Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sermon for 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Inspiration Sunday (non-lectionary)

Sermon 10/17/10
Luke 12:32-34, Matthew 25:14-30


I’ve been struggling with just how to approach my preaching for this our stewardship campaign on this Inspiration Sunday. I find it difficult because so many things are tied together for us, emotionally and spiritually when we talk about giving. For example, as we talk about what makes up our church budget, salaries and benefits make up a huge chunk of what we pay. It puts pastors in a bit of an awkward position, trying to encourage people to support a church financially, when that support provides their livelihood. This isn’t a new consideration – the apostle Paul considered that very issue in his ministry, and had some lively conversations with his churches about ministry and money. I find it challenging because when we talk about giving in the church, we usually also happen to be talking about giving to our church specifically, when, in reality, giving and supporting our church financially are not one and the same. I find it difficult because I know for some people, people who are struggling people who have lost jobs, people who have made do without, money is such a stressful topic. My own childhood includes a time when we made use of food stamps, when we were recipients of the church’s thanksgiving basket, when we opened Christmas presents with our winter coats on because the heat had been shut off. I know the stress, the anxiety that the lack of money can cause. I find it challenging because I also know the power that having money can have over us. I know what it is like to always want just a little more. I know what it is like to have a larger income than before and not be giving anymore away, and to have nothing important to show for my spending. I find it difficult because for a society that leaves very little to the imagination anymore, where nothing is really off limits, where so many public topics were once private affairs, talking money is still one of the most taboo topics there is, especially when we’re talking specifics. What do you do with your money? What is your income? What do you spend it on? How much do you give? Do you tithe – give a tenth to the church? A percent? Why? Why not? Taboo. And yet, I also know, that as people of faith, we must respond to the overwhelming witness and message of the gospels that call us to seriously consider our stuff, our money, and what it all means in relation to our faith.
What I want to do is untie things a little bit, so we can get to what I think is at the heart of our stewardship campaign. First, stewardship is about giving to God, because God gives to us, because we are thankful for our blessings, and because God calls us to give. In this, it doesn’t really matter if we’re talking about giving to this church or not. Even if our entire budget were cared for by some grant, or some anonymous donor, or some magical windfall of money, we’d still be called to give, and give as generously and freely as ever. And second, stewardship in our particular setting is about who we are as a community of faith and who we feel God is calling us to be. We’re called to care for this faith community if we are a part of it, to hope and dream and vision all the ways in which we can serve God in this place, and then to act to see those visions carried out.
In our video, we heard Rob Bell speaking about our text from 1 Timothy, and speaking about what it means to blessed and to be a blessing, to take hold of that life that is really life. We also heard two gospel lessons this morning. The first was a short lesson from Luke’s gospel. 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? If we looked at where our treasure was, what would it say about our hearts? We might answer one way – try to define treasure a certain way – 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.
Our other gospel lesson is a parable – 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? 
Author Luther Snow reflects on this parable, focusing in on this very troubling. 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.
Our Parish Council spent the last two days at a retreat at Vanderkamp. There was another group there, and a woman from the group, before saying the grace at dinner said, “People never know when they’re getting a gift.” Something about that statement really struck me, because I believe that is particularly true when it comes to gifts from God. We seem to know what to do with gifts we get from others. We say thanks. We open the gifts. We use the gifts. We encourage others to try out what we’ve been given. We take joy in sharing. Why is it that we don’t know what to do with our gifts, our blessings, our abundance, given to us by God, who loves us?  
Today is Inspiration Sunday. Inspire – the word comes from a root word that means to breathe into or blow into something. Think of the creation story in Genesis 2 when God breathes into Adam to give him life. You might say that something that is inspiring is something that is life-giving. Think about what gives us life in this congregation, and how we can give life to things in and outside of this congregation. Be inspired by God’s generous heart.
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.

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