It’s Not About the Money

[special_heading title=”It’s Not About the Money” subtitle=”by Louise Westfall” separator=”yes”]I heard about a guy who was giving a witness during his church’s stewardship campaign.  I am a millionaire, he began, and I attribute it all to the rich blessings of God in my life.   I remember the turning point in my faith.  I had just cashed my very first paycheck and had gone to Bible study.  The speaker was a missionary who told about his compelling work and the great need that remained.   So at that moment I decided to give all the money I had to God.   I believe that God blessed that decision, and made me a wealthy man.

He finished and there was hushed silence as he returned to his seat.  As he sat down, an elderly woman sitting in the same pew leaned over to him and whispered, I dare you to do it again.

Well.  Did the lady smile when she asked that?  She knew (and so do we!) that “giving it all to God” means something different depending on how much “all” is.    But I wonder …    Today we will dedicate our financial commitments to Central’s ministries and mission in 2018 and for capital projects over the next three years.  Each of us has had to consider whether and how much to give.  And I’ve come to believe that the amount of the gift matters far less than the motivation for giving it.  All kidding aside, I have a feeling it was as difficult for that young man at the very beginning of his career to hand over the money that represented everything he had, as it might have been for the older man he became to decide to make a huge gift.  It’s not about the money.  Something else shapes our decision.

The morning Scripture text is one made for stewardship. It’s a story Jesus told about an extraordinary investment opportunity.  Three slaves are entrusted with their master’s property during his extended absence.  Their different decisions about what to do with it have tremendous consequences.    Something to understand about the story before we read it: The master gives “talents” to his workers — and we need to know that is a preposterously large amount of money; one talent equaled as much as 16 years’ worth of wages for a typical laborer.   The sum each received exceeded their wildest imagination.   A reading from the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, at the 14th verse.   Listen for God’s Word … and prepare to be amazed.  [Matthew 25:14-30]

One obvious way to read this parable is that God gives every person resources to invest.   Those who do so successfully will be rewarded with more.    But woe to the person who does nothing with her God-given talent, but buries it in a hole.  When the accounting comes, it will not go well for her.

This parable was one we studied recently in a Sunday Learning for Life class, so we get the benefit of a variety of perspectives on this text and its meaning for our faith and frankly, for our financial commitments to the church.  And there are some things in this text that troubled the group.    First off was the complete condemnation of “the worthless slave” who was thrown outside the bounds of grace and mercy and forgiveness.  Is it hyperbole?  Clearly it doesn’t fit with the notion of God’s extravagant love poured out upon sinner and saint alike.  Jesus himself was criticized by the religious leaders for “grading on the curve” with tax collectors, prostitutes and other known miscreants.   The Bible study group concluded that this is not a warning about eternal punishment, but a painfully accurate description of this life, when it is ruled by fear, hunkered down, imprisoned by some notion of security.  Jesus made it clear that limiting our vision, reining in our outreach, keeping our resources close, results in something like spiritual atrophy, not really living at all.

And then there’s the third worker’s assessment of his boss as “a harsh man,” a conniver who got returns even when he hadn’t invested, which is really just an inch away from calling him a crook and a fraud.  His image of the master filled him with fear and stopped him from doing … anything! … that involved risk and work and the possibility of failure.  But here’s the thing: what evidence did the worker have that led him to draw that conclusion?  He had been the recipient of the master’s generosity, abundant gifts beyond imagination.  The other two workers don’t appear to have been paralyzed by fear of failure; doubling the worth of their investment had to take some doing, and we all know the omnipresent disclaimer “Past performance is no guarantee of future results.”

Friends, this story is not about making money or building wealth.  And it’s not a naked plea for a huge gift to the capital campaign.   It’s a story about living, about giving yourself to something larger than yourself, even at great risk.  It’s a story shaped by your picture of God.   And maybe too by your picture of yourself, and a recognition that all we have — the skills we’ve honed, the success we’ve enjoyed, the resources we’ve grown — all of that is sheer gift from God whose nature is abundance, whose will is blessing, and whose love is without limit.

How do we know this?  Through the one who first told this story.  Jesus held nothing back; he gave it all to God’s work of redeeming and transforming this world and God’s beloved people.   Jesus was possibly the greatest risk-taker of all by investing his whole life in something more than survival or self-preservation: the Kingdom of God.

Because it turns out, friends, that the riskiest venture is not to risk anything, not to care so deeply about anything that we’re willing to elevate its purpose above our own comfort and security.  And that’s where faith comes in. But not faith as we often define it: believing some things about God and Jesus and trying to do enough good things and avoid most bad things and finally, to arrive at our eternal reward.  Jesus invites us to embrace a different kind of faith by following him.  By accepting the responsibility to invest our precious lives in God’s work to remake this sad and tired old world into the shimmering City of God, a home for all God’s beloved people.

Jesus invites us to invest it all; to hold nothing back.  There are accounts of knights on their way to the Crusades, standing in water to be baptized, yet holding their swords out of the water, unwilling to surrender that to God.  What are the swords you and I wield, that we keep separate from full investment in God’s rule?  Are we “all in?”

Perhaps it’s not by accident that Thanksgiving and Stewardship happen at the same time, because they are two sides of the same, er, coin.   Our gratitude to God for a life of daring adventure and abundant blessing increases our capacity to invest our resources generously.   Breathe in love … exhale gratitude.  Then let us give and experience the joy of God, our Source and Destiny.