Sermon for September 23rd, 2012

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Malachi 3:10-18

10Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. 11I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the Lord of hosts. 12Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.

13 You have spoken harsh words against me, says the Lord. Yet you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ 14You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the Lord of hosts? 15Now we count the arrogant happy; evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape.’

Matthew 25:14-30

14 ‘For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; 15to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. 17In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. 18But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20Then 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.” 21His 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.” 22And 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.” 23His 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.” 24Then 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; 25so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” 26But 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? 27Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. 28So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. 29For 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. 30As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

We Respond to God's Word, Part II

If you haven't already figured it out from the scripture readings and the children's sermon, today's sermon is indeed...the "Money Sermon." We're currently in the midst of an eight-part series on the Heart of Worship--and no, money is definitely NOT at the heart of worship here at First Presbyterian Church, but by now I hope you all know what is: The Word of God, which is Jesus Christ. Last week we began talking about the third broad movement in our worship service, which is entitled "We Respond to God's Word." After we have heard the Word of God read in the scriptures, after we have heard the Word of God preached in sermon, it is natural and fitting that we respond to God's Word--that we respond to Jesus Christ. Last week we talked about various ways we do this in worship: by affirming our faith in the Apostle's Creed, or crying out to God in the Prayers of the People. You may have thought last week that I forgot one thing that we always do in this part of the worship service: We Present our Tithes and Offerings. Well, I didn't forget. I saved it for an entire sermon in itself. So here it is, my first "Money Sermon."

As a new pastor, I say that with some amount of fear and anxiety. After all, in our culture, money is a very sensitive issue, a "private" matter that we don't talk about publicly. Added to that is the fear that if we talk about money in church, we might scare people away, especially first-time visitors, who might get the impression that all we ever talk about is money.

If you are a first-time visitor today, I promise I won't talk about money every Sunday. But I did say that this is my "first" Money Sermon, and I promise it won't be my last, either. My plan is to preach on financial stewardship (money) four times a year. Incidentally, that is far less than Jesus himself preached about money in the gospels--but I'm no Jesus, of course. Four times a year will have to suffice.

(Gordon's Joke Here)

I suspect that many of us, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, tend to think of giving to the church (or to any Christian cause, for that matter) in the following three ways:

  1. It is something we initiate or choose to do of our own free will.
  2. It is something we do with our own property, from what already belongs to us.
  3. It is based on what we feel we can "afford" after all other things are considered.

But today's passage from Matthew calls those assumptions into question. As is often the case in the Gospels, Jesus takes the way of the world and flips it upside down, shifting our perspectives and challenging the way we see ourselves, our actions, and most importantly, our God.

In this parable, we have a Master who goes on a journey. The master, is of course, God. We are the servants. Notice that it is the master who summons the servants to him, the master who decides how much to give each servant, and the master who entrusts them with his own money. This is a challenge to the first assumption, that giving is something we initiate. God is the one who initiates the giving process--he does this by summoning us to himself, by assessing how much we are capable of handling, and then by entrusting us with an appropriate amount. Everything we do is merely a response to what God has already done. And here in this parable, we see three different responses from three different people. We'll come back to those in a minute.

So the master gives each servant a number of talents. A "talent," by the way, is no small amount of money. One talent is approximately 6,000 denarii, and one denarii would have been the average wage for one day's labor. So adjusted for inflation, one talent today would probably be somewhere between $300,000 to half a million dollars. So the master gives the first servant a few million dollars, the second servant about a million, and the third servant several hundred thousand dollars. Generous guy, right? Wrong. Because he doesn't really "give" it to them--as we learn at the end of the parable, he fully expects to get it back. He does, however, give the servants wide latitude to decide how to invest the money, and I presume that in the process they used some of it to take care of themselves and their own families. But I also presume they never forgot that it belonged to the Master, and that the master would someday return to account for it. This is a challenge to the second assumption, that giving is something we do with our own property, from what belongs to us. Giving is what we do with God's property, that has been loaned with us for a very specific purpose, and for which we will be held accountable.

Let's go back now to the three responses. The first servant is given a few million dollars, and his response is to invest it, trade it, put it to use for the Master's purposes. And he doubles it. Well done, good and faithful servant! You did well with a few things, now I will trust you with more things. The second servant is given substantially less money. He doesn't complain--after all, it isn't his money. But even though it is less, he also puts it to work, and he also doubles it. Notice the Master's response is identical: Well done, good and faithful servant! You did well with a few things, now I will trust you with even more things. There's an important point here: God does not judge us based on how much money we give. God judges us based on what we do with what we have been given. To those whom God gives much, God expects much. To those whom God gives less, God still expects a proportionate response. This is the challenge to the third assumption: Our giving should not be based on what we think we can afford after all other expenses are considered; rather our giving should be based on what God has entrusted us with, and only when we have put that to the proper use, will God entrust us with more.

Oh yes, I almost forgot. That third servant. The Master gives him the least of all, presumably because he already knows the guy pretty well. The third servant sits on the money, because he's afraid of losing it; afraid that when the Master comes back, he'll have nothing at all to show. Before we judge him too harshly, I need to say that I can really identify with this guy, far more than the other two. If you loaned me a million dollars, I'd be scared to death of losing it all in some bad investment. I'd be afraid that the stock market would go south, that some natural disaster would strike and wipe out whatever I'd invested in. It would be much safer--responsible, even--for me to just hold onto it and give it back to you exactly the way you left it. Right?

The third servant was afraid. And that's too often how we make our decisions about giving: We are afraid. What if I give and then I can't afford the house payment? What if I give and then I need that money for groceries? What if I give and then some emergency comes up, and I have to pay hospital bills? I'd be better off just sitting on that money. I'll give more when I get more. But that's putting things in the wrong order, like putting the cart before the horse. We are supposed to give our tithes and offerings as a response to God's Word, but too often we reverse that order: We finally turn to God after we've already given our money to everyone else, and we say "Help, God! I need more money!" But that's money leading us to God's Word, when God's Word should lead us to the proper use of money.

So what is the proper use of money? Well, that depends on whose money it is. If it's your money, the proper use is whatever you want to use it for, and then whatever is left over might be enough to give to charity. But if it is the Master's money, then the proper use is whatever the Master wants to use it for. And our Master promises us that whatever is left over will be enough for us to live and not fear for tomorrow. If it's your money, and you give it to charity, that's an expression of what a kind and compassionate person you are. But I don't think any of the servants in Jesus' parable saw themselves as giving to charity. They were investors, and when you give to the church or Christian ministries, you are investing in what God is doing in the world. Make no mistake, God does not need our money to accomplish his plans. God has a plan for the world, and for the City of El Paso. God is going to do it with or without us...but he invites us to join in what he's doing. And so we give, not to show how kind or compassionate we are, not to make ourselves feel better...but because we want to be part of what God is doing. We want to be on the team, in the middle of the game, and not sitting on the sidelines.

As I conclude, I would like to address separately, for a moment, our visitors and then our members, as I believe the expectations for each should be somewhat different.

To our visitors today: Whether or not you give here, I encourage you to give somewhere to what God is doing in our world and in our community. And I don't just mean putting a few dollars in an offering plate. Make your gifts consistent, and significant enough that both you and the recipients of your giving feel the weight of the gift. This is for your own benefit as much for the recipients of your gift. Some people call it "Karma"--what goes around comes around. As Christians, we call it the Golden Rule, from Matthew 7:12--Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It applies to finances as well: Give as generously to others as you want others (including God) to give to you.

And now, to our members: We will soon be entering into our fall stewardship campaign. I have heard many of you say that you feel a new spirit of excitement and possibility in our church, a new energy and a new hope. I agree with you, and I believe that God is truly at work here. But remember that God-sized dreams require God-sized commitment, and God-sized generosity. That applies to our time, our abilities, and yes, our finances, too. Bill Burroughs, who was a pastor here many years ago, said "Our whole lives must be God's if our lives are to be whole."

Every Sunday we respond to God's Word in our worship service with our whole lives, and part of that response is presenting our tithes and offerings. A tithe is an old English word that simply means "tenth." So for members of the church, the expectation is that we give a tenth of our weekly, monthly, or annual income to the church. As simple as this sounds, it is difficult for some, and some of our members are steadily working their way up to tithing, increasing their giving by one or two percentage pints each year until they get to ten percent. For those of you who are in this category, and really for everyone, too -- I encourage you to take God at his word in Malachi. He says: "Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing."