Empty Cups

Proverbs 11.25

A generous person will be enriched, and the one who gives water will get water.

It was my first Sunday in a new town and it was hotter than blazes outside. I would be attending my first seminary class the next day and I figured I needed to be in church before embarking on what would become my theological journey.

So I looked up United Methodist Churches on google and went to the one that was closest to my apartment. 

I meandered through the open front doors, collected a copy of the bulletin from a distracted usher, and walked into the sanctuary hoping to find an empty pew. It was only a few minutes before the top of the hour and I was perplexed to discover an entirely empty sanctuary.

No preacher.

No choir.

There wasn’t even a wayward acolyte wandering down the aisle.

I only stood for a moment before the aforementioned usher walked up behind me and said, “Son, you must be new here. We’re having worship this morning down in the fellowship hall.”

So I turned my back to the beautiful stained glass windows and the exposed organ pipes and descended into the dark and dismal basement.

After navigating a few frightening corridors and passing long-forgotten Sunday schools rooms, I heard a scattering of voices and followed them until I entered the space for holy worship. The room was sparse with only a handful of folding chairs set-up in a haphazard semi-circle around a podium and a make-shift altar. 

By the time I grabbed an empty chair the preacher was standing behind the improvised pulpit encouraging us to stand and sing our opening hymn, which we did.

“Take my voice and let me sing, always, only for my King. Take my lips and let them be, filled with messages from thee. Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold. Take my intellect and use, every power as thou shalt choose.”

The next forty five minutes the collection of Christians in the basement listened to the preacher go on and on about the virtues of Christian generosity, about the call to give back to the Lord what was first given to us, and the imperative to raise enough funds to replace the Air Conditioning in the sanctuary lest we continue to worship in the fellowship hall until Jesus returns on his cloud of glory.

When the service was over, I made for a quick exit out of the basement when the preacher grabbed me by the shoulder and introduced himself all the while apologizing that I had to hear all of that on my first Sunday at the church. He said, “I don’t want you to leave thinking this is what it’s like every week.” I’m sure I made some sort of positive comment hoping to make him feel a little bit better when a tiny older woman walked up and triumphantly declared, “Don’t listen to the preacher. It should be like this every week. Giving is what being a disciple is all about.”

I attended that church nearly every Sunday until I graduated from seminary.

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Today, we live in a world surrounded by a culture that is constantly encouraging us to live beyond our means. Our collective credit card, medical, and student loan debts are the highest they have ever been with no slow down in sight. And I think the reason why so many of us buy a whole bunch of things we don’t need, is that in the back of our heads we hope that the things we buy will be with us forever – which isn’t possible.

In some way, shape, or form, we all go out hoping that the things we purchase will make our lives better now and forever, and even though it never really works we keep doing it anyway!

When confronted by the strange spending habits of the early Methodists, John Wesley put it this way: “In seeking happiness from riches, you are only striving to drink out of empty cups.”

We’ve been talking this month about Wesley’s teaching regarding money: Gain all you can – Save all you can – Give all you can. And for a lot of us the first two sound really nice. Wouldn’t things in our lives be better if we could just bring in a little more money? Wouldn’t the future feel a little more secure if we were able to increase our portfolios accordingly? 

But then we come to the third and final aspect and we’re not sure how we feel about it. Why give away that which we have worked so hard to earn and to save?

If all we do is gain and we can and save all we can and stop there, then it would all be for nothing. We may as throw our money into the fire. Not to use it faithfully and prayerfully is effectively to throw it away. 

It may sound strange to our compulsively capitalist ears, but giving away all we can is what makes intelligible the calls to gain and to save.

There is a story from the Bible that we, for some reason, love to throw into VBS curricula  and it is easily summarized in a short song: Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he, he climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see, and as the Savior came that way he looked up in the tree, and he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, cause we’re going to your house today.”

The song and the ways we often tell the story make Zacchaeus out to be this smaller than life character who just wanted a little vision of heaven on earth, and how God in Christ chose him to be the vehicle of an internal transformation regarding money.

But one of the things we miss, or downright ignore, is how horrible Zacchaeus was. He was a tax collector, a man who stole from his fellow Israelites whatever he wanted and kept a fair portion for himself before passing the rest of the money up the chain. He was a traitor and stood for everything that was wrong during the time of Jesus. And Jesus picks this little good-for-nothing-horrible-excuse-for-a-man out from the tree and says, “Hey, lets eat.”

And in a way that could only happen in the gospel, Zacchaeus reacts to this strange man with an even stranger proclamation. “Wow, the only way I know how to respond to you is to give back half of my wealth to the poor and pay back the people I cheated four times over.” And Jesus responds, “Now that’s what salvation looks life! Lets have a party!”

It’s a strange story, and one that we often water down its strangeness. Zaccheaus doesn’t deserve to be in the presence of God. He has swindled good people out of their good money, and then Jesus rewards him with salvation? I mean seriously, what in the world?

But that’s kind of the whole thing. 

Salvation, the end all be all, is the way God transforms every area of our lives so that we become a part of God’s work in the world. Salvation changes everything by changing our hearts and the orientation of every part of our lives, including how we use our money. Salvation sets us free from the bondage to our own narrow self-interests and opens us up to the movements of the Spirit in the world.

Many of us today want a version of Christianity that doesn’t want anything from us. Like another notch in the long list of commodified aspects of life, we show up and leave with thoughts about what we got out of it, without ever daring to wonder what God got out of us. Which is strange. Martin Luther, the 16th century church reformer, put it this way: “There are three conversions necessary in the Christian life – a conversion of the heart, a conversion of the mind, and a conversion of the wallet.”

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Oh how we wish it were only the first two!

When Zaccheaus was met with the radical nature of God’s grace in the person of Jesus, he experienced a profound conversion – he was no longer the person who climbed up in the tree. His heart was converted in the realization that the Son of God could make something of his nothing. His mind was converted over a dinner table conversation about what really had value in this life. And his wallet was converted when he saw what he had and make the decision to give it away. 

But let us pause for a moment to get something crystal clear – Zaccheaus did not earn his salvation by giving all he gave with his newfound generosity. His generosity was simply a response to the extravagant generosity of God. 

God cares not at all how much money we put in the offering plate or how much money we send to our favorite charity or how much money we make every two weeks or how much money we have saved away for a rainy day. God cares only that we see and know and taste and touch the wondrous gift already given to us in Jesus. What happens next is a matter of faith.

And, lest the call to faithful giving and the witness of the theology of generosity isn’t enough, neuroscientists have proven over and over again that our brains get a happiness boost, we release endorphins, when we give and help other people. Doing good is a good deal for us.

We can give all we want if it makes us feel better, but ultimately as Christians we give because God first gave. The little jolt of happiness is just an awesome byproduct along the way. 

During the earliest days of Methodist, John Wesley desired to lead the people in his care to a healthier, more productive, and more deeply Christ-centered life. He did so by offering practical wisdom about the relationship between money and finances. The end goal of all of this stuff isn’t to make sure the church has more money, though that wouldn’t hurt, the whole thing is about becoming more like Jesus in every part of our lives but particularly in the way we handle our finances. 

In terms of faithful giving whether its to the church or to community projects or any other numbers of places, most of us follow a trajectory. We start off as tossers – we toss our gifts (however big they may be) into the offering plate or the salvation army bucket without giving much thought to what we are doing and we don’t necessarily even feel it when we do it.

Then, at some point, we might enter into the realm of what we might call tryers. Tryers are those among us who have a plan of moving from where they are to where they believe God would like them to be in terms of giving. Going from not giving at all, or even tossing, straight to tithing is a remarkably difficult venture. Our own current financial situations or debts make it very difficult to jump right into the deep end of the pool.

And then there are the tithers – those among us who see their 10% given to God as the baseline of a disciple’s stewardship. Many tithers can’t imagine a life without tithing because it has become completely connected with their way of being. Giving 10% back to God is a practice rooted in scripture, a call to return the first fruits back to the Lord. But tithing is not a duty nor is it an obligation – it is simply a gift given out of sheer gratitude for what God has given.

For me, the journey toward tithing was not one that happened over night and is still one that I struggle with and our family struggles with. I constantly have thoughts about other things I could be doing with the money I give to the church, I think about gifts I could buy for my son, or the dates I could take my wife on, or the frivolous material items I could buy for myself. I do this in my mind because I too fall prey to the insipid temptations of the world around me. I, just like anyone else, want to keep up with the Joneses. I, just like anyone else, want what I wear and what I drive to communicate something about my worth. 

And all of that stuff can’t hold a match to the fire that is God’s grace. 

It has been an act of faith to continually give back to God and it has been an act of trust. Regardless of the amount, whether we’re tossers, tryers, or tithers, putting something in the plate is a profound form of trust. It’s saying, with our wallets, that we believe God can do something incredible with what we give and we get to be part of it all.

Because, at the end of day, we give all we can because God gives all God can. God gives us more than we deserve and more than we realize. God gives us God’s Son every time we gather at the table as a reminder that God is in control. Our cups, whether we respond with generous hearts or not, will never really be empty because God will never stop giving. Ever. Amen. 

The Culture of Now

Proverbs 13.11

Riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy.

Money, ba ba ba ba baaa, Money!

Everyone’s favorite subject to talk about in church on a Sunday morning – it’s got to rank up there with partisan politics and human sexuality. From my vantage point, I can tell that you’ve been on the edge of your pews these last few weeks eager to hear what this preacher has to say about money. I mean, just look around, you look like a bunch of kids of Christmas morning ready to receive something.

Money! The American Dream! Red, White, and Blue! 

So very many of us came of age in a world, in a culture, that told us the dream was possible – a desire for achieving material possessions and deep bank accounts that would finally make us happy.

On any given day we wake up from the dream and seek out ways to make it a reality by pursuing more than we have, gaining more than we have, and saving more than we have.

And knowing how important money is in the larger culture, it’s amazing that the American flags has fifty stars on it rather than fifty dollar signs.

Money dominates everything. It’s why we go to work, it’s what we use to buy our food, it’s how we judge to whom we should listen and respect.

Truly, we might think that we, like the Lord, care more about the content of one’s character than the clothes the character wears, but most of us tend to measure our worth and the worth of others based on their material possessions.

But, and this is a really big but, for many of us the American Dream feels more like the American Nightmare.

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Today we’re going to talk about Wesley’s second command within the Gain All You Can, Save All You Can, and Give All You Can. But before we get there, it might do us some good to see how we got here.

There was a recent study that noted at least 80% of Americans are stressed about the economy and their personal finances, more than half are worried about being able to provide for their family’s basic needs, 56% are concerned about job security, and 52% report lying awake at night thinking about one thing and one thing only: money.

Which, probably isn’t all that surprising to most of us here, particularly knowing how much the world revolves around economics. But maybe this statistic will surprise us a little more: In 1990 the average credit card debt in America was ~$3,000. Do you know what it is today? Over $9,000. And that doesn’t include mortgages, students loans, or medical debt.

$9,000! 

If that doesn’t scare you then consider this: If any of us here are near the $9,000 credit card debt mark, and statistically some of us are, and we only pay the minimum payment every month it will take something like 200 years before the debt will be repaid!

That’s craziness. 

The American Nightmare is in full effect when it comes to our finances. So so so many of us are unwilling to delay gratification and we use tomorrow’s money to finance today’s lifestyle. Few of us, if any, save our money appropriately because we keep thinking that tomorrow won’t come. 

But then it does.

Again and again and again.

Money, whether we like it or not, whether we are rich or poor, is easily the thing that consumes our thoughts and desires more than anything else.

Which leads us, again, to Wesley’s theological thoughts on the subject. Having first gained all you can, save all you can. 

It’s a lot easier to say than to do.

And in our parlance: It’s easier to preach than to practice. 

Now, to be clear, Jesus had plenty to say about the fallacy of saving, particularly when stockpiling goods or resources came at the expense of others, or one’s soul. 

Jesus uses a parables about the man building up extra storehouse to show our self-righteousness and hoarding can destroy one’s life. Jesus holds up the widow with her one coin given to the temple as the ideal steward. Jesus flips the tables over in the Temple because of the money lenders and the money changers.

But for as much as Jesus spoke against the desire to save, he also often talked about vineyards, and planting, and produce. All of which are long term investments. 

It takes years for certain plants to bear any fruit at all, and even then they’re usually not very good yet. The sower scatters seed on the ground not really knowing how long it will take before they will become something else. 

Jesus, and Wesley, called disciples of the Lord to faithful stewardship of the resources given to us first by God. And the fact that it first comes from God is THE WHOLE THING. 

Wesley once preached, “We are not at liberty to use what God has lodged in our hands as we please, but as God pleases, who alone is the possessor of heaven and earth, and the Lord of every creature. We have no right to dispose of anything we have, but according to God’s will, seeing we are not proprietors of any of these things.”

As faithful stewards we are given a responsibility over things like money, but also our souls, bodies, speech, hands and feet, talents, time, and material goods. 

But here’s the distinction, again, that is different and makes all the difference: Everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God. All that stuff I just mentioned, my money, my possessions, my talents, my body, they are not really mine. They belong to God. 

That parable I mentioned before, the one in which Jesus tells the story of a man who had accumulated so much stuff that he tore down his building to build bigger buildings, there’s something in it we often overlook. The man in the parable cannot see what he has as belonging to anyone, or anything, else. “I have no place to store my harvest, I’ll tear down my barns, and build more. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and all my goods.”

The farmer of the parable foolishly believes that he is solely responsible for his good fortune. Which, as I mentioned last week, is bonkers. No one is self-made. Period. We are all results of things beyond our control that shape and nurture us in ways seen and unseen. 

God gives and gives and gives, we’re just so steeped in a world that is constantly telling us that we are the masters of our destiny, we have to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, that we can’t even see how God is the one who gave us boots in the first place.

But, lest we revert back to the message from last week and the first part of Wesley’s understanding about gaining all we can, the question remains about what to do with what we’ve gained. 

The book of Proverbs, as confounding and frustrating as it may be, has a good and difficult word for us: Riches gotten quickly will dwindle, but those who acquire them gradually become wealthy.

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That’s just another way of saying, we are wise to manage our finances with a far-sighted view. Which, again, is easier to say than to do. It means that we are called to make decisions now about the way we use our resources now, so it will provide for us in the future.

For many of us, if not most, this is almost an impossibility. It is an impossibility because we live in the shadow of the culture of now. Those in the past might’ve understood the value in delaying gratification, in saving now for later, but we have all been conditioned to believe we can and need to have everything we want and that we can and need to have it now. 

The American Economy, often touted as the strongest in the world, nearly collapsed a decade ago in large part because of irresponsible mortgage lending that allowed people to purchase homes they couldn’t really afford. 

Today, the overwhelming amount of credit card debt is a consequence of people thinking they can purchase things on the basis of instant gratification rather than prudence in looking for the long term instead of the short-term. 

Even student loans are being offered to people now to finance a version and vision of the future they cannot see and yet every year we are pumping out more young people with college degrees and insurmountable debt to a job market that doesn’t exist. 

Saving now for then goes against the grains of our experience in ways that are confounding and continue to make things worse. But it can be done.

Experts will tout out a great number of programs and maxims and even proverbs to get people like us to start thinking about the long game economically. Things like you have to have a plan – something like the 80-10-10 rule: spend 80% of your income, save 10% and give away 10%. 

This will feel like an impossible challenge for many of us because we are up to our necks in a culture that constantly encourages us to live beyond our income. 

What keeps us from saving is often not the high cost of living, but the cost of high living. 

There are simply things we don’t need that we think we need and we’ve largely lost the ability to discern the differences between wants and needs. 

And part of the call to save all we can, as Christians, is also a witness to the fact that we save not just for ourselves, which also goes against everything else we’re told. It is a good thing for every person to ask themselves: Who will get all of this stuff when I’m gone? What kind of impact will what I have make on others? What can I invest in now that will live on long after I’m gone?

But we don’t ask ourselves those questions. Instead we live in this paradox in which we are so conditioned to only think about now that we are unable to think about later, or a time when we are no longer here.

And all of this, all that I’ve said on the subject, it doesn’t really feel like it has much to do with God. I mean, I know I referenced scripture, and I talked about Jesus, but just thinking about my words makes me feel like what you’ve received today would be better suited for a economic forum than the corporate worship of the great I AM. 

But saving is God’s cup of tea.

Sure, God desires to save us in a way that is remarkably different than the call to save our finances for a day yet seen, but they are still linked to one another.

God is all about the long-game.

Think about the crucifixion. Jesus wasn’t waiting around on the cross hoping for instantaneous faith and instantaneous gratification before doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. 

Jesus wasn’t waiting in the tomb on the first Easter measuring our fidelity before breaking forth into resurrected existence. 

God sees potential in God’s creation in a frame of reference often beyond our ability to grasp. God believes in God’s people as a long term investment – it takes a lifetime of hearing about the goodness of grace before it really sticks. 

But God keeps saving anyway. Even when things in the present scream the contrary, God keeps pouring out the Holy Spirit on a bunch of investments that no one in their right mind would put their money on. God does this because God is beyond time. God saves because that’s who God is. 

For us tomorrow is never promised. That’s part of the wisdom that comes with discipleship – an immediacy of gratitude for the present. And yet, we worship a God who believes in seeing beyond what is here and now. The time has come for us to do the same. Amen.

The Game Is Over

Luke 16.19-31

“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tips of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house – for I have five brothers – that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

The man was running out of room in his garage for all of his stuff. His wife thought it was extravagant for them to have five cars to begin with, but now the jet skies and the boat were simply making things unmanageable. And though he was supposed to figure out whether or not they could grease the hands of the local government enough for another building permit to let him but yet another addition to the back of his house, his mind was consumed by a far more stressful matter.

Larry.

Larry stood outside his house everyday, walking back and forth over his grass – the grass he paid a small fortune to keep maintained. Larry had his little cardboard sign asking for money or for food and people would slow down and pass him a few dollars, or a spare muffin. And everyday Larry would return from sunup till sundown, and it was driving the rich man crazy. 

He had done everything he could think of – he called the police, but they explained the property upon which Larry walked actually belonged to the city and there was nothing they could do about it – he proposed a new city ordinance banning the panhandlers like Larry from asking for money within the local municipality but all the local churches fought against it – he even tried playing extremely loud and annoying music through his expensive stereo system to try to drive him off.

But nothing worked.

Day after day Larry showed up and the rich man couldn’t stand it.

And yet, one day, the man woke up and began his normal routine only to discover that Larry, the nearly permanent fixture out his window was gone. The man danced around in his kitchen sliding across the marble floors. He drank his imported coffee and was thrilled to discover that Larry’s obituary was in the newspaper. 

The rich man’s problems were over!

He was so excited that he ran through the kitchen to share the good news with his wife, but as he rounded the corner into his indoor movie theater he felt a stabbing pain in his chest and he fell to the ground dead.

Sometime later the rich man realized he was in hell with flames of fire lapping all around him constantly. He even had to admit to himself that this torment was worse than seeing Larry outside all day. But then he strained his eyes and he saw Larry just on the other side of the fire, and he was standing there with what looked like an angel.

“Hey!” He shouted, “Send Larry over here with a Campari on the rocks – it’s getting hot in here.”

To which the angel replied, “You had good things your whole life, and Larry here, Larry had nothing. Here he is comforted and you are in agony. Also, notice – you can’t come over to us and neither can we come over to you.”

The rich man promptly fell to his knees, “Please! Send Larry to my brothers, that he might warn them about this place so they don’t have to suffer with me in agony.”

The angel said, “They have the scriptures, they need only trust what they read.”

“No,” he said, “You don’t understand. That’s not enough. They need someone to return to them from the dead for them to believe.”

And the angel finally said, “If they don’t already trust, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

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Thanks for this one Jesus. 

The wealthy and powerful in this life will burn in torment forever and ever, and those who are weak and poor might suffer now but will be comforted in the beyond. Therefore, do what you can people – give away your wealth and life like Larry/Lazarus such that your reward really will be a reward. 

It’s easy for this scripture to become a lambasting sermon about the poverty of wealth and the riches of near-destitution. Plenty of pastors have stood in their pulpits and held this one over the heads of their people in order to pad the offering plates, or guilt people into signing up for different ministries, or embarrass the well to do for their ignorance about their impending flames.

And there’s some truth to it. It’s a challenge to read the whole of the gospel and not read it as an indictment against the wealthy. But, as usual, there’s more to the parable than the parable itself. 

Living well and accumulating lots of possessions and deep bank accounts might be the world’s most overpowering ideal lifestyle, but in the kingdom of God they matter little. We, wrongly, use those categories to describe both the saved and the lost, the winners and the losers. 

Winning equates to wealth and losing equates to poverty.

And yet in Jesus’ eyes its living badly – being poor, hungry, and covered in sores – that turns out to be the mechanism by which people are apparently saved. 

We can hardly blame ourselves for missing this divine reversal – we have it so repeated into our brains from our infancy even until this very moment that who we are is based on what we have earned. One need not flip through the channels on the television, or see the billboards covered in potential lottery earnings to have this proved over and over again. 

We elevate the powerful and the wealthy both purposefully and subconsciously. We like to elect politicians who have done well for themselves, we read the books from the self-made millionaires, and we look up to our wealthiest family members.

And here’s the kicker – for all of our fascination and worship of those with money, they’ve done little good with it. Think about it: if the world could’ve been fixed by what we might call good living and good earning – then we would’ve fixed everything by now. 

But we haven’t.

Instead, it’s the winners of this world who, more often than not, achieve their earnings off the backs of the least, last, lost, little, and dead. 

They are the ones thrown to the curb while new homes, with new families, and new cars fill the neighborhoods. 

But because we admire the wealthy and want to be like them, we blind ourselves from seeing how the ones with all the stuff use Jesus’ favorite people as the mechanisms through which they achieve and maintain all that they have. It has been their ignorance of the poor, their locking up of the marginalized, their segregating by skin tone, that has brought about a very particular end in which it sounds like good news to those on the top, to those who actually have something to lose.

And still, even with all their earning, and trying, and striving, and politicking, and maneuvering, the world is still a mess! The rich just keep getting rich and the poor keep getting poorer.

Here is where the parable stings the most – the rich man, with all that he has, his being first, most, found, big, and alive, he is not able to delay or avoid his death any more than Larry is with his lastness, leastness, lostness, littleness, and deadness. 

The bell tolls for us all.

Do you see it now? When it comes to the Good News, success defined by the world merits us not one thing.

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The rich man might start out and seem like a real winner. But he can’t even see the truth in his death – he refuses to accept that he has died! He bargains with father Abraham to make the most of his situation and he loses.

It is because he was so convinced that good living, having all the right things, was the instrument of salvation that his death is simply unacceptable. And, to make matters worse, Father Abraham frightens all of us to death, pun intended, with his final declaration – not even seeing a dead person rise from the grave can change our minds.

We are quite stuck in this worldly worldview of ours.

However, lest we hear this story today and leave with the impression that we are being called to go out and live like Larry – hanging out by the gates of the rich until we develop sores all over our body – that’s not quite what Jesus is saying. 

This is not a story of imitation. It’s not a “go and do likewise.”

It is just a story of the truth.

And the truth is this: The game is over.

No one, certainly not God, is keeping score and tallying up all of our good works against our bad. There is not a divine ledger with little tallies every time we misstep or we bring about something good in the world. And there is definitely not a test by which the accumulation of our wealth will determine whether or not salvation is in fact ours.

The truth is a much harder pill to swallow precisely because everything else in the world tells us the contrary. 

Do all you can, earn all you can, achieve all you can, save all you can, invest all you can, those are all slogans of the world.

But the truth is that the game is over. We have nothing left to earn, really, because the cross comes to all of us and all of us die. 

And if we can accept that we are already dead, right here and right now, because of our baptisms, well then we can actually start living because we already have all we need.

Jesus came to raise the dead – nothing more, less, or else. He did not come to reward the rewardable, or to improve the improvable, or even convert the convertible. He came to raise the dead.

Heaven, whatever it may be, is not the home of the good, or the wealthy, or the powerful. It is simply the home of forgiven forgivers.

Hell, whatever it may be, contains only unpardoned unpardoners. 

Everyone in heaven has decided to die to the question of who’s wrong, whereas nobody in hell can even shut up about who’s right.

And that’s precisely the rich man’s problem – he has been so conditioned and convinced that his earning should have earned him something that he can’t stop thinking about how he did everything right.

But who gets to define what, in fact, is right?

Notice, Jesus does not begin his story with a disclaimer that this is precisely what will happen to the rich and to the poor when they die, nor does he command the listeners to go and be like Lazarus in their living until the day they die. 

He simply tells a story – and a frightening one at that.

But in the end the parable tells us one thing – The game is over. 

Whatever we think we need to do to get God to love us or forgive us or save us, it’s already been done. All of our sins, those of the past, present, and future, are nailed to Jesus’ cross. 

The question isn’t “What do we need to do to get saved?”

The question is, “How are we going to start living knowing that we are already saved?” Amen. 

Devotional – Psalm 138.6

Devotional:

Psalm 138.6

For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly; but the haughty he perceives from far away.

Weekly Devotional Image

On Sunday morning, in the middle of worship, I gathered the children from the congregation and I announced a new plan for ministry. We moved about the sanctuary and I showed them where I was praying when God spoke to me as clear as day about what we need to do. Their faces were aglow with anticipation as I announced that the future of the church rests on the congregation’s ability to raise $54 million dollars.

While the children danced around with thoughts of all the money, the adults sank down deeper in their pews. I was grateful that one of the kids finally asked what the money was actually for and then I proudly announced that we need to purchase a private jet so that I, as the pastor, can share the gospel around the world.

I, of course, was kidding.

But a pastor named Jesse Duplantis said just about the same thing to his church two weeks ago, and he was dead serious.

If that church raises the funds, and it seems like it might, it will be Duplantis’ 4th private jet since entering ministry and he justifies the request because, “If Jesus were on the earth today he wouldn’t be riding on a donkey, he’d be in a private jet spreading the gospel.”

The Lord we worship is magnificent and beyond our ability to comprehend yet, as the psalmist puts it, our Lord regards the lowly. In the New Testament, Jesus talks about the subject of money more than just about anything else and very wonderfully says that its easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven.

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I, for one, cannot wait to see Jesse Duplantis fly his (4th!) private jet through the eye of a needle.

In our fast-paced frenetic world that is so consumed by a thirst for power and wealth, it is always a strange thing to remember that our Lord came to dwell among us not as the televangelists live, but like those who wander among the margins of life. We worship a first century Jew who ate among the sinners, not a preacher who thinks flying with other people is akin to spending time with demons.

What a blessing and privilege to know that though our God is mighty, God chooses to meet us in the muck of life, instead of escaping away into the stratosphere.

The Talent Show – Sermon on Matthew 25.14-30

Matthew 25.14-30

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave, you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

Burying-His-Talent

I have an idea. We are going to start things off in the sermon a little differently this morning. Instead of sitting patiently and attentively while I spout off about theological ideas and anecdotes, we are going to do an activity…

In the parable of the talents, the master gives to the first slave five talents, the second slave two talents, and to the third slave he gives one talent. During the time of Christ, a talent was worth more than fifteen years of wages for a daily laborer; therefore this was a tremendous amount of money. So, here’s our activity: I want us to imagine that we are the modern equivalent of the master’s slaves, and we are going to discuss what we are going to do with the talents. If you’re sitting in the front third of the sanctuary I want you to imagine that the master has given you $50,000. In the middle third I want you to imagine that the master has given you $20,000. And the back third I want you to imagine that the master has given you $10,000. (If you remember anything from worship today, let it be this: It pays to sit near the front!) Anyway, I would like you to break up into groups of three or four and discuss what you would do with the money for the benefit of the kingdom of God. Begin.

Okay. The master would like to know what you are planning to do with his talents…

Of course, in the parable things work out a little differently. The master has decided to go on a great journey, and entrusts an incredible amount of money to three of his slaves. He provides them with five talents, two talents, and one talent, to each according to his ability. After the master leaves the five talent slave goes off and works hard with his talents and makes five more. Likewise the two talent slave goes off and works hard to earn two more talents. However the one talent slave went off and dug a hole in the ground to hide his master’s money.

The master returns and is greatly thrilled with the first two slaves. He rewards their trustworthy and hardworking nature by placing them in charge of many things, and then invites them into the joy of their master. But with the one talent slave, the master is very disappointed. The third slave was afraid of his master and saw that he was harsh, so he hid the talent in the ground. To which the master replies, “You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own interest.” The master takes away the one talent and orders the slave to be thrown into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Out of all the parables that Jesus shared with his disciples, this one has probably been more abused and misused than any other. Once any parable is abstracted from the proclamation of the kingdom, misreading is inevitable. Jesus shared a story about a shepherd who goes after the one sheep that is missing – God rejoices in seeking out those who are lost, even if they appear insignificant. Jesus tells another story about a young man who squanders his inheritance and comes back to his father begging to be welcomed as a slave and the father throws a great banquet for the return of the prodigal – God, though harsh, is a loving, reconciling, and forgiving presence.

Parable Definition

The parable of the talents however, has been twisted around to fit the arguments of many pastors and theologians throughout the centuries. For instance, this passage has been cited, in prosperity gospel churches, as a defense for why God wants us to become wealthy; God blesses us money so that we can make more money! Additionally this scripture has been used to claim that the poor are poor because of their own faults and problems, God gave them all the opportunities in the world to become rich, but they failed to pull themselves up by their boot straps and make something of themselves.

Jesus is not using this parable to recommend to his followers that we should work hard, make all the money we can, to give all we can. Instead, the story is a judgment against those who think they deserve what they earned, and a judgment against those who do not know how precious is the gift that they have been given.

The slaves did nothing to earn their five, two, and one talents. They were given as gifts! What becomes crucial is how they regarded the gifts and what they did with them.

A professor of mine in seminary named Stanley Hauerwas is widely regarded as a radical ethicist in the church. He has made some stunning proposals throughout his career about the need for the church to be the church and reclaim a sense of its radical nature in order to return to its mission for the kingdom of God.

Stanley Hauerwas

Stanley Hauerwas

He argued that we, as pastors, should never perform funerals in funeral homes because the services of death and resurrection should always take place where baptisms happen. He argued that we, as pastors, should never marry strangers off the street but take the time to know them intimately before bringing them together in holy marriage. He argued that we, as pastors, should remove American Flags from sanctuaries because the flag’s presence blurs the line between what our country expects of us, and what God requires of us. But one of the strangest proposals he ever made has to do with money and the church.

When we receive new members we often have them stand up here in front of the church like Tom and Linda will do a little bit later and take vows of membership. They promise to serve the church with their time and gifts for the glory of God. We then applaud them and shake their hands after the service.

Hauerwas believes that we should add a new requirement to membership. Whenever we receive new members, they should stand in front of the entire gathered body and announce how much money they earn in a calendar year… (pause for dramatic emphasis)

“Hi, I’m Taylor Mertins. Born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, I am a transplant to the Staunton region and I really enjoy the pace of life here. I serve as a pastor in the United Methodist Church and I make $36,500 a year.”

His reasoning behind this is two-fold: It would allow the church to have greater transparency regarding the wealthy during times of need. If everyone knows who the bigger earners are, they can seek them out when someone in the community is in dire straits, or if the church needs immediate help with something.

It would also allow the church to recognize the great gaps of wealth within the local congregation regarding the rich and the poor. When a family joins that make very little during the year, it would allow us to know who it is that we can truly help by consolidating our resources. We, as Americans, do such a good job at trying to cover up our socioeconomic status that we are blind to those who are in need in the pews next to us. 

What do you think? Should we adopt his plan here at St. John’s?

I’m not so sure. I understand his idea on principle, but I believe that it would result in us abusing one another and it would prevent us from viewing everyone as part of the body of Christ. If you discovered that one of the humble women in the church was a millionaire wouldn’t you treat her differently? If you discovered that one of the men who appears very wealthy has no money at all, wouldn’t you treat him differently?

Yet, at the same time, I really like Hauerwas’ idea. It would push us to be more vulnerable with one another about what we have to offer, and what we need. So I’m going to offer a slightly different proposal. What if, when we received new members, we required them to share their talents with us?

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Jesus’ parable of the talents uses money, but in the big picture it has nothing to do with money at all. God, as the master, has given each of us unique abilities and talents that we have been tasked to use in the world for the kingdom. To some he has given more talents than to others, which is to say the hand is not the foot, nor is the arm like the leg, in the body of Christ. Yet everyone has been blessed with some talent that is beautiful, wonderful, and incredibly important. 

Jesus’ disciples are called to do the work that Jesus has given us to do — work as simple and hard as learning to tell the truth and learning to love our enemies. Such work is the joy that our master invites us to share with him.

The slaves that earned more with their talents did so because they worked with what they had. No effort is made to describe how the slaves doubled their talents, but that they worked hard with the talents the master had given them. However the one talent slave rationalizes his failure to do anything with the talent entrusted to him by blaming the master! How often are we guilty of the same thing? —Blaming God for the failures that are indeed our fault.

Since the beginning of the church is has been a routine for Christians to excuse themselves by protesting that their gifts are too modest to be significant. How can little ole me possibly do anything for God’s kingdom?

Let me assure each of you of the contrary: You have been given gifts, wonderful and unique talents, that are begging to be used in the church for the world, and in the world for the church. You might not recognize them as such, you might feel insecure about whatever they are, but God has endowed you with the gifts so that they can be used. If you hide them inwardly, if you dig a hole in the ground, you fail to make good on the investment that God has made in you.

Jesus insists, through the parable, that the talents that God has provided us are to be used and implemented to their full ability. Christian discipleship is not something that we can just hope our pastors or churches can carry us through, but instead requires hard work. It demands that we take a good look at our lives and talents and ask how we can put them to use for God’s kingdom.

What talents do you see in your life? Are you a teacher who has the gift of sharing the Good News of God’s Word with others? A carpenter who has the gift to repair and shape shelters for others? A prayer warrior who has the gift to pray for our church, our community, and our world? A financially savvy individual who has the gift of helping others learn how to manage and invest their money? A nurse or doctor who has the gift of healing and presence?

I see a church full of Christians who have gifts that God has given.

Church should be like a great talent show where we share with others what God has given us, so that we can them employ those gifts for the kingdom. What are you doing with your talents?

Amen.