Monday, January 12, 2015

Aligning Our Giving with the Heart of God: An Uncomfortable Text

I love God’s Word, but there are parts of it that I don't like very much! Is it OK to say that in a church building? There are just some parts of the Bible that are difficult to accept. Take this passage for example…
The kingdom of heaven is like a man who was leaving on a trip. He called his servants and handed his possessions over to them. To one he gave five valuable coins, and to another he gave two, and to another he gave one. He gave to each servant according to that servant’s ability. Then he left on his journey.
After the man left, the servant who had five valuable coins took them and went to work doing business with them. He gained five more. In the same way, the one who had two valuable coins gained two more. But the servant who had received the one valuable coin dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.

Now after a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. The one who had received five valuable coins came forward with five additional coins. He said, “Master, you gave me five valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained five more.”
His master replied, “Excellent! You are a good and faithful servant! You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.”
The second servant also came forward and said, “Master, you gave me two valuable coins. Look, I’ve gained two more.”
His master replied, “Well done! You are a good and faithful servant. You’ve been faithful over a little. I’ll put you in charge of much. Come, celebrate with me.”
Now the one who had received one valuable coin came and said, “Master, I knew that you are a hard man. You harvest grain where you haven’t sown. You gather crops where you haven’t spread seed. So I was afraid. And I hid my valuable coin in the ground. Here, you have what’s yours.”
His master replied, “You evil and lazy servant! You knew that I harvest grain where I haven’t sown and that I gather crops where I haven’t spread seed? In that case, you should have turned my money over to the bankers so that when I returned, you could give me what belonged to me with interest. Therefore, take from him the valuable coin and give it to the one who has ten coins. Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them. Now take the worthless servant and throw him outside into the darkness.”
People there will be weeping and grinding their teeth. (Matthew 25:14–30, CEB) 
I’ll be honest: I just don’t like this passage very much! Particularly, the last little bit… did you hear it?
Those who have much will receive more, and they will have more than they need. But as for those who don’t have much, even the little bit they have will be taken away from them.
It just doesn’t sound very equitable, does it? Why should the rich get richer and the poor get poorer?
I don’t think I am the first one to be uncomfortable with this text. I think the preachers I grew up with were also uncomfortable with this text. In fact, I think they were so uncomfortable with this text that they changed it’s meaning. I remember hearing sermon after sermon about this passage when I was a kid, and all of those sermons had the same point. “God gave you special talents, so use them!” Don’t bury your talents. Don’t hide your talents. Use your talents for God’s glory—to edify the church! Have you heard that sermon?

Well, maybe my childhood preachers weren’t being dishonest; maybe they simply made an interpretive error. The word in this text is literally “talent,” not “valuable coin.” But I think “valuable coin” is a better translation. Because, to make this passage even more uncomfortable for us, Jesus is not talking about spiritual gifts or talents, Jesus is talking about money! He’s talking about a lot of money! One talent was equivalent to the amount a servant would make in 16 years! So, basically, this story begins with three guys who win the lottery! And the rest of the story is about what they do with their winnings. The moral of the story: Invest your lottery winnings well… If you do, you’ll get even more. If you don’t, even what you have will be taken away.

There are just some parts of the Bible that I don’t like very much… parts that are especially difficult to hear…

That reminds me of an experience Will Willimon wrote about. Will Willimon is a biblical scholar, preacher, and author—currently a Professor at Duke University. He tells the story of something that happened to him early in his ministry. He was serving a little church in rural Georgia. One Saturday he and his wife went to a funeral in a little country church not of his denomination. He had grown up in a big downtown church. He had never been to a funeral like this one. The casket was open, and the funeral consisted of a sermon by their preacher. The preacher pounded on the pulpit and looked over at the casket.

He said, "It's too late for Joe. He might have wanted to get his life together. He might have wanted to spend more time with his family. He might have wanted to do that, but he's dead now. It is too late for him, but it is not too late for you. There is still time for you. You still can decide. You are still alive; it is not too late for you. Today is the day of decision." Then the preacher told how a Greyhound bus had run into a funeral procession once on the way to the cemetery, and that that could happen today. He said, "You should decide today. Today is the day to get your life together. Too late for old Joe; but it's not too late for you."

Willimon said he was so angry with that preacher! On the way home, he told his wife, "Have you ever seen anything as manipulative and insensitive to that poor family? I found it disgusting." She said, "I've never heard anything like that. It was manipulative, it was disgusting, it was insensitive, and worst of all it was also true."

You know maybe that is what makes that story so uncomfortable, because it is true. Joe’s chances to “make his life right” are over. But it’s not too late for the people in the pews. Uncomfortable, yes, but true. And perhaps that is what makes this text so uncomfortable, because it’s true. God has given us many talents. Well, let’s just put it in language we can understand. God has given us a lot of money, and he expects us to manage it well. One day, the owner of the money (God) will return, and we’ll be asked how we used His investment.

In his book, The Treasure Principle, Randy Alcorn fleshes this out a bit more…
Our name is on God’s account, and we have unrestricted access to it. God trusts us, as His money managers, to set our own salaries. We draw needed funds from His wealth to pay our living expenses. One of our central spiritual decisions is determining what is a reasonable amount to live on. Whatever that amount is—and it will legitimately vary from person to person—we shouldn’t hoard or spend the excess. After all, it’s His, not ours. And He has something to say about where to put it.
Well, if Matthew 13 didn’t make you uncomfortable before, maybe it does now! I recently watched a movie about the life of Rich Mullins, the contemporary Christian singer. He produced wonderful songs, such as Awesome God. The movie, Ragamuffin, depicted the deep spiritual struggle he endured for most of his life, and one of the things he had great difficulty reconciling was the vast amount of wealth wasted by Christian people. He was so bothered by this, in fact, that he made an interesting life decision. He told his agent…I only want to live on $24,000 a year, the average working man’s salary at his time. He said, “Do not tell me how much I make after that. Give the rest away.”

Another tremendous story of giving… Most of you are familiar with the name Rick Warren. He is the Senior Pastor at Saddleback Church in California—a mega church with an average weekly attendance of over 20,000. But he is perhaps more famous for his best selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, over 30 million copies sold, second most translated book in the world, after the Bible. When Rick and his wife married, they began giving 10% of their income to God’s work. In their second year, they gave 11%, in their third year, they gave 12%, and so on… some years, they felt particularly blessed financially, so they increased the amount 2, 3, or 4% at one time. After 36 years of marriage, they found themselves giving 90% of their income away and living on only 10%. They are “reverse tithing.” When folks finally found out about it, years after he and his family had been giving so much away, they asked him about it. He doesn’t talk about the sacrifice. He talks about the joy he and his family felt as they decided how they could bless the lives of those around them. Now, there is a man who invested his ten talents and gained ten more!

The reason the stories of Rich Mullins and Rick Warren are so inspiring is because they are so rare. Instead of experiencing the joy of giving, most of us are realizing the headache of storing! According to the Self Storage Association, a trade group charged with monitoring such things, the country now possesses about 1.9 billion square feet of personal storage space outside of the home. According to a recent survey, the owners of 1 out of every 11 homes also own a self-storage space. This represents an increase of 75 percent since 1995. Most operators of self-storage facilities report 90 percent occupancy. Last year alone saw a 24 percent spike in the number of self-storage units on the market. But, amazingly, as the amount of storage space required by homeowners has grown, so has the average size of the American house. In fact, the National Association of Homebuilders reports that the average American house grew from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,400 square feet in 2004. So let's get this straight… houses got bigger, average family sizes got smaller, and yet we still need to tack on almost two billion square feet of extra space to store our stuff?

It is always difficult to preach about money and possessions. No matter how hard I try, it’s impossible to preach a sermon on this subject without sounding preachy. You cannot talk about money in our world without making people feel guilty. Maybe even in that reality, there is a lesson for us. We feel guilty, because we ARE guilty. But, in addition to the guilt that you might experience after reading a text like Matthew 13, I also want you to hear the gospel even in this story! There is good news in Jesus' words. Let me explain. The good news of Jesus, at its most basic level, is that God came to set us free from our bondage. Without Jesus, we are all slaves to something: sin, lust, power, possessions, money. Christ came with this message for all of us. You do not have to spend your life chasing after these things. Your self worth does not come from them, and the odd thing is, the more you have of these things, the more you will want! It is the basic law of physics. The greater the mass, the greater the hold that mass exerts. Isn’t that correct? The more things we own, the greater their total mass, the more they grip us. Setting us in an orbit around them. Finally, like a black hole, they suck us in.

Giving changes all of that! It breaks us out of orbit around our possessions. We escape their gravity allowing us to enter a new orbit around treasures in heaven. The good news of giving is that Jesus came to break us free from that orbit! Our happiness is not contingent upon the size of our home, the size of our paycheck, or the amount of stuff we accumulate! That is a lie that Satan tries to get us to believe. Instead, the happiest people I know in the world are those who have found the joy in giving, those that are not ruled by trying to keep up with the Jones’s, those who have given up trying to work more to make more to spend more. Do you want out of that cycle? Try giving more.

Don’t you love those videos of the soldier returning home to surprise his family? Robby Robins was an Air Force pilot during the first Iraq war. After his 300th mission, he was surprised to be given permission to immediately pull his crew together and fly his plane home. They flew across the ocean to Massachusetts and then had a long drive to western Pennsylvania. They drove all night, and when his buddies dropped him off at his driveway just after sun-up, there was a big banner across the garage, "Welcome Home Dad!" How did they know? No one had called, and the crew themselves hadn't expected to leave so quickly. Robins relates…when I walked into the house, the kids, about half dressed for school, screamed, “Daddy!” Susan came running down the hall. She looked terrific—hair fixed, make-up on, and a crisp yellow dress. “How did you know?” I asked. “I didn't,” she answered through tears of joy. “Once we knew the war was over, we knew you'd be home one of these days. We knew you'd try to surprise us, so we were ready every day.”

This text makes us uncomfortable, it makes me uncomfortable. It makes us uneasy to know that the manager of all of this money is coming back some day, and He’s going to ask us how we invested it! But this passage doesn’t have to make us uncomfortable. What if we were ready? What if we stayed ready? What if we began to get excited about that conversation with God? “God, I knew you were coming back… God, I knew you would ask… Look at the ways I’ve invested your money into your kingdom!” My prayer for us that this would be a conversation we can look forward to! That we would find the good news in giving! That God would give us opportunity to give and to give abundantly.

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