Sermon for 21st Sunday after Pentecost 2020
Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18 Psalm 1 I Thessalonians 2:1-8 Matthew 22:34-46
Billy Graham said, “You make a living by what you get, you make a life by what you give.” The Pharisees were worried about their lives. They had classified over 600 laws, and often tried to distinguish the more important from the less important. So one of them, an “expert in the law,” asked Jesus to identify the most important law. Jesus quoted from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. By fulfilling these two commands, a person keeps all the others. They summarize the Ten Commandments and the other Old Testament moral laws.
Love the Lord your God with all of your heart and with all of your soul and all of your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second one is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandment.
Jesus says that if we truly love God and our neighbor, we will naturally keep the commandments. This is looking at God’s law positively. Rather than worrying about all we should not do, we should concentrate on all we do to show our love for God and others. But how do we do it? We are not always on our A game, we have bad hair days and there are so many neighbors. When asked who is our neighbor, that is when Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The Pharisees, Herodians, and Sadducees had asked their questions. Then Jesus turned the tables and asked them a penetrating question – who they thought the Messiah was. The Pharisees knew that the Messiah would be a descendent of David, but they did not understand that he would be God himself. Jesus quoted from Psalm 110:1 to show that the Messiah would be greater than David. The most important questions we will ever answer is what we believe about Christ and what Christ is calling us to do.
In Jesus’ teaching about money, we hear similar messages. In Matthew, he challengers the rich young man to give all his wealth to the poor (Mathew 19:16-30). In Luke, he praises Zacchaeus for giving away half of his. Zacchaeus went up the tree a sinner and came down a philanthropist (Luke 19:1-10).
Jesus spoke a great deal about money – often with the kind of humor contained in this story. A prairie farmer appeared at the bank asking for a loan of one dollar. He acknowledged that it was customary to provide collateral for any loan and produced a ten thousand-dollar savings bond. The bond was deposited in the bank vault until the loan was repaid. A year later, the farmer reappeared. He renewed the loan, paying the interest for the first year, a nickel and two pennies – seven cents. This happened for several years until finally the bank manager, consumed with curiosity, approached the farmer. “We are quite happy to make this loan but I must ask why you want it. After all, we are holding ten thousand dollars for you. Why would you want to borrow one dollar?” To which the farmer replied, “Do you know how much you folks would charge me per year for a safety deposit box for that bond?” In many of his parables, Jesus commended those who showed that kind of brightness and imagination with money. Why is that? Jesus repeatedly makes two points about money: 1) It plays an important role in our life. 2) It plays an important role in building and maintaining our relationship with God. In both of these ways, Jesus recommends that we use money wisely.
Each congregation needs to raise money in ways that are compatible with its history and present character. You may recall in Church History, the sale of indulgences. An indulgence, in Roman Catholic theology, was a pardon for temporal punishments that remain due for sins which have already been forgiven of guilt. The indulgence was granted by the church after the sinner had confessed and received absolution. They were granted for specific good works and prayers. Indulgences replaced the severe penances of the early church. Indulgences, and the abuses that crept into granting them, were a major point of contention when Martin Luther initiated the Protestant Reformation.
In the early church in Virginia, they instigated pew rent to help raise funds to support the church. I have heard of some parishes auctioning off front-row seating for Christmas Eve and Easter Sundays. Auctioning the front row in an Episcopal Church, what a surprise for us. I would expect the back row, or rather three rows from the back row which seems to be the coveted spot in an Episcopal Church.
Generosity stands in tension with our other obligations – care for our family, taking responsibility for others, to deal fairly with others. A spiritually mature person balances competing values, to hold fast to what is good even when ends refuse to meet. What matters are the intentions of our hearts. A spiritual life that does not concern itself with money can have little effect on our daily lives, especially in a culture as saturated by financial forces as ours. Our choices about wealth and money occupy a central place in God’s vision for humanity. Money plays a central role in virtually all ethical decisions.
In our society, money represents time and energy and confers power and status. If religion is to mean anything, it has to influence the way we manage our money choices. An example heard before is if we deny ourselves a cup of expensive coffee each week, we could give that money to the church, or increase our giving by that much. It is a first step, it is about making choices. I have a friend who fasts one day a week so that he can send that money, money he would have spent on his meals, to an orphan girl in a developing country. He writes to her and has pictures of her to share with others. It is a small act from a big heart. Sometimes we are called to die to ourselves to create an empty space in which to feel the presence of the sacred. Self denial is to self indulgence as inhaling is to exhaling or as prayer is to action.
Stewardship is a theological belief that humans are responsible for the world and should take care of it. Within the Church, we have the responsibility to care for the ministry and mission of God’s work in the world. Stewardship is the responsive practice of human beings tending to what has been placed in their care by God. That holds us accountable to something greater than ourselves. In the church, we recycle the unused bulletins and office paper. We donate aluminum cans to the fire department for helping burned-out families. I have been known to get aluminum cans out of the trash. We recycle cardboard out back to help Mother Earth reuse instead of having to reproduce.
A family’s charitable giving should fit into its whole financial situation. The idea of philanthropy can be developed early. I heard an amazing story of a New York City couple, grandparents to six grandchildren. Each year, they would set aside $10,000 to give to a charity. The grandchildren would do research, gather information of needs in their area, then go to different charity sights, three with the grandmother and three with the grandfather. After all the research, they would vote to determine where the money went. These grandparents are sending a powerful message.
I love the Parable of the Talents because I can see different parts of myself in it. You may recall the one who buried his talent and the ones who increased theirs. There have been times in my life, my physical life and my spiritual life that I have been afraid and guarded and have chosen to hide my talents. I have a friend who says that she will never pray for God to guide her because she is afraid where that might be. It is like she is willing to open her hand and heart part of the way. So that means that she is only able to receive part of the blessings. I have found that those times I have hidden my gifts, hidden what I knew God was calling me to do, I have been left feeling empty. Those times when I have given all, all of my energy, my commitment, my time, my heart, I have been blessed over and above my giving.
On those occasions, God took the open door of my heart and filled me with so much. Martin Luther said, “I have had many things in my hands and I have lost them all, but whatever I have placed in God’s hands I still possess.” It is in giving that we are able to receive. It is in being loved that we are able to respond in love.
Someone asked Helen Keller, “What would be worse than being born blind?” She replied, “To have sight with no vision.” When we give to God’s work, we are saying that we have vision for what God can do with our time, our talent and our treasures and what God can do with us because we offer them. May our eyes be on the work God would have us do in the world and may our giving make those efforts possible. Amen.