Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Money: Saving and Giving

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Matthew 25:14-30:

There is a financial rule called the rule of 72.  Does anyone know what the rule of 72 says?  Basically, you take 72 and divide it by you the interest rate you are receiving, and the answer is how long it will take you to double your money.  So to make it really simple, if you are getting a ten percent rate of return, then you will double your investment in 7.2 years, and if you only get 5%, it would take you 14.4 years, and 15% percent would take you 4.8 years.  Now because I love this stuff, I should let you know that this number is not exact, because the actual number is 69.3, but dividing into 72 is a lot easier, and the difference is small enough, that using 72 is simply easier.  So the lower your interest rate the longer it will take you, and the higher your interest rate the quicker you will be able to double your money using the power of compound interest.

Of course what the rule of 72 does not tell us is that the higher your rate of return, or the higher your interest rate, the riskier the investment is as well.  If someone tells you they can give you an annual rate of return of 25%, it might seem like an incredible deal, but the reward for that return is the greatly increased risk that you will also lose your entire investment.  That leads us into another financial rule which is that the higher the risk you take with your money, the greater is the possible return, the lower the risk, the lower the return.  These might be helpful things to help us understand what is going on in today's parable.

As I was thinking about this series, what I wanted to say and what passages to use, this was the one week I wasn’t really sure about.  There were lots of different passages I considered, but I kept coming back to the parable of the talents.  Since we also covered this passage last year I wanted to try and stay away from it, but I kept getting drawn back to it, and so I trusted that this was the movement of the Holy Spirit and decided this was where I would go, although I still didn’t have the conviction of my conscience because even this week as I was beginning preparations to write today’s message I considered several times changing to something else, because maybe this didn’t really have anything more to say to me, and maybe even anything more to say to you.

That’s the problem with some passages from scripture, we hear them so often that we stop looking at them because we are sure they know what they say, and for me, at least, this is one of those passages.  If you’ve been attending church for most of your life, you’ve heard this passage preached on numerous times.  I didn’t really grow up in the church and I can remember sermons on this passage, and so we hear it or read it and we can say what this passage is about and normally it’s about using the talents that God has given to us in order to do God’s work in the world.  That is such the popular interpretation of this passage, and has been for a long time, that linguists actually say that the use of the word talent in English to describe physical or personal gifts comes directly from this passage.  There is nothing wrong with that interpretation, and as I have been emphasizing for the past few months, we all need to be contributing of ourselves not just to the success of the church but to the proclaiming and bringing in the Kingdom of God, and we’ll come back to that again and again.  But is that all this passage is really about?

Another interpretation, and one that might fit nicely into our series on money, is that this is a really sort of a pro-capitalist, social Darwinism, survival of the fittest statement.  That clearly Jesus is saying that God rewards those who are industrious, who work hard, and that you get what you deserve.  If you are rich it is because God has rewarded you and if you are poor it’s because God is punishing you.  This sort of theology can be seen being spouted on television all the time, with Joel Osteen being the best, or worst example, depending on how you want to look at it, of the gospel of wealth.  That is God wants you to be rich, and so if you are faithful to God then you will be rich, along with no sense of responsibility to others, after all if they were faithful, if they were as good of Christians as you are then they would be rich too.  The fact that they are not rich shows you what God thinks of them. Now the problem with these statements, and they are bigger than just taking this parable of the talents, is that nothing could be further from the truth about what is being said or meant here.

Normally this argument is made because of what happens with the first two men.  But notice that other than the fact that they are given differing amounts of money, they are exactly the same.  Their return on their investment is the same, which they double, they say exactly the same thing to the master, and the master says exactly the same thing to them.  These are not really two unique individuals here, but instead they are sort of stock characters in order to highlight and bring out the perspective about the third man, which is really who this story is about.

The last man we are told receives only one talent, whereas the first man receives five and the second man receives two talents.  A talent in this story is a specific amount of money, and it is equal to 15 years pay for a common laborer.  The average salary in the US is $26,634, so a talent in today’s dollars is $399,510.  That obviously is not an insignificant sum, to say the least.  Now on its face we might actually look at this man and think he is doing the right thing, or at least have sympathy for what he does, as well as for his attitude.  After all he recognizes that the money is not his, he is the only one who actually says that the money is the master’s and not his own.  In addition, in a bad economy, his investment decisions might be the sound one.  After all we might wonder what would have happened if the first two had put their money in high-risk ventures, remembering the higher the return the higher the risk, and they had lost everything?

Of course we will never know the answer to that question, and we won’t because again the moral of the story here is not that they doubled the money.  This is not a parable that tells us to take unusual risks with our money, nor is that what I am telling you, so please don’t call up your retirement program and ask them to change everything into high risk stocks and bonds because that’s what Jesus said.  Instead, again we have to pay attention to what the man says and what the owner says.  “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.  Here you have what is yours.”

The man recognizes that the talent is not his, but he is afraid and it is this fear which drives his actions.  He is even to fearful to have put the money in the bank.  He is too afraid to engage the world in any way, and it’s clear that he doesn’t understand what is going on.  He has accused the owner of being harsh, but the owner has shown his generosity simply by the fact that he has entrusted the man a talent.  We also know of the owner’s generosity because he gives the first two men what they have earned, and now we are talking really significant amounts of money.  But notice that while they recognize that the money belongs to the master, because they offer it all back, not once do they say that the money is the owners.  I think this is an indication of their relation to the actions of the owner, but also their own actions.  They are not driven by fear as the last man is, and the last man’s fears not only lead to his downfall but his fear’s also become realized.

When we operate from a position of fear, then we operate from a position of scarcity, and the inverse is true, if we think that everything is scarce, then we will always operate from a position of fear.  But when we think that there is and will be enough, then we operate from a position of abundance, we act generously, and we move into joy.  What does the owner say to the two men, “enter into the joy of your master.”  You cannot have joy and operate from a position of fear.  This story is not about wealth, or about earning a great return on your investment, although that can be important.  You can be wealthy with $10 million and you can be wealthy with only $10, just as you can be poor with $10 million or $10.  It’s all about how we approach our money, our possessions and our relationship with God.  We often view faith as being the safe option, as the easy option, but we don’t ever talk about taking a leap of safety, instead it’s a leap of (what)?  That’s right.  It’s a leap of faith.  Entering into joy requires that leap of faith.

Ora Lee Brown is a real estate agent in Oakland, California.  One day as she stopped at the local grocery store to make her usual purchase of a soda, she was approached by a little girl who asked her for a quarter.  Ora Lee only had a $5 bill, so she invited the little girl into the store to get some change.  She told her that she could pick out anything she wanted in the store, but rather than getting a candy bar as she expected, she instead immediately got a loaf of bread.  Ora Lee bought the bread, and then the girl quickly left the store.  That night she couldn’t sleep thinking about this little girl, so she went to the school in the neighborhood looking for her, but she wasn’t there, but rather than just give up, Ora Lee made what she says was a rather impulsive decision.

She decided to adopt the first grade class of the school, the vast majority of whom were in a similar situation to that little girl, and she told them that if they stayed in school and graduated that she would pay for them to go to college.  Not only did Ora Lee begin saving $10,000 a year out of her $45,000 salary, but she also became a mentor, parent and teacher to the 23 kids in that class.  She visited regularly, she held meetings with the parents, she held Saturday tutorials, and she purchased supplies and tracked each child’s attendance and grades.  Then when they were in high school she began taking the kids to visit colleges, and attended graduation at 9 different high schools.  Of the original 23 students, 19 enrolled in college, and 3 others went to a trade school, all paid for by Ora Lee Brown, and they all graduated from college in 2003 and 2004.  Ora Lee is now on her 6th class of adopted students, having supported 125 students go to college.

All of the slaves recognize that the money they receive, and the money they do or might earn, does not belong to them.  They all recognize that they are to be good stewards of these resources and to protect them, but how they relate with them is radically different.  The two stewards invest them, and they take some risks, they are willing to step outside of the safe and secure, they are willing to engage with the world, they are willing to take a leap of faith, and because they do that they are invited into the joy of the master.  The third slave, on the other hand, acts out of fear, and because he is fearful he is in fact afraid to act, he doesn’t even take the safe act of putting the money in the bank, but instead he buries it, and his fear keeps him from not only gaining anything, but also keeps him from joy.  So, as John Buchanan said, the greatest risk of all, it turns out, is not to risk anything.

For the past few weeks we have been talking about the role that money and possessions can have in our relationship with God, and just like today, it really boils down to fear.  Do we trust God and trust in God’s abundance, do we operate from a sense of abundance, regardless of what we have, or do we work from a sense of scarcity, regardless of how much we have?  Do we live lives of quiet desperation, living lives of fear, or do we live bravely such that we are willing to make leaps of faith, willing to be brave, to step off the cliff knowing that God will catch us?

In one of my meetings this week, Bishop Hutchinson said that when he was growing up, he remembers one of his Sunday school teachers writing on the board JOY, and then saying that if we were to live lives of Joy that we must understand the progression of importance, of how we give, of how our faith lives are lived out, what our priorities are, and  that is Jesus, others and finally ourselves.  Joy is Jesus first, others second, and yourself third, that is how we live into Joy, that is how we can be sure that we too hear God say, “well done my good and faithful servant… enter into the joy of your master.” May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen.

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