Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Wild and Precious Gifts--Sermon 11/14/10

This was my sermon for Stewardship Sunday at Peace UCC.

And so we have arrived. After hearing top ten reasons about stewardship, after receiving letters in the mail and filling out pledge cards, after prayerfully considering our gifts, or even after hastily scribbling in a number in a mad dash to get out the door this morning for worship, we have reached the culmination of our stewardship campaign, or perhaps I should say that the culmination will come with the “Beth Ring cake” after worship. I confess that I am accustomed to treating stewardship emphasis sermons like pledge week on NPR or PBS, and if you are like me, it probably a relief to get this “money talk” out of the way so we can go on to our “regularly scheduled program.” But I have a hunch that there’s more to it than that, I have a hunch that on a deeper level, we in the church aren’t always that comfortable talking about money. For those of us who make enough of it, there can be a sense of guilt. For those of us who don’t make enough of it, there can be a source of shame. Money, like sex, is something we don’t talk about publicly. There is an unspoken taboo there, isn’t there? It’s not supposed to be anyone else’s business? Right? So talk of money, seems a little threatening, and there is a sense in the church where we want to say, “Okay, okay I get it…here, let me surreptitiously hand you this pledge card and let’s get on with it, now get back to our regular programming…”

But I think that when we feel a little itchy about something, I little uncomfortable, than there is a bit of a poke from God, a little nudge to consider where we need to turn our attention.

It’s stewardship Sunday. We’re going to talk about our gifts, and our talents, and our faith. I promise no hard sells, no pulpit pounding, no altar calls, no guilt ridden lectures. It’s stewardship Sunday and we need to turn our attention to the teachings of Jesus, the one who taught us the truth of what it means to be a faithful caregiver of the gifts of God.

The parable of the talents is one which I wrestle with. It’s one of those texts which has always stuck in my craw, and because I believe Jesus to be a prophet who promotes liberation for all, justice and peace, love as all powerful and prominent, I figured it was about time for me to get over my reservations and hesitations and plow into it and figure out what I was missing before.

It has been said that every preacher has only one good sermon theme in them, and that every other sermon is just a riff of that one. It has been said that pastor’s often preach to themselves in every sermon they speak. And, so I speak confessionally when I say, that I look at this verse through the Christen Pettit Miller filter, just as each of you see it through your own independent lens as well. Let me tell you a little about what the Christen Pettit Miller history is. As a white middle-class woman living in an affluent country, as a person with what I now believe must be a learning disability when it comes to finances and a sense of helpless inadequacy when it comes to investments I read this story and place myself in the role of the one who really disappointed the master. I would be the one who buried her share of her supervisor’s money in an effort to just keep it safe and intact. And so with each reading of this parable in previous years, I have ended up scratching my head and furrowing my brow and feeling a little perplexed with exactly what the point is.

You’ve all heard the story. Chris just read it for you again. There are three people. They are all given three different amounts of money. They each make choices about what to do with it. And then they are rewarded or punished based on their choices. The moral of the story, seems to be, simply put, use it or lose it. And when one places this in a financial context, as we are apt to do with a first read, it can be a little uncomfortable, or, heck, downright painful to hear. Especially if we are ones who believe that Jesus sided with the powerless, especially if we are ones who dislike the analogy of Jesus promoting venture capitalism, or introducing us to a God who condemns those who don’t make money, or rather make sound investments. The parable of the talents, on the surface, can be a sticky one. That is, if we chose to take this parable at face value only.

Friday afternoon was sermon grappling day with me. I was picking apart the text, looking through interpretations, living through the various perspectives, placing myself in the story, trying to get my head around the words, and as is sometimes the case when I become blocked, I sent a little note out into the universe via Facebook message to a group of my closest friends, we who call ourselves the sisters, eight of us scattered across the country, the women who offer my counsel and hold me accountable, and help me see light when I can only see darkness. The message simply said, “Help! I don’t get it…” and then sent the text. And within a half hour my in box had two responses. The first said, “This is why I’m not a pastor.” Which was honest, but not all that helpful…and the second said simply, “It’s not about money. Think about it!”

Whoa! The parable of the talents is not about money? Whoa! Who knew? I was credulous but read it again taking money out of the equation and lo and behold, things started to click.

Jesus spoke in parables because the people of the time loved stories, and these stories were just that, they were stories, they weren’t instruction manuals for what exactly should happen if our boss handed us $633,000, which is the modern day equivalent of only one talent, or fifteen times the average American household income. The parable isn’t a story about investment strategy, or market climate. Instead it is a story about our gifts, and what gifts we offer to the Creator, and thus, to the world.

A talent, in ancient Palestine, was a measure of weight which later came to denote a fixed amount of silver or gold. A talent was a way to describe money, but in an interesting etymological phenomenon, a language twist of fate, the word “talent” morphed into the word that we know as talent in the English language, one’s gift, or one’s God-given ability or skill. The word talent, comes directly from this parable. And so, it appears, interpreters throughout the ages have understood this parable far better than your humble pastor, go figure.

The parable of the talents is about what we give to the church, about what we give to our families, our friends, our communities, and the world. And the parable of the talents is about investing wisely in discerning these gifts. The parable of the talents is about the sharing of ourselves, the sharing of those skills and abilities we have honed. And the parable of the talents is about recognizing our talents as valuable, and important, and necessary to the world, and not something God wants us to bury. It about all of this, but perhaps most importantly, the parable of the talents is about taking a risk. It is about the call to become involved in the messy and beautiful life of community. It is about the summons to commit ourselves body and soul to the ministry of relationship. It is about recognizing that the world is hungry for our commitments, and we can’t just glide through life on cruise control.

And so this Sunday, as we turn in our pledge cards having made our financial decisions to support the ministry of this church and the wider world beyond, as we bind ourselves to one another through the money we will combine to insure economic viability as a church, I ask you to consider something more. You’ll notice in your bulletins this morning there is a different sort of pledge card, it is a pledge of your time, a pledge of your gifts, a pledge of your talents. Take it out of your bulletin, take a look at it, ponder what you can offer, you can even fill it out now while I’m talking, I don’t mind…for this promise and commitment is placed before you as well.

On this stewardship Sunday, I ask you to do more than to consider what your money can do. On this stewardship Sunday I ask you to consider instead what gift you have buried. What do you have to offer the church and the world that needs to be dug out of its hole, brushed off, and held up to the light of the sun, to be used for the glory of God and your neighbor’s good?

In the Gospel of Thomas, one of those Gnostic Gospels which never made it into the Biblical canon, we’ve been mentioning a few of these in Sunday school lately, Jesus is said to have told his disciples, “If you bring forth what is inside you, what you bring forth will save you.” But the teacher went on to warn, “If you don’t bring forth what is inside you, what you don’t bring forth will destroy you.” I believe each of us is called by God to bring forth that which has been given to them, to bring forth that joy, that story, that song, that presence that we may have been reluctant to share. We care called by our Creator to bring forth that skill, that art, that talent which we may have been holding back. For this is what it means to be a good steward; and if we deny that which we should share, we deny the God who gave us these gifts to begin with.

Frederick Buechner writes, “the place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” And so this morning I invite you to pause. As we commit ourselves to a new year of faithful stewardship, a new year of financial giving to meet the deep hungers of this community and the world, I ask you to consider one other question, what spiritual gifts are you willing to risk giving this year? What deep gladness lies buried within you that begs to be unearthed and shared with others? How brave will you dare to be in sharing yourself with your brothers and sisters? What risks do you promise to make to become necessary to someone in need? What are you being called to bring forth?

For what we are called to give today is more than just our money; we are called to give no less than our whole selves.

The poet Mary Oliver puts it more eloquently and boldly in her poem “Summer Day” when she asks, “Tell me what it is that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

The world is waiting. And it is hungry for what you have to offer. What wild and precious gift do you bring forth?


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