When I was growing up, my dad had this ritual that he would make my sister and me say every time he drove us to school. Right before we got out of the car he would say, “Okay now, what’s your Formula for Success?” My sister and I would recite it. This is what we would say:
“ Pay attention.
And do your own work.”
Then my dad would say, “That’s right. I love you and I’m proud of you.” And we would get out of the car and go into the school. We would say this ritual every day, day after day, year after year.
Now, my sister and I are older and my dad no longer drives us to school. Instead he always drives me to the airport when I fly back to Seattle after visiting him and my mom. These car rides are special because we talk about life. When we arrive at the airport and I get out of the car, I teasingly say to him my Formula for Success that he taught me. But even with my teasing, when I think back on those school days, I realize what my dad was doing in making me recite my Formula for Success.
My dad was giving me a plan.
A plan for me to be successful. Not only in school, but in life. I bet most of us in this sanctuary and online can relate to that. We make plans for getting into school or changing careers. We make plans for getting married or starting a family or emigrating to another country. We plan for how to start a relationship or leave one. We make plans for vacations and if we’re lucky, maybe even plan for retirement.
Today’s story in Luke has me thinking about those plans that we make. This Gospel makes me ask one question: We make all these earthly plans but how do these plans help make us more spiritual?
In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us a story about a man who was not doing well on the job. He managed someone else’s property and not only was he not doing well, he was squandering that property, he was mismanaging it, he was being dishonest with it. His employer found out, asked for an accounting of his management, and told him he was about to be out of a job. The manager panics. And has no idea what he is going to.
Almost everyone can relate to this. I know all of us in this church and online can. When we make a mistake or get ourselves in a jam, we may let our pride get in the way of asking for help. We might feel bad about ourselves and silently beat ourselves up for what we could have done differently, or done better. We want to quickly save face and make it look like we can easily and efficiently solve the problem on our own.
But planning for our spiritual lives is not like planning for our earthly lives. The plan isn’t the point. In the spiritual life, there is no Formula for Success. There is one thing: and that thing is relationship.
Here at Epiphany, we talk a lot about relationship. It’s such exciting talk. About being in relationship with one another. About not breaking relationship with one another. The manager in today’s story knows this too. Even in the face of messing up, the manager stays in relationship. Yes, the text says he’s been dishonest. But look at what he does. He decreases people’s debt. Imagine the joy and the gratitude that those people could have felt.
Also, the manager imagines being welcomed into their homes after he loses his job. He knows he’s going to have to rely on them. Even in the face of letting his boss down, he still stays in relationship. That reminds me of what Alvin Moseberry, a parishioner here at Epiphany, said as he led Bible study a few weeks ago. He said, “God makes covenants with us even when we don’t have our stuff together.”
That may be what Jesus is teaching us in today’s story. Yes we make plans, but the spiritual life is bigger than any plan. The spiritual life is about relationship. There’s no formula for that.
There’s another aspect of relationship that I think we don’t talk enough about. But Jesus certainly does. This aspect of being accountable for one another. Being responsible for one another. Isn’t that a part of what being in relationship is? Scripture says, “Gives me an accounting of your management.”
I was at a really interesting place recently to think about all this. Last month I was at a silent retreat at a monastery. It’s an earthly place where we keep our eyes on heavenly things. A physical place to help with our spiritual life. They actually have their own Formula for Success for how to do that. They call it their Rule of Life. It is how they live out their calling as monks, it is how they are faithful to the monastic way of life. Their rule of life is all about being accountable for one another and evidence of that was infused into life at the monastery.
For example, there are signs posted that say “Your silence is a gift to God, a gift to yourself, and a gift to others.” My silence at this retreat is a part of others’ having the kind of experience the monks are called to set up for them. That reminded me that with my silence, I’m somewhat responsible for others’ spiritual experience at this monastery, and they are responsible for mine.
The front desk asks you to let them know if you are going for a hike off the main grounds. It’s not that they want to know where you are. It’s that I am accountable for upholding their rule of life for showing me hospitality, because hospitality is how they are a servant of God.
Where I really saw this accountability play out was in prayer.
Every day there were 3 services. There was an early morning service and there was a prayer book that we used. The first day I found it easy to follow along. I’m feeling good about myself, like a success at this service. The next day, I could not find the right place in the prayer book. I just couldn’t follow along. I would turn to the wrong page. I would chant the wrong hymn. I tried to be really quiet with my page-turning so no one could tell I was lost. Then one of the monks came over to me, and gently turned the pages of my prayer book to the right page. I was glad, no big deal, this must happen to everyone. But then it happened again and again. I kept getting lost and each time a different monk came to help me. Now I was just embarrassed. No one else needed as much help as I did. I got increasingly flustered, I got prideful. I had done Morning Prayer in the Episcopal church countless times using various prayer books, so why was I so inept at this monastery? I actually thought about leaving the service. At the last second, I thought to myself, Why are you getting mad? They are just trying to help you. Just admit that you need help, accept it and just be here.
I literally sighed…I think I surrendered in that moment. And just like that, I felt what I should have been feeling all along: gratitude. By coming over to help me find my place, they were being accountable for me.
And it’s mutual. I HAVE to be accountable for them as someone who needs help. They didn’t need me to be right about the prayer book, they needed me to be prayerful. It was about me bringing my whole self to them, to that service, even while flustered. Even while stumbling.
It’s well and good when these rules for life are posted around a monastery. It’s easy to account for others when they’re strangers that you’re with for only 4 days. But in our classrooms, our workspaces, our homes, even our churches…it is hard to be accountable for the ones we see every day. The more intimate we are with someone, the harder it is to be accountable for them.
Something may go wrong at work, and you are fearful of looking like you can’t handle all your tasks, so you don’t ask for help and you end up being not accountable to your team.
You have an argument with your partner or friend or parent, and the hurt and baggage that comes with knowing someone and their flaws, stops you from doing what’s important to them.
All of these things – pride; need for control; wanting to be seen in a certain light; material wealth; even our plans for our lives – That’s the “dishonest wealth” Jesus is talking about in his parable. The “not serving two masters” is anything that we turn into an idol or that is an impediment to serving God.
Here’s the thing that people always talk about when they talk about this passage. The dishonest manager is commended! It can be confusing. By telling this parable, is Jesus praising dishonesty? Of course not. We know Jesus is not about that life. Jesus is not saying be like this guy. We already are like the manager and Jesus knows this. Remember we need Jesus to be our better and our best selves. With this parable, Jesus is saying, Keep your sights on the ultimate accounting. He’s saying Yes this man has a plan but look beyond the plan. He’s saying, Don’t serve the plan, serve God. If the dishonest manager making things right can make the rich landowner happy, imagine how pleased God would be when we bring our fullness to doing right and serving God, even when we are flustered and messy and stumbling. I’ll say it again, “God makes covenants with us even when we don’t have our stuff together.”
In the story, the landowner ends up happy. Because even the dishonest manager found a way to enter into relationship. As Christians, as followers of Jesus, we are called to do the same. To serve God through relationship and through community. We don’t do this to reach some eternal faraway land, we do this here because the kingdom of Heaven is where we are live and where we love right now.
I’ll end this sermon the way it began, with my wise, wise dad. I would not trade our talks in the car or his Formula for Success for anything. But now on a car ride to the airport, together he and I might talk about the eternal riches of the spiritual life, and it might look like this:
- Be accountable to God.
- We look to people we are accountable for, and we respond with love and gratitude.
- Account for what God has given you. Do not squander it, but be a faithful, generous steward of it.
- Be aware of where God has placed you, and with whom he has placed you. Because we play out our relationship with God, through and with other people. For that we are grateful.