Sunday, November 20, 2005

Real Faith Risks Giving

[The following message was shared with the people of Friendship Church on November 20, 2005.]

Matthew 25:14-30

The story that Jesus tells this morning is likely one that you’ve heard many times.

A master, preparing to go away on a long journey, gives whopping sums of money to three of his slaves, in lots of what were called talents. To one slave, he gives five talents; to another, two; and to a third slave, he gives one talent.

Now, there’s no reason for us to feel any pity for the third servant. One talent amounted to between 75 and 96 pounds of silver and equaled what one day laborer would have received for somewhere between fifteen and twenty years of work. So, the Master is generous to all three slaves. He gives them their money, tells them he’s going away, and leaves.

Later, the master returns and asks the slaves to tell him what they’ve done with the money he gave them.

The first two report that they’ve found ways to double the master’s gifts. The master is so pleased that he invites the two to party down with him and he gives them greater responsibility.

The third slave, probably confident that he’s done the right thing, explains that out of fear of losing anything the master gave him, he had buried his one talent and now was bringing it back.

The master isn’t pleased at all. “How wicked and lazy can you be?” he tells the third slave. “At the very least, you could have opened a savings account and gotten a little interest.” Then he orders that the one talent be taken from that slave and given to the first guy. And the third servant is sent away.

There are three things I want to say about this story this morning. After that, we’ll have a prayer and I’ll invite you to individually bring forward both your offerings for this coming Sunday and your estimates of giving for 2006. Immediately following that, we’ll have our lunch. (On December 18, we’ll be asking you to estimate how you will use your time and talents in the ministries of our congregation in 2006.)

So, three things. First: It’s important to understand that the master in Jesus’ story didn’t simply entrust this money to the slaves, he gave it to them. That doesn't come through very well in our translation. The word describing the master's action in the original Greek of the New Testament is paradidomi, which means to give over or hand over. The talents given to the three slaves was their money to use, to invest, to disburse, or to squander. The choices about what to do with those gifts were theirs to make.

My first car was a 1963 white Dodge 330. Some of you may remember those cars. I called it The Tank. I bought it...for a dollar from my grandfather. He gave the dollar back to me after we’d had the title work notarized. In other words, it was really a gift. And it was a pretty valuable gift, too, because my grandfather, just like my other grandfather, and just like my father, was a mechanic. (Which I most definitely am not!) When he gave that car to me, it was in tip-top condition. How do you think I responded to his gift? I ran that sucker into the ground. In fact, I did that with the first five cars I ever owned. We didn’t know what it was like to trade a car in until we moved here in 1990. (Even then, I wondered why the car dealer had given us any trade-in on our old car!)

Now, here’s the point: Our lives and the minds and bodies we use in order to gain our incomes are all gifts from our master, the God we know through Jesus Christ. So too, is the new and eternal life that goes to all with faith in Christ. Gifts like these demand a response of gratitude from believers in Jesus Christ. The way I treated the car my grandfather gave me didn’t display gratitude to him. I pray that the way I give my money and the way I live my life display gratitude to God for all His gifts to me. So point #1: God’s gifts deserve our gratitude.

Point #2: The master in Jesus’ story gives no specific instructions on how his gifts are to be used by the slaves. He just gives them and leaves.

You and I, as followers of Jesus, live in what can be called the in-between times. We’re in-between Jesus’ resurrection and His ascension into heaven, on the one hand, and His return, which will happen some day, on the other.

Jesus has given some general directives to us. They’re called the Great Commandment and the Great Commission, five directives that we studied as part of our 40-Days of Purpose earlier this year:
  • Worship God with our entire lives;
  • Live in genuine, upbuilding fellowship with God’s people in the Church;
  • So open ourselves to God’s Spirit that we grow to become more like Christ;
  • Serve others in Jesus’ Name; and
  • Tell the world about the free new life God offers to all with faith in Jesus.
But Jesus never tells us exactly how to do those things. Like the slaves in His story, we must decide for ourselves how to live in this in-between time, how to take the gifts God grants us--including our finances--and live faithful, useful lives.

In a few moments, in conversation with God in personal prayer, you and your households are going to be asked to decide how much of your financial resources you will be giving to this congregation's mission and ministry in 2006.

As I mentioned in my email to all of you a few days ago, Jeff and Nanci, from our congregation, decided several years back to tithe--that is, to give away ten percent of their taxable income as it appears on their tax return each year. Some of us may be unable to do that. Some may be able to do much more than that--with a portion of it going to Friendship’s ministries.

But whatever you and I decide, we who live in these in-between times have the same sort of awesome freedom the slaves in Jesus’ story had. We are given the choice of how to respond to God’s gifts to us.

Point #3: Like the slaves, we’re to do something with God’s gifts to us. A number of years ago, Guideposts’ annual book of daily devotions had a piece written by a young man majoring in business who apparently had a talent for investing in the stock market. By the time he’d reached the end of his junior year in college, he had apparently gotten very successful at it and looked down his nose a bit at his parents for failing to make the most of their money. At home for a break, he made a few comments about this to his folks and how he believed they could do better with their investments.

One day during his visit home, he accompanied his mother to a mall where they ran into a young person he’d never met. She had benefited from a scholarship provided by an organization of which his parents were an active part and to which they contributed gave money. His mother explained, smiling, “That’s one of our investments.”

Pastor and author Randy Alcorn says that we Christians can’t take our money with us. But we can send it on ahead to heaven. We do that by investing in people. People are the only things besides God that will endure after this world has ended. We invest in people when we become involved in worthwhile community organizations like the Boys and Girls Club or Habitat for Humanity. And of course we do it when we give to the Church, which proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ that can change people’s lives for eternity.

At Friendship, we haven’t even begun to do all that we could or should do to make investments in the people of this community that can pay eternal dividends. We need to hire a full time youth director, a music director, a ministry coordinator, a director of assimilation, and a secretary.
  • Growing churches don’t staff in response to growth.
  • They staff in response to God’s gifts and they anticipate the growth that God gives when they’re willing to invest in people.
  • I dream of Friendship being that kind of church. How about you?
Lutheran pastor Brian Stoffregen wrote something which you may have seen cited on my blog this week. To be a good and faithful servant of Jesus, he said, “is not mere theological correctness, passive waiting, or strict obedience to clear instructions, but active responsibility that takes initiative and takes risks.” What sorts of risks may God be calling you and me to take today?

Methodist pastor Douglas Mullins tells the true story of Belinda, a member of one of the churches he served. Belinda had become the single parent of a five year old son when her husband left her after she’d had breast cancer. He left when he realized that she would be disfigured by the surgery she’d undergone.

One night, she was tucking her son, Ryan, into bed, reading a story to him, when he interrupted to ask if she had bought the book she was reading for him. “Yes,” she said. And had she bought his bed? “Yes.” And the house in which they lived? “Yes.” And the new sweater he liked so much? “Yes” was the answer again.

As Mullins explains it, Ryan “thought about how good [his mother] had been to him...and finally said, ‘Mommy, get my piggy bank. There are seven pennies in it. Take them and get something you really want for you.”

In this matter of giving, none of us has anything that God needs.

But if you and I are going to faithfully respond to His call on our lives, if we’re going to express our gratitude to God for all His gifts, if we’re going to find our own unique ways of responding to God’s gifts, and if we’re going make investments of eternal significance, we need to give.

The decisions you and I prayerfully make today have nothing to do with God’s need of our gifts and everything to do with our need to give.

Think about that and pray about that as you prepare to make your financial commitments to the ministries of Friendship for 2006.

[The entire series of which this message is a part was inspired by the fine work done by the staff at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, Minnesota.]

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