As I began studying the lessons for this week I started with the Old Testament Lesson, reading it first in the Revised Standard Version. I came across this line in Zephaniah. “I will punish the men who are thickening on their lees..” To be honest I had no idea what a thick lee was but given the threat to be punished I hoped that I didn’t have one. But gratefully we are reading the lessons in the English Standard Version that makes it much clearer. In this translation it say “I will punish the men who are complacent…those who say in their hearts ‘The Lord will not do good nor will he do ill.’”
This is the context that reveals the subject of the men’s complacency. They had not rid themselves their idols, as the Lord commanded. And in addition they convinced themselves that the Lord was not going to do anything about it. That is why they said to themselves, “The Lord will not do good or ill.” But according to the prophet they were about to have a rude awakening.
When I read of their complacency my mind went immediately to Jesus speaking to the Church at Laodicea in the Revelation to John. Jesus says, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot or cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” This complacent/lukewarm church in Laodicea was also about to have a rude awakening.
The connection between Zephaniah and Revelation is their devotion to the idols that result their complacency and lukewarmness. It doesn’t use the word “idol” in Revelation but listen to why Jesus says that they are lukewarm and the idolatry becomes clear. “For you say I am rich. I have prospered and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” Their wealth has replaced their need for God and so their wealth has become an idol. As Martin Luther put it, “Whatever your heart clings to and trusts in is your god.”
As difficult as these words are to hear, they call upon us today to do some serious soul searching and ask the Lord if we are Laodiceans. I say that because I am pretty certain that none of us wants to be spit out of the Lord’s mouth. And in case you are saying to yourself that you are not rich, let me offer some perspective.
Here are two $1 bills. Over half of the world lives on this per day. 2 bucks! I pay more for that for a cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts! According to the New York Times last September, the median income for an American family is $59,000. Meanwhile over half of the world has an annual income of about $730. That means that the typical American family makes 80 times what over half the world makes in a year. 80 Times! Can you imagine if someone from those parts of the world heard us talking on our Bluetooth while driving our nice cars saying, “I just don’t know how I am going to make ends meet and here the preacher is talking about tithing. He must have lost his everlovin mind!”
Let me make this personal. By American standards, I as a priest and Beth as a social worker together make an income that would be considered middle class. But by the standards of the rest of the world we are wealthy. I mean not just wealthy but stinken rich and therein lies the problem. Why? Because Jesus spoke about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. He said that it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for me to enter the kingdom of God. That verse rightfully troubles me.
I heard Francis Chan preach on this passage and he said that he has studied this passage for over 20 years and he has finally come to understand what Jesus really meant when He say that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. He said that what Jesus really means was that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. Oh my.
Of course the saving line of that portion of Scripture is when the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus answers, “With man it is impossible but with God all things are possible.” So I have hope but I can’t think for a minute that this qualification lets me off the hook so that I can return to my idol and be comfortable with my complacency and lukewarmness.
So rather it feels that way or not, the reality is that we in America are rich and that presents us with a challenge. How do we know money if is an idol to us?
To paraphrase Jeff Foxworthy, “If you are spending most of your paycheck to pay on consumer debt, you might be a Laodicean.” “If you are seeking financial security above seeking first the kingdom of God, you might be a Laodicean.” “If you give to God your leftovers rather than His first fruits off the top, you might be a Laodicean.” “If you are financially well off but you are hoarding it for yourself rather than sewing it into the kingdom, you might be a Laodicean.”
And of course money is not the only idol that we have in this country. Why we even have a TV show called American Idol and it is aptly named because we are idolatrous in our love of fame. Last week it was on both TV and radio news all day long that Taylor Swift showed up in a local T J Max. Imagine that!! The news folks were so excited about this report that you would have thought that someone had just discovered a cure for cancer. And think of all the ones idolized who simply are famous for being famous.
What about sports? Don’t even get me started. I played sports growing up so I understand the love of a game but come on! You have to admit that sports has become even more than a religion for a vast part of our population. And it’s not just in America. When I lived in Britain the group I was most afraid of were the soccer hooligans. They would get on a train and slash the seats with knives, start fights and even kill folks who supported the opposing team…sacrificing humans to their gods.
Imagine if in order to save money our Vestry decided not to put a roof on the Chapel and we had no heat or air conditioning in the building. In addition imagine that we charged your $50 for parking. Do you think that would have a wee bit of an affect on our Sunday attendance? And yet it could be 5 below and sleeting and folks would still consider it a privilege to pour into Nissan Stadium and freeze their buns off to watch the Titans. “If watching a leather ball getting moved around is more important to you than receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, you might be a Laodicean.”
Sex, politics, amusement, success, I could go on and on about the idols in our society and so could you. But we must also be aware of idols in the Church.
If you know the Bible from cover to cover but you are still as mean as a snake in a sack then you could rightfully be accused of bibliolatry. I have known Anglicans who seem to worship the liturgy even more than the Lord of the liturgy if they even know Him at all. And you have probably met “Christians” who all but hate you if you do not share their doctrines. That too is idolatry. The list of idols in the Church also seems endless. So what do we do about it? How do we tear down our idols?
The answer comes in our lessons today. St. Paul tells us who we are and Jesus tells us what to do. If we will follow their wisdom then we will be anything but complacent or enticed by idols. We will begin to tear down our idols.
First St. Paul tells us who we are. “For you are children of the light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness…for since we belong to the day let us be sober having put on the breastplate of faith and love and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”
Jesus declared “I am the light of the world.” If we are “in Christ”, as it repeatedly describes in the New Testament, then we are children of the light. We will share His passion for the kingdom. We will share His compassion for the sick and the poor and the defenseless. We will share His trust of the Father to bring all things to their appointed ends. We will share His knowledge that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
And notice what St. Paul says that we put on as our armor. Faith, hope and love. Sound familiar? If the ultimate pursuit of your life is to fbe amous or to be the best dressed or to have the best cars or to live in the best homes, then you will be naturally drawn to the consumer gods. But if you seek to clothe yourself with faith, hope and love then you will be drawn to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who alone grants us these things. So St. Paul tells us who we are. We are children of the light and we need to live accordingly in faith, hope and love.
Next Jesus tells us what to do to avoid complacency and idolatry. He tells a parable to exhort us to become wise stewards. He calls us to this because if we are stewards of God then we will not be servants of the world because a man cannot serve two Masters. But before we can become wise stewards we must first understand what it means to be a steward.
A steward is not an owner. A steward manages that which belongs to the Master on the Master’s behalf. Here is where we rich folks often get it wrong. We think that it belongs to us and so we can do with it whatever we choose. We fail to understand that as stewards we will give an accounting for what we have done with the Master’s resources.
The parish that I came from in Chattanooga was a very wealthy one and I learned there that rich folks also tend to give with strings attached because they wrongly think that it is their money. They fall to the temptation to think like an owner rather than a steward. Conversely I knew a wealthy guy who was incredibly generous and he used to say to me, “I’m not worried about giving it away because it’s not mine in the first place. Besides God has plenty more where that came from.” That’s thinking like a steward.
In this parable Jesus calls on us not just to be a stewards but to be wise stewards. How do we do that?
First we reject the wicked servant’s perspective. He saw the Master as a hard and unfair man and that perspective led to him being paralyzed with fear. He said, “So I was afraid and hid your talent in the ground.”
But that is not the God and Father that Jesus came to reveal. Jesus came to reveal a God who, as we read in the Psalms, has “been our refuge from one generation to another.” He is a Father who is full of compassion, who did not even spare His own Son for us. This view of God will allows us to take risks and step out in faith rather than being frozen with fear.
Second we become wise stewards when we put the Master’s resources where it has the best opportunity to grow. That is what the stewards in the parable did. And we find those places where His resources can grow when we start thinking like stewards who make the kingdom their priority.
For example when you buy a new car the dealer will walk you out and pat you on the back and tell you that you have made a wise investment. But that is a lie. A new car is not an investment because that the new car will depreciate 19% in the first year. You lose hundreds of dollars just driving it out of the dealership!
What if instead you bought a reliable used car and took the difference between that and a new car and gave it to Food for the Poor or sponsored a child at World Vision or sewed it into St. Patrick’s? It is my conviction that it is in this way that we see the Master’s resources grow because we would be helping to grow His kingdom which is His priority.
And the win/win for us in being wise stewards is that it takes our hearts away from idols and put them where they need to be. The Scripture tells us that where our treasure is, there will our hearts be also. Our hearts follow the money. If we sew our treasure into idols then we will be idolaters. If we sew our treasure into the kingdom then that is where our hearts will be and we will be honored as wise stewards.
So in the end this parable tells us that we have two choices. Our choices are to either be rebuked because of our thickening lees or being blessed because we became wise stewards. On the Last Day rather than being spit out of Jesus’ mouth we will hear, “Well done good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master.”