and redeemer. Then who can harm us, who can separate us from the love of God? And you all know the answer to that... nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus!
Oh, and looking at my sermon title in light of today's message, I came up with a different meaning for the acronym: G. O. L. F.--God Overcomes Life's Frustrations. There is help in our troubles, there is a balm to heal the sin-sick soul, there is an eternal reward; for God is faithful... May we turn to God and trust in the faithfulness of the Lord to overcome whatever frustrates us in our journey of faith. Amen.
Hymn: There is a Balm in Gilead 394 PH