Forever Stewards: A Sermon for Thanksgiving, 2017

giftThe readings for this sermon (Thanksgiving Year A) can be found here. I focus on the passage from Deuteronomy.

What are we thankful for? This is a question some of us have been asking ourselves this week, and especially today. In some homes, families will ask each person at the table to say at least one thing they are thankful for. What will we say? Family: we are thankful for our families–at least most of the time. Those of us with work will be thankful for that, and for the money to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. Those of us in good health are thankful for this, to be able to get up in the morning and go about our day without pain or difficulty. Those of us living in the US are probably thankful for the relative peace and security we enjoy here.

The truth is, of course, that whatever we have that is good or valuable, we should be thankful for. As Christians, we know that God created the world as a free gift–God did not have to create anything, but out of an abundance of love, God chose to. This means that not only everything we have–all our possessions–but even all of our skills and abilities, and indeed our very lives: it’s all a pure and free gift. This is why we hear God warning us in Deuteronomy today:

Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth

Everything we have is a gift. So how can we give thanks? How can we thank God if everything we have that we might give in thanks, God already gave? If everything is a gift from God, then, in truth, everything already belongs to God. How do you thank the God who already has everything?

Those of us gathered in church might begin by saying: through prayer, worship, and praise. And this is certainly important. But our thankfulness cannot and should not end here. If we are thankful to God for God’s generosity, let us be generous with God’s gifts. Let us pass on God’s loving gifts to those in need.

Churches around the country are now wrapping up their stewardship seasons, a time when members of churches discern how much they can financially support their parish. And this is certainly important. But stewardship does not begin or end with our pledgecards. Stewardship is a way of life, it is our response to God’s love and gifts. To be a steward simply means to be responsible for what belongs to someone else. If everything we have, and everything we are, is a gift from God, then our whole lives are a time of stewardship. We are looking after what God has freely given. So what does this mean?

Well, it means that if I give food to a hungry person, if I clothe a naked person, if I help a homeless person find a home, if I help a sick person get the medical care they need–I am not giving away anything that belongs to me. I am simply passing the gifts God has given to me on to the next person. I am being generous because God has been generous. This is Christian stewardship.

We come to the altar to receive communion. Another word for this communion is the Eucharist. Now, “eucharist” is a Greek word that means–you guessed it–“thanksgiving”. In the Eucharist, we give thanks. We give thanks to God for creation and all the gifts of life, but especially for God’s work of healing and reconciliation in Jesus Christ. God didn’t have to do this. Just like in creation, God chose to freely give because of God’s infinite love for a broken world. And we come to the altar and eat and drink Christ’s body and blood–we receive the gift all over again. And for this, we give thanks.

My hope for us today is that we will not let our Eucharist, our thanksgiving, end at the altar. When our deacon dismisses us, and we extinguish the candles, and walk through those doors, let our Eucharist continue! Let us give thanks, not only on Sundays or on one day in November, but every day of our lives. And if we are thankful, let us be generous as God has been generous with us.

To conclude, I can think of nothing better than to repeat the collect our priest prayed just a few minutes ago:

Almighty and gracious Father, we give you thanks for the fruits of the earth in their season and for the labors of those who harvest them. Make us, we pray, faithful stewards of your great bounty, for the provision of our necessities and the relief of all who are in need, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

 

Spending Our Inheritance: A Sermon for Nov 19, 2017

The Readings for this Sermon (Year A Proper 28) can be found here at the Lectionary Page. My sermon focuses especially on the Epistle and Gospel readings:

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 — Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

Matthew 25:14-30 — Jesus said, “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 sow, and gathering 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 with 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.’”

I delivered this sermon without a manuscript; what appears below is a version written from memory.

hands-moneyHow do we think about God? How do we talk about God? How do we picture God? We Christians draw on Scripture to talk about God, and Scripture provides a wealth of images and ideas: God as a parent, God as a king, God as a mighty warrior. These images are especially prevalent in the Hebrew Bible. From the New Testament, we hear about God as a shepherd, tending the flock, and about God as both priest and as as sacrifice, at the same time. We also hear about God even as an inanimate object: God as a rock, as a castle, as a stronghold.

Now it’s crucial that we don’t make the mistake of understanding any of these images literally. God is not actually our biological father, and God is not literally tending sheep on some hillside. And God is certainly not actually just a rock! But to say that these names for God are not literally true is not to say they are not true; indeed, these words are the Truth made accessible to us humans. Our minds cannot grasp the mystery of God, and so we need such language to try and reach beyond ourselves. These images of God are in fact true because they are not literal.

Today Jesus gives us another image of God in our parable: when you come across the words “lord” or “master” in Scripture, there’s a pretty good chance it’s referring to God. And in this case, it refers specifically to God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. I think that’s pretty clear. As for the slaves or servants, who might they be? I think this is relatively clear, too: if the lord is Jesus, then his servants are the disciples–not just the original twelve, but we here in this room today as well. We are Jesus’s disciples–or, at least, we are trying to be.

So far, so good. But what about this journey that the lord takes? What’s going on with that? This isn’t so immediately clear. But if we meditate on this for a moment, I think the answer will appear: Jesus frequently tries to teach his students about the inconvenient fact that he will die and leave them, and about the mystery of his eventual return. I think this is what the trip signifies: Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension is the beginning of the trip, and the return his Jesus’s second coming.

So we have our characters and the basic story: Jesus, his disciples, and the time between his ascension and his return. But there’s a lot more here; Jesus is trying to tell us what we should be doing during this long absence. And so we come to the last piece of the parable: what are these talents? What is this inheritance? This is really the center of the parable; if we are going to understand it, we have to get this right.

The first thing we need to make clear is that the “talents” here are not referring to our skills or personality traits, as the English word might suggest. Here, a talent is a unit of measurement. It’s a weight. Gold and silver were measured in talents. When I was researching earlier this week, I came across one scholar who explained that a talent of silver might have been worth as much as 38,000 denarii–a denarius was basically the daily wage at the time. So think about how much you make in one day, and multiply that by thirty-eight thousand, and you will have some idea of what a talent was worth. Millions, maybe even billions, of dollars. A lot of money.

So, what does Jesus mean by this? Was he being literal? Was he giving investment advice? Was he saying that at the second coming, he’s going to bring his accounting book and demand some pretty serious donations? I don’t think so! First off, all evidence suggests that Jesus himself was rather poor. The idea that he left some huge sum of money to the early church doesn’t hold water. And indeed, all the evidence suggests that all of his disciples were pretty poor too. Furthermore, whenever Jesus did talk about money, he pretty much told us we should just it all away.

So Jesus wasn’t being literal–just like the images of God we discussed before are not literal. So what does he mean then? It’s a difficult passage, but I think that Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians can help us here. Paul is talking about the same issues–he is discussing the “night time” that the church lives in, after Jesus’s death, resurrection, and ascension, yet before his return. It’s a dark and difficult time. Yet Paul reminds us that we are children of the light, and so we must not be discouraged. And we don’t have to struggle here alone. We are called to do the work Christ has left for us to do, and we have been given tools to do that work. Paul uses a military metaphor–just as we talked about before, Scripture sometimes describes God as a mighty warrior–and Paul draws on this tradition. He says that we have a breastplate of faith and love, and a helmet of hope. These three–faith, hope, and especially love–are a favorite theme of Paul’s writing. And they are doubtless essential to what it means to be a Christian. If we have faith and hope, it is because we know God loves us.

What if this is the inheritance that Jesus has left, the talents from our parable? We have no record of Jesus leaving any money or property, but we have ample evidence, not only of his love, but that he called on his disciples to love–each other, and neighbors, and even their enemies. If it is love that is the inheritance that Jesus left us, what does this parable then teach us?

Well, the first two servants, they took their inheritance of love, and they went out into the world and traded it, spent it, shared it. Yet when they got home, they found that they not only had all the love they started with, but actually twice as much! This isn’t how money works–if I have $10,000, and I give you 8,000, I only have 2,000 left. But God’s love doesn’t play by the rules of our world, of our economy. The more I give freely the gift of God’s love, the more love I know and feel and have.

The third servant tries a different strategy. He takes God’s love and buries it in the ground. He tries to save it for himself. And if this were money, that might make sense. He’s trying to keep it safe. But what he finds, at the end of time, is that when he goes back to dig up his treasure, he’s lost it all. This is how it is with God’s love. If I try to hold on to it for myself, I find that it withers away, it shrivels and dies, and I am left with nothing.

So what does this mean? Well, I think it means we are called to spend God’s love recklessly. We should take this gift and share it. If we do, we will find that the more we share God’s love, the more love we have. So to conclude, let us remember that prayer we pray every week, and which many of us recite daily. It begins:

Our Father, who art in heaven
hallowed by thy name

God’s will, God’s kingdom–not mine! And then we continue:

thy kingdom come
thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven

We are calling for God’s kingdom, not just at the end of time, or in some metaphysical place somewhere else, but here and now, in this place. Sometimes, people think of prayer and action as polar opposites. They think that if we pray, we don’t need to act, or if we want to act, we shouldn’t bother praying. But this isn’t what prayer is about. Prayer is preparation for action. We should pray, and then act. So if, on Sunday, we pray for God’s kingdom to come to earth, let’s go out on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and act on that. Let’s make it happen.

So my hope for us is that when [our deacon] dismisses us today, and we walk through the doors of this church, each one of us will ask ourselves: “how can I spend God’s love recklessly today and in the days to follow?”

 

Idols & Windows: A Sermon for October 8, 2017

The Readings for this sermon (Year A Proper 22) can be found here at the Lectionary Page. I preach most specifically on these two selections from those readings:

Exodus 20:4 — “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

Philippians 3:4b-7 — “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”

I delivered this sermon without notes; what appears below is a version written from memory.

bullGoldenWallStI need a little help with this sermon today. I want to take a quick survey. Please raise your hand if you have a garage, or a shed, or even a barn on your property. OK, keep your hands up. Now raise your hand if you don’t have any of these, but you do have a foyer, or some other space just inside of your front door, where you can put your shoes, or maybe have a small table. OK, you can put your hands down. Now raise your hand if you’ve ever felt the temptation to carve a statue of a bull or maybe an eagle, set it up in that shed or in that foyer, and, once a day…bow down and worship it?

I don’t see any hands up–and that’s good, because if someone had raised their hand, I’d have to quickly write a new sermon! But no, I don’t think any of us have been tempted to carve an idol and worship it. And so the second commandment we heard in Exodus today can sound today a bit old, a bit archaic, even irrelevant. We don’t worship idols of stone or wood in the 21st century. But I think if we take a moment to reflect, we may find that there are still idols in our lives. Not idols of stone or wood, but idols we place on the altars of our hearts, on the altars of our minds.

If we want to figure out what might tempt us to worship, just think about what we spend most of our time doing. Where our time is, that’s where our heart will probably be. And what do most of us spend most of our time doing? Many of us spend 30, or 40, or 50…or even 60 hours a week working, to make money. And if we are not at work, we are sitting at the kitchen table balancing our checkbooks and paying bills: rent, car insurance, setting aside money for groceries. And when we aren’t working or paying bills, many of us are worrying because we don’t have enough money. We’re not sure where the money for rent will come from this week.

And of course, to work and be paid a fair wage or salary for that work is a good thing. We need money to pay those bills, there’s nothing wrong with that. Work and even money aren’t inherently bad. But if this concern for money looms larger an larger in our vision, until it takes up our whole field of vision and we can’t see anything else, well that’s different. That’s dangerous. Just like wood and stone, and bulls and eagles aren’t bad in and of themselves–they are created good by God. But if we come to worship them, that’s a different matter.

Now, if you are going to make a lot of money, so you can get a lot of the things that money can buy–property–what will you need to do? You’ll probably seek out a high-powered education. You’ll try to make connections with influential people. You’ll work to develop the skills you need to get that next promotion. In short, you will need power. And again, there’s nothing wrong with power per se. People can use power to speak the truth and work for justice. But just like with property, if the pursuit of power takes up your whole field of vision so that you can’t see anything else, it becomes dangerous. It can become an idol.

And if you are the kind of person with a lot of property and a lot of power, how will people treat you? They will probably ask you for advice, flatter you, and treat you with greater respect. In short, you’ll have a lot of popularity or prestige. And again, we can use prestige to do good things. We all know about people who use their celebrity status to try and make the world a better place. But again, if that pursuit of prestige comes to dominate our whole field of vision, if we seek prestige for its own sake, it can easily become an idol.

So property, power, and prestige–I think these can easily become idols for us. Again, just like wood and stone, bulls and eagles, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these, as long as we keep our perspective. If we remember that everything we have, and everything we are, an everything we might be are all free gifts from God, then we can use all of these as tools to serve God. It’s when we lose this perspective that the temptation to idolatry comes to the fore. We have to have eyes to see and ears to hear.

I think Paul knew something about this temptation. Today in his letter to the Philippians we learn that Paul was not just any Jewish person, he was a Pharisee, very well educated–he knew the Law forwards and backwards. And we know from the Acts of the Apostles that he had a position of authority in his religious community–he had power and prestige. The problem was that his Jewish faith–which was and is a path to knowing and serving and loving God–had come to be a sort of idol for Paul. He became so focused on the rules and hierarchy and prestige of religious practice that they no longer pointed beyond themselves to the mysterious Creator. Again, just like wood and stone, bulls and eagles, property, power, and prestige, his faith wasn’t bad. But it became bad because it came to dominate Paul’s whole field of vision, until he couldn’t see beyond it.

In this way, I think Paul shows us that religious faith is a lot like a window. If you have a window in your home, the whole point is that it is transparent, and you can open it. You can see the whole world outside, and you can open the window to hear what’s going on outside too. You don’t install a window to look at the window (well, unless it’s stained glass!) you install it so that you can look through it, hear through it. Just like that, religion is meant to always point beyond itself, to God.

We Christians can learn something from Paul here. Our religious practice, too, can easily become something that dominates our whole field of vision, until we can no longer see what it’s supposed to be pointing us to. We didn’t come here today to stare at the pews, or to study the altar fabric. And the bread and wine we will eat and drink in a few minutes, it’s not especially delicious bread or fine wine. No, all of this is meant to show us the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Our faith should be a window onto this revelation. But if we focus on our religious practice without remembering this, it too can become an idol.

If you want an example of someone who fell into idolatry in the 21st century, look no further than Stephen Paddock, the man who attacked more than 200 people last Sunday in Las Vegas, and killed more than 50. Now I don’t know much about Stephen Paddock. I don’t know his political views, or his religious background. I don’t know his personal life. Nonetheless I feel confident saying this: Stephen Paddock fell to the temptation of idolatry. He worshiped the idol of power, specifically the idol of violence; violence is the most direct power we can have over another human. He became obsessed with violence until it occupied his whole field of vision, and he couldn’t see anything else.

Now, this is an extreme example, of course. Most of us–God be praised–will never be tempted to this degree. But I think this still shows us the power and the danger of idolatry, that if we lose perspective on who we really are and who made us, we can easily be deceived. And so my prayer for us this week is that we will always have eyes to see and ears to hear, to see everything in our life as tools to love and serve God, to be able to hear what God is calling us to do. Amen.