Sermon: Giving as an act of thanks (Oct. 13, 2019)

Sermon: Giving as an act of thanks (Oct. 13, 2019)

Pentecost 18C/Lectionary 28 October 13, 2019 Stewardship #2 – Giving as an act of thanksgiving Luke 17:11-19 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 INTRODUCTION          Today’s stewardship theme is “giving as an act of thanksgiving.” So before we get to the readings, let’s get in the right frame of mind. Take a moment to share with the person sitting next to you two things you are thankful for. But here’s the catch: it cannot be your family, friends, health, home, comfort, or Jesus. Those are great, but I want you to go deeper than that. Be as specific as you can…          Anyone want to share what you came up with? I’m not going to give you a lot of background on these texts today, but I do want to give you some listening guidance, which is simple: as you listen, watch for the ways gratitude is expressed in these texts – physically, spiritually, emotionally – and think about how you do or could express gratitude intentionally in your own life. Let’s listen.  [READ] Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.          You’re flipping through a magazine or scrolling online and your eye lands on a picture, an advertisement. It is a picture of several young, attractive people sitting in a nicely appointed living room with a fireplace. They are all laughing, and each person is holding a particular wine glass…. a glass which can be found at Target, for only $4.99 per glass! Your mind starts to subconsciously form a possibility: if you own a set of these glasses, this lovely dinner party could happen in your own home, and you could have all those friends to go with it! Ahh, your picture of what you’d like your life to look like can be a little closer to your grasp… if only you owned this set of wine glasses. Or that car. Or the newest Apple product.          Sound familiar? If you’ve observed the progression of advertising strategy over the years, you’ll notice that these days this is often the approach advertising takes: the goal of an ad is to show you what you lack. An effective ad transports you to a place that shows you what you wish your life was like, and convinces you that if you only had this product in your life, you will be closer to what you think life should be like.          It’s brilliant really, because it feeds into our natural inclination to view life through a lens of scarcity. We all want to be and have enough, right? Enough time, enough money, enough energy, enough control. And yet we seldom think we do have enough. We don’t have enough money or time, we aren’t strong or skinny enough, or smart enough, or brave enough, or talented enough. And this is just confirmed by advertisements, and our peers, and our own negative self-talk – everywhere we look, we are convinced that we lack.          All of this has spiritual implications as well, and especially when it comes time to think about stewardship of these resources which we may feel are lacking. When we consider what we will give to God, our survival instincts kick in: “I don’t have enough,” we think, “so maybe I’ll just have to give less to the church. I have greater need right now, so I’ll cut back on my offering.” Maybe you don’t feel that way… but I know that I do. Even now, as Michael and I are managing the ever-increasing costs of raising kids, with daycare and preschool and extra-curriculars, not to mention student loans and a mortgage, it is very tempting to look at how much we give back to God and say, “Well, we could probably cut that back a little bit to cover these expenses.” It seems like a practical choice – our offering is one of the few “expenses” that isn’t a set amount. But in the end, I realize, it is a choice that comes from an attitude of scarcity: the myth of not-enough.          That myth is a powerful one. I realize that in terms of physical resources it is not a myth for you – if you’re on a fixed income or just lost a job or something – but the overarching attitude of scarcity is most certainly a myth, because we know that our God is one of abundance, who gives us many blessings from the breath in our bodies to food on our table to the people in our lives to the gift of his own Son. God is abundant in generosity! Yet even surrounded by so many blessings, it is so easy to slip into that scarcity mindset, that feeling of not-enough. So how do we break free? How do we move from an attitude of scarcity, to an attitude of abundance? “Rejoice in the Lord always. Pray without ceasing. Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” These are Paul’s words to the Christians living in Thessalonica, but they are words that can also speak powerfully to us today, especially on this topic of scarcity. Let’s start with the last part, “Give thanks in all circumstances,” because gratitude is a powerful antidote to scarcity. One year in November, I saw some people on Facebook doing something called “30 days of thankfulness,” where they posted one thing every day of November that they were thankful for – and it had to be something different each day. I decided to give it a try. At first it was easy. But after a while, especially on days when nothing extraordinary happened, I had to get creative so I wouldn’t repeat. So, I was thankful for pumpkin seeds, or for the softness of my dog’s ears, or for fresh, clean sheets. I had to search specifically for something to be grateful for. And then I had to articulate it, sharing it with others. In doing this, something happened: I found my attention was less on my need and my lack, and more on the many blessings around me. And when I found so many blessings around me, I also found myself trusting God more and myself less – because there was no way I could possibly provide for myself the beautiful color of the leaves, or the feeling of my child’s arms around my neck, or the relief I get from a huge belly laugh. Those things are gifts of pure grace, from an abundantly generous God. We see the power of articulating our gratitude in our Gospel lesson, too. Nothing here says that the other nine lepers weren’t also thankful. What makes the one leper unique is that he was the only one who turned around to say something about it, to praise God and thank Jesus. In response to that, Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well,” or sometimes translated, “whole.” And isn’t that true – praise and gratitude have a way of pulling us out of ourselves, focusing on another, and thus bringing things into perspective. And so, we do become more whole. That must be why Paul also suggests that the Thessalonians “rejoice in the Lord always.” Not now and then, not when we think of it, not just Sunday mornings, but all the time, every time we notice a way God has blessed us, given to us, provided for us. If you struggle to do that, do like I did that November – try every day to write down something specific for which you are grateful, or three somethings, or even go crazy with five. Share them with someone else. And say a prayer of thanksgiving to God for those blessings. I’m sure, if you make this a habit, you will find over time that your attitude of scarcity begins to dissipate, and you might also find you become more generous with your resources: time, talent, and treasure. Finally, Paul says, pray without ceasing. And this is really key. One of the things the Celebrate Generosity stewardship program we are using insists upon is to appoint a prayer chair, because as the leader book says, “A stewardship program without prayer is like a Christian church without Christ.” God has entrusted these many blessings to us, our many resources, and so how can we possibly know how faithfully to manage them without consulting with God about it? A part of that prayer may be to name some of your blessings in writing or aloud, and give thanks for them. A part of it may be to rejoice in what God has given to you. But a part of it must be to ask God, “What would you have me return to you, for all your bounty and generosity to me?” These practices – rejoicing in the Lord, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks in all circumstances – are exactly that: practices. They are not things that we do once and call it a week. They are things that are sometimes very difficult, and we need to work at them, to practice them. They are all things that, even if we are good at them, need to be revisited every day. And I’d like to suggest that your giving habits can be a part of that practice. There is some giving to God that should be sort of automatic or systematic. Many of us have set up automatic giving through Simply Giving or auto-withdrawals from the bank. And that’s good – it is an important way to support the mission of this congregation to which we belong, and it is systematic so that even if you aren’t feeling very grateful on any given week or month, you have something in place to regularly draw your attention back to God. But giving during worship as well as online is also powerful, because when you physically put the money in, you have to think about it. This is our opportunity, in the context of worship, to say to God, “I love you, I trust you, I praise you, and so I give.” Today I will add that when we put in that money, we are also saying, “God, I am thankful to you, for the many ways you have provided and continue to provide for me… and so I give.” In giving our offering, we physically give thanks to the Giver of all things. It also reminds us, when we start slipping into that attitude of scarcity, to trust God to provide, to live instead in a place of abundance. Sisters and brothers in Christ, let me not finish this sermon without saying very clearly: you are enough. In a world that will try to convince you otherwise, know that you are, each of you, a beloved child of God, made in God’s image, and dearly beloved by your Creator. God loves you enough to daily shower you with blessings big and small. God loves you enough to give you grace upon grace, forgiveness of sins, life everlasting, even God’s own self. You are loved! May we every day be grateful for the abundance of these gifts! Let us pray… Generous God, you have heaped blessings upon us, though we sometimes only notice what we lack. Help us to rejoice in you always, pray to you without ceasing, and be thankful to you in all circumstances, so that we might live with an attitude not of scarcity, but of abundance. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.



Sermon: Giving as an act of trust (Oct. 20,2019)

Pentecost 19C – off lectionary

Stewardship #3 (Giving as an act of trust)

October 20, 2019

Deuteronomy 14:22-29 (about giving a tithe)

Psalm 121 (“My help comes from the Lord”)

1 Timothy 6:17-19 (take hold of the life that really is life)

Luke 12:13-21 (the rich fool)

INTRODUCTION

         Our first reading today is from Deuteronomy. The book of Deuteronomy is a lot of laws, and today’s reading describes the ancient law or practice of tithing, that is, giving 10% to God. Law-heavy passages like today’s can be sort of tricky to follow, so here’s an overview: the faithful were expected to bring 10% of their crop yield (this was before money was really a thing) to the place God has designated, that is, to a place of worship. Some of that 10% can be used for sustenance on the journey. If the journey is too far to haul all that grain and whatnot, you can exchange it for precious metal (much easier to carry!). And don’t forget to support the priests, who don’t have their own crops, and every third year, support also the foreigners, widows and orphans in the land, so that the needy would not be neglected. From the beginning, you see, faithful people have been using their gifts to God to serve the needy, even as a way to increase trust of God.

         The other readings are all about trusting God, too, as per today’s theme. The Psalm will remind us to look to the Lord for help in all things. Timothy reminds us where we are to find our true life, that is, in what we can place our trust. And finally, Luke will offer us the parable of the rich fool, who trusted his possessions so much that he built bigger barns to house them all, believing that they could provide for him everything he needed.

         This week’s stewardship theme is “giving as an act of trust” – and these texts give us plenty of opportunity to think about in what we place our trust! So as you listen, consider where you place your trust. I hope and assume part of that answer is God… but I also know we are prone to find comfort and safety in things other than God. So do some self-reflection on that, and hear this word of God for you this day. Let’s listen.

[READ]

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

         I recently came across this wonderfully poignant poem by Mary Oliver. She writes:

When I moved from one house to another

there were many things I had no room

for. What does one do? I rented a storage

space. And filled it. Years passed.

Occasionally I went there and looked in,

but nothing happened, not a single

twinge of the heart.

As I grew older the things I cared

about grew fewer, but were more

important. So one day I undid the lock

and called the trash man. He took

everything.

I felt like the little donkey when

his burden was finally lifted. Things!

Burn them, burn them! Make a beautiful

fire! More room in your heart for love,

for the trees! For the birds who own

nothing – the reason they can fly.

            (from Felicity)

         Woosh, that hits pretty close to home! Tell me, how many of you have a storage unit like the one she mentions, or a garage too stuffed to get your car in, or a basement or attic full of so many things, you’re no longer even sure what all is in there? You’re not alone! In fact, nearly 10% of Americans pay on average almost $100/month to store the material overflow of the American dream. The US has more than 50,000 storage facilities – it is $38 billion dollar industry. That’s nearly 3x Hollywood’s annual box office gross, and it is one of the safest real estate investments you can make.

         Why are we so obsessed with our stuff that we would invest that much of our money, space and energy into it? What comfort or attachment do we find in it that prevents us from engaging in, as Marie Kondo might say, “the life-changing magic of” just getting rid of it?

         An answer is to be found in today’s parable, the aptly named story of “the rich fool.” A man’s land produces abundantly, and he finds he has more grain than he can store. He is rich! He has worked hard for that bounteous yield, so as he considers what to do with it, he says, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops? I will do this: will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there will store all my grain and my goods.” Did you catch how many personal pronouns that was, how many times he says I or my? Nine times in those two short sentences, nine times! This is a story, you see, about a man who is possessed by his possessions. His possessions has more control over him than he has over them: they are his salvation, his past, present and future, even his god. In giving his possessions this sort of power, he begins to see himself as more trustworthy than God – he puts his trust in things, not in the provider of those things. In stuff he trusts.

         What about us? Do we find our own salvation in what we own? Is that how we measure our success and our future? Are we building more barns for our stuff in order to assure a comfortable future where we can eat, drink, and be merry?

         Luther’s explanation of the first article of the Creed can offer us some insight on questions like these – the same Creed we will confess together in a moment during William’s baptism. Luther writes, “I believe that God has created me together with all that exists. God has given me and still preserves my body and soul: eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses, reason and all mental faculties. In addition, God daily and abundantly provides … all the necessities and nourishment for this body and life. God protects me against all danger and shields and preserves me from all evil.” And here’s the kicker: “All this he has done out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy, though I do not deserve it.”

         It’s a real reality check! How tempting it is to look around at all that we have – our comfortable homes, our increasing savings accounts, our smart, lucrative investments, our impressive education or experience – to see all of that and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done… and then before we know it, we are putting our trust in those things. But Luther reminds us, “All of this comes from God. God provided all of this. I didn’t provide it for myself – in fact, I don’t even deserve it.”

         How would that rich fool have acted differently if he had read Luther’s Small Catechism, if he had recognized that the “abundantly providing land” that had yielded such a bounty was not something he had given himself, but a gracious gift from God? How would he have acted differently, remembering all that?

         After all, he should have remembered. God had accounted for this possibility, long before Luther penned his Catechism. God addressed it way back in Deuteronomy, when He suggested giving a tithe of your earnings each year back to God, and to the needy. Because a tithe, 10%, is a pretty small fraction of our income… but it is certainly enough to notice. It is just enough to draw our attention each month away from our own successes and back toward the One who has provided all that we need in order to succeed. Or, it might not be enough – you might need to give more than a tithe to really notice! Or on the other hand, a full 10% might be beyond your ability at any given moment in time, depending on your income and your other financial obligations. The exact percentage isn’t what is important, so much as the practice of giving something of our earnings back to God each week, or month, or year, something we will notice, as a concrete way to remind ourselves that all we have comes from God, that God, not our things, provides our salvation, and that it is God, not material wealth, in whom we put our trust. And as Luther writes, “For all of this [we] owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.”

         In a moment we will have the opportunity to witness young William’s baptism, as his parents and sponsors trustingly place him in the hands of our Divine Provider. And this is, truly, the epitome of trust – not just for William and those who love him, but for all of us who are baptized. Many of us came to the font as babies, like William: utterly helpless and dependent. What an image that is for faith: that we come also to our God utterly helpless to save ourselves, and utterly dependent on the divine goodness and mercy of our Heavenly Father. And it is in this state that we, and William, receive, with the totally open and trusting heart of a baby, the gift of pure grace that comes with baptism. We receive a welcome into the family of God, the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting. We receive that gift out of pure trust, though we do not deserve it. “For all of this [we] owe it to God to thank and praise, serve and obey him. This is most certainly true.”

         Let us pray… Generous God, it is tempting for us to trust in our own things and abilities. Help us to relinquish our stubborn insistence that our possessions can provide all that we need, and instead to place our trust in you, our Divine Provider. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.