Proverbs 11: 24-28; Matthew 25:14-30 Week 7 of Sacred Stories
From the outside, James seemed to have it all. He grew up in a small town in Missouri, where his family owned the primary industry there. He was wealthy, he was smart, he was handsome, and he was talented. People looked at him and felt he had been handed the world. Twenty years later, however, as James reached middle age, all of the things that were such great gifts only felt like burdens. He was an alcoholic who was going through his second divorce; he hadn’t done anything he felt was of significance to earn his family fortune; he lived in fear that people would find out what a mess his life was; and his relationship with money was painful and complicated, much like the other relationships in his life. He wanted to change but he didn't know what to do. He lived in fear. He lived with the guilt of not living into his dreams for himself and the expectations of those around him. And he spent his days trying to drown out his misery. (1)
In our parable this morning, there are two men who understand their relationship with money and a third man is frozen by his own self-doubt and fear. The land owner has pulled aside these three workers and gives them each a considerable sum of money. The first man he gives five talents, the second man three talents, and the third man one talent. The first two men immediately get to work growing those talents while their master is gone. But the third man doesn't. It's not that he doesn't do anything-- he hasn't forgotten about the talent or was too busy to get around to doing anything. Instead, the man carefully and intentionally buries the talent. When the master returns, and rewards the first and second men for the ways in which they multiplied the money, the master also finds that the third man did nothing with it at all. And why didn't he? The third man says he did nothing because he was afraid of the Master. He had self-doubt about whether he could do anything. He was afraid that the one who gave him the money was cruel and a difficult master. The third man lives in a place of fear and in a place of dread about who has control over his life. In essence, he has buried not just the talent that he has been given, he has buried himself and is living in a place of darkness and fear.
Ultimately for the third man in the story, for James, and for us today, how we handle our money, our time, our resources, our very lives-- has everything to do with who we trust and how we view our God— the Master. God created us to be generous-- we actually have a need to be generous, which is why we find so much joy when we live from there. And God is generous with us— models that generosity. But there are a couple of different voices that keep us from living out of that place of generosity.
The first voice that keeps us from being generous is the one that says to us, "If you give, you may not have enough." We get worried that we may need the money later or we may not have enough for the things we need for today. This comes, however, from a misplaced sense of security. Hoarding what we have never makes it multiply and it doesn't give us real security.
A man was known in his community for giving a lot of money to the local college. He fell upon hard times and a reporter asked him if he regretted giving all of that money. "Regret it?" He said, "Look, that school is the only lasting thing I've done with my money. Had I not given for the school, I would have lost that money too, and there would be nothing to show for it." Hoarding our money is not only futile, it's fruitless-- we have nothing to show for it in the end.
The second voice that we often hear that keeps us from being generous is the voice that tells us that if we give, we won't have enough left to buy the things that will make us happy. This is a powerful voice that can be easily manipulated. But as we've been talking about for the past few weeks, when we allow ourselves to be defined as consumers and we choose to focus on what we don't have, we will always be discontent; we will never have enough; and fairly quickly, we will begin to believe that we aren't enough. (2)
When we put our trust in Jesus instead, when we recognize that our worth comes because we are children of God; when we lean on God for our security and frame our lives to be focused on love and on what we can give rather than consume, then we remember that our lives are gifts from God-- that all that we have is a gift. And we can live in a place of contentment and joy.
So how do we know how much to give?
From our parable, it seems that doing anything is preferable to doing nothing! As uneasy as this parable often makes me because of it’s seeming lack of grace, the message seems to be very clear that it is best to use what you have in this life than to bury it in the ground. When we have a Spirit of abundance, we produce abundance. This doesn't mean that we will always get back what we give. There are Christians out there that claim that the more money we give the more money God will give us back. It’s just not that simple, and I think when we stop to think about it, we’ll probably be grateful that God doesn’t work that way. But what it does mean, is that when we are generous, that generosity grows and changes things. We are given gifts, as children of God, and God expects us-- desires for us-- to use those gifts and to multiply them. And God’s blessings do come back to us a hundredfold. When we are generous with God’s blessings, we are blessed. We multiply them not for our own good, but in order to return them to God multiplied so that they can continue to multiply. When we trust that God is love and that God desires what is best for us, rather than thinking of God as a God of fear and guilt, then we can willing share what we have because we find our stability in God's love.
In the Old Testament, the practice was to give to God a tithe-- the first fruits-- of your harvest, the top ten percent of what they had. In fact, that was known as worship. Before there was Scripture to read or liturgy to follow or maybe even songs to sing-- people instinctually gave their first fruits to God--- gave God those early blessings because they were so thankful for all that God had given them. This can be a stretch for many of us.
A great illustration of this is an illustration of ten apples that I got from David Slagle. (2) Here are our ten apples (they're on a table near the altar). The first one, we give to God-- straight off the top. The other nine, of course, are used for the living of our lives-- there are a couple that go to having shelter and a couple more for food. There's one for utilities and our cell phone bill and part of one for Netflix and cable. The others are pretty well taken up with transportation and insurance and medical bills and setting aside some money for retirement and college funds. And of course there's always kids activities or fundraising for the school or buying pancake supper tickets-- because it's coming up in November. So we spend up the nine apples. But when we struggle with the voices of scarcity and the voices of wanting more, if we haven't already given that first apple to God straight off the top, then we begin to have second thoughts. We look at that tenth apple, and we get hungry. I all of a sudden remember that Christmas is coming and we haven't been setting aside money for presents this year, and besides that's kind of like giving, isn't it? I'm sure God will understand. So I take a bite of the apple. (I’m actually eating the apple at this point.) And then an opportunity comes up for us to take a trip as a family and God is definitely for families, right? So I take another bite. And then some emergency comes up and I find it's easier to take what I've set aside as God's rather than figuring it out another way, so I take another bite. And this happens, and that happens, and pretty soon I've devoured the apple- the first apple which I left to be the tenth apple, so that it's pretty much just the core. And then we go to offer it to God, and it's not our first fruits anymore, it's our leftovers. And ironically, what God wanted to be a joyful life-giving wonderful act of generosity, we've turned into something we feel guilty about.
God wants our first fruits because those are so joyful to give! We're never tempted to take from God's portion if we've already given it away-- instead we figure out how to live with nine apples and we feel blessed because we recognize how much we have. God wants us to give out of a place of love.
I know tithing isn't easy. I remember at the beginning of our marriage when I was in grad school and Todd was making ends meet with his job and we struggled to tithe because we had so little. It was very tempting to tell ourselves that we’d tithe later when we had more to give. But the funny thing is, in many ways it only gets harder when you have more money! Now that it’s a practice in our lives, Todd and I rarely think about it at all. And we hope that in the future we will be able to give above a tithe. Many of you may have already experienced that a tithe is a floor, not a ceiling, and we are able to give more in later years of our lives. If that seems impossible for you today, then start with what you think is a stretch for you-- maybe it's one percent, maybe it's five, but start somewhere. You may surprise yourself with how generous you are.
God doesn't want us to live in fear. God doesn't want us to live in a place of scarcity and selfishness and self-doubt. God wants us to offer all that we have-- our love, our time, our resources, our money-- to offer what we have to God so that God can do abundant things. God wants us to put our love for God first in our lives and align our resources to make a difference for God's Kingdom in this world. If you don’t want to follow the Old Testament advice on giving a tithe, than you can always try what Jesus suggested— which is to give everything away— to give our whole lives to God. Jesus knows that our generosity changes us. Our generosity changes others. Our generosity is part of transforming the world.
After a lot of time of working through all of the negative feelings James had about the money he had inherited, he began to look towards the future. He wanted to use what he had to make a difference. James began to see that he could be generous and just in dealing with his ex-wives; that he could use his resources to benefit his children rather than burdening them as he felt he had been burdened, and he began to imagine that he could be living a very different kind of life-- a life he could love. In the midst of all of this, he realized he had a deep yearning to help other kids so he began to volunteer at a local school. The more he worked with kids, the more he realized that he was good at working with kids-- especially kids with learning disabilities. And the more he got involved with the teachers and parents and students, the more he began to research the issues and could help in ways others could not. All of a sudden his resources-- the finances that he felt had been a burden his whole life-- became a huge resource as he was able to funnel them into places where he could do good. When he got out from under his fear and self-doubt, James was able to not only make a huge difference in the lives of children with disabilities and their families, he was able to make a huge difference in his own life and find true joy. (1)
I wonder what amazing things God wants to bless you with and grow in your life as you create new habits of generosity or grow into the habits that you've already established.
On the back of your bulletin, there is a guide to help you think through a variety of ways to commit to God in the coming year that includes but is not limited to your financial generosity. I encourage you to pray through how God is tugging at your heart. This week in the mail you will also be receiving your Commitment card for you to consider what you will give to God through this church.
We are at a critical time in the life of our church. We have all of the expenses of moving out here, and yet in order to be intentional about doing new things and growing what we have and sharing all that God has given us, it will take all of us being generous with all that we have to make a difference in our community.
Imagine the stories we’ll be able to tell when God is able to do amazing new things through our generosity. Imagine what fruit God can bring out of our gifts that we could never expect. Imagine what your generosity can look like when combined with each others’ generosity to make a difference in this world.
Material cited or referenced for this sermon: The Soul of Money by Lynn Twist, pp 138-141 Enough: Discovering the Joy and Simplicity of Generosity by Adam Hamilton, chapter 5.