Monday, January 26, 2009

Sermon for Third Sunday after the Epiphany (non-lectionary)

(Sermon 1/25/09, Luke 12:32-34, Matthew 25:14-30)

New Beginnings: Heart and Treasure

John Wesley, early in his ministry, established some boundaries for himself related to his income. He figured out what his expenses were, what he need to spend and save. And then the rest, he would give. And he determined right at the start that he would keep the same budget regardless of how much he was earning. And so through the years, as his income increased, particularly as he became such a notable figure, Wesley kept the same budget, had the same expenses, and simply increased what he gave as his income increased. He already knew what he needed to meet his budget – the rest, for him, was left over, excess.

I’ve always admired Wesley for his position, for his ability to stick to something that may have seemed like a na├»ve proposal for a young priest. I remember when I was about to finish seminary and start my first appointment. I was going to go from living off of student loans and a part-time work study job to actually having an income of about $30,000 a year. And I remember telling my congregation about how rich I was feeling. My income had suddenly quadrupled and my bills were staying more or less the same. How could I help but feel anything but rich? I told them that I hoped I could hold onto that feeling, and try to be a little like John Wesley. And yet, though I committed to tithe, to give 10% of my income back to the church, I found myself falling short, month after month. How could this be? How did I expand into my income so quickly when I had felt so rich such a short time ago? Finally, I had to reorder how I spent, and I had to give my tithe first. Amazingly, when I did this, I found I still managed to make it through the month, although certainly I had to be more careful with my spending. And here, in Franklin Lakes, I have a still larger salary. And I still give my tithe first, but I also managed to expand my spending right into my larger income. Sure, some of my expanded spending means actually being able to make my student loan payments, a move that means I might actually have them paid off by the time I retire from ministry. But mostly, I can’t point to very significant things that I’ve done with my extra money other than this: Spend. Consume. Accumulate. Acquire stuff. And while maybe that’s to be expected, while maybe no one is surprised that this is the case, I find it very troubling. Next week, you’ll hear Rev. Rich Hendrickson preach on the very first text I ever preached on – the Parable of the Rich Fool. And two lines from that Parable are ingrained forever in my heart: First, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” And second, where God asks the Rich Fool, “The things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So when I think about my stuff, my spending, my expanding into my growing salary – I truly am troubled. What’s enough? Is my behavior just something to get over, to expect, to roll with? Or should I be expecting a little more of myself?

Today, one of our gospel lessons is from the gospel of Luke, just after the passage Rev. Hendrickson will preach on next week. Jesus has been telling the crowds and disciples not to worry, and he follows up with these words: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. I love this verse, and I love it because it is deeper than it sounds. It’s easy to remember, and I think sometimes we forget to really think about verses that we might know by heart. Why does Jesus order this sentence this way? He doesn’t say “where your heart is, there you’ll find your treasure.” No, he says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” I think the difference – the order – is important. We’d probably like it to be that where our hearts are, our treasure is, because it’s easy to think of where our hearts are – with our loved ones, with God, with friends, and family, right? But Jesus says that where our hearts really are is determined by where our treasure is. And what is it that we truly treasure? We might answer one way – a way that isn’t being very honest with ourselves – but Jesus seems to see it differently: Our treasure is what we store up, what we gather and collect and keep for ourselves. So what are you storing up? What do you treasure? What do you spend the most time storing up? What in your life do you hang onto most tightly? What are you working for, what do you spend the most energy accumulating? Because that’s what you really treasure, and where your heart really is, Jesus says.

What am I storing up? I can only tell you this. When I moved to seminary, I took my possessions in two cars. When I moved to Oneida, I rented a small U-haul. And when I moved to Franklin Lakes, a lot of money was spent on a very large truck to get all my things from there to here. I’m storing up something for sure. And while it is easy to explain away all that I have as a part of life, I’m still uneasy, because Jesus has some pretty clear things to say about storing up, and treasuring, and where my heart is.

So what does all of this have to do with our stewardship campaign? With our Consecration Sunday next week? With our giving? Well, let’s shift gears a little bit and look at our other gospel lesson for today, The Parable of the Talents. Like most of Jesus’ parables, this parable is meant to tell us something about what the Kingdom of God is like. It appears late in Matthew’s gospel, in the midst of several other parables. A man going on a journey calls his slaves to him and divides among them care of his property. One slave receives one talent, one five, and one ten, each, we read, receiving according to ability. The slaves who receive five and ten talents immediately take them, trade with them, and double their money to present to their master when he returns home. But the slave who received just one talent dug a hole and hid the money, and returned it to his master on his return. When the master returned, he praised the faithful servants for their stewardship of his talents, and said, “Well done, good and trustworthy slave. You have been trustworthy in a few things; I will put you in charge of many things.” But when the third slave returned the single talent to his master, explaining that he thought his Master was hard-hearted and harsh, taking what was not rightfully his; the Master rebuked the man, and took the one talent from him and gave it to the one who had already been given ten. And so, Jesus concludes with that strange sentiment: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.”

It’s that concluding sentence that makes me think I don’t really understand the rest of the parable. I think the parable is about using the gifts God gives us, and being good stewards. But then, with that last sentence, I’m confused. “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what we have will be taken away.” I can understand God wanting us to use what we’ve been given – but taking away from those who have nothing? Giving to those who already have so much? Even if we’re talking about more than just money here, isn’t that just a spiritual version of the poor getting poorer and the rich getting richer? Will God take anything from those who already have nothing? Does that make any sense?

Just recently, I’ve been reading a book about asset mapping in congregations. Asset mapping is taking a look at your congregation and figuring out what you really have – not what you don’t have, or want, or used to have – but counting up all the resources we do have, right now. When times are hard in a congregation, it can be easy to quickly think of what we don’t have instead of what we do. This book is meant to shift that focus, to help a congregation very quickly see all that they have. I’m looking forward to working with the book with our Ad Council, and starting to really count our blessings, because I see that Franklin Lakes has so many assets. In this book, the author, Luther Snow, reflects on the Parable of the Talents, focusing in on this troubling verse about God taking away from those who already have nothing. He writes, “How can you take away something from nothing? It’s impossible. So maybe ‘those who have nothing’ do have something after all. Maybe the point is not how much we have, but how much we think we have. The [slave] with the one talent had more than nothing, but he acted as though he had nothing. He did nothing with the talent . . . He may have looked at the other two [slaves] and thought, ‘Compare to them, I’ve got nothing’ . . . It is as if the master is saying, ‘You had my valuable gifts in your hand, and you didn’t think they were valuable.’” (1) So maybe we can better understand what Jesus is saying when we think of it in this way: From those who think they have nothing, what they really do have will be taken away. And from those who feel like they’ve been richly blessed, they’ll be blessed even more. The slave with one talent didn’t have nothing. He had something precious – he just wouldn’t see it.

So I circle back to the question of what I’ve been storing up for myself. What do I want to be storing up? What if I focus on treasuring most those talents, those assets, those gifts and blessings that God has put into my hands? Of course everything I have is a gift from God – but I mean to focus on storing up what God has given me rather than what I’ve taken for myself. Does that make sense? What if I store up, focus on increasing and growing what God puts into my hands? What if that’s what I spend my time and energy and money and focus and life on? What if we do that as a congregation? What if, for example, we look the young people in this congregation, and begin to treasure them deeply, and seek to work with them and invest in them so that we find the blessings we have in these youth multiply like talents? What if we treasure our relationship with CUMAC so much that we start to find more and more ways to build relationships and awareness and support of a mission in great need, so that we find we’re true partners in ministry? What if you so treasure the relationships you have within the congregation that you become more and more invested in each other’s lives, so that your friendships return to you countless blessings?

Jesus said it is God’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, to give us everything, to bless us beyond our imagining. It is God’s pleasure to give. Next week, Rev. Hendrickson will ask us to consider carefully what we give, but especially why we give. Why do you think God gives to us? Sometimes when we think about giving, we get caught up in budgets and spending and debt and making ends meet. Those things are important, for sure. But it’s not why we’re called to give, any more than God gives to us out of obligation. It is God’s pleasure to give to us out of God’s abundant, endless love. Why do you give? What if what we spent our time storing up was treasures in the kingdom of God? What if we looked into our hands and saw them overflowing with God’s blessings? What if we gave because what we treasure is our relationship with God, and with God’s creations? What if we gave because we saw that God gave us so much we just didn’t even have room to keep it all for ourselves? What if?

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your [God’s] good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Amen.

(1) Luther Snow, The Power of Asset Mapping, 138-139.

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