Sunday, November 20, 2011

Spending the Inheritance

Ephesians 1:11-23

You may have seen a very large RV traveling down the highway.  In the driver’s seat is a senior citizen, and emblazoned on the back of that RV is a bumper sticker declaring that this now retired couple is spending their children’s inheritance.  Now, they have every right to spend their money any way they please, and the kids have no legal means of stopping them from doing this, but this declaration seems rather bold, maybe even brazen!    They have decided to spend the inheritance before it gets passed on to the next generation.   

Warren Buffett, as you may have heard, has decided that the bulk of his fortune won’t go to his children, but rather to charity.  It’s not that the kids won’t get anything, but  most of the inheritance is going to be shared by a much broader group of people. 

Jesus once told a parable about inheritances.  In this parable a son demands his share of the inheritance now.  Why wait until Dad is dead to enjoy the benefits of the inheritance.  Now, this is also a rather brazen demand.  The son is basically telling his father to drop dead.  There’s another part to this story that we rarely hear.  In that day the estate went to the eldest son, who then decided if anyone else would get a share.  So, this younger son was asking for something that didn’t belong to him.  But the father gives him what he asks for and the son goes out and spends it all on drugs, sex, and rock and roll. Before too long it’s all gone and he finds himself on the streets, eating the left overs from the slopped hogs.  You know the rest of the story.  He decides to go home and see if Dad will hire him on.  He knows he has no claim to sonship or the inheritance, because that’s all gone. In the end, however, there is a word of grace that restores this prodigal back to his place in the family.

In Ephesians 1 we also hear a word about an inheritance. 
I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, 19 and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.  (Eph. 1:18-19a CEB).
This is a prayer that our eyes would be opened so that we would see the “richness of God’s glorious inheritance.”   The promise is that we get to share in this inheritance, which by rights goes to the eldest son, whom the scriptures declare to be Jesus the Christ.  The promise here is that we have been called to share in this inheritance.  That means we can spend the inheritance – hopefully wisely!

Back in the 1980s a Danish movie came out entitled Babette’s Feast.  I’ve never seen the movie, but I’ve heard the story, and it has stuck with me – though I had to go online to reacquaint myself with the details.   Maybe you know this story about two sisters who are living in a small Danish village.  They’re the daughters of a pastor, and while both had opportunities to leave the village, both women spurned their suitors and returned to their village, living together without ever marrying.  As they reached old age, a French woman who has fled political turmoil in France comes to the door and offers her services as housekeeper in exchange for a place to live.  She serves in this capacity for fourteen years, until word comes that she has won the lottery, which would bring her 10,000 francs.  That’s enough money for her to return home and live fairly well the rest of her life.  

Instead of using the money to return home, she decides to throw a feast for the two sisters and the village’s small congregation on the 100th birthday of the founding pastor.  The sisters agree, though as the meal is being planned and the food begins to arrive they become uncomfortable with the extravagance of it all.  Although they agree to the meal, they decide as a group to say nothing about it, lest they seem to be indulging themselves in luxury.  There is one other guest at the table – a Swedish general who had once sought the hand of one of the sisters.  Unlike the other guests, he feels free to speak admiringly of the food, explaining each course, and declaring  that he’d not had a meal like this since he had dined years before at the famed Café Anglais in Paris. 

Although no one says anything about the food, something wonderful begins to happen in the community.  They not only seem to be enjoying the food, but they’re lifted up spiritually.  As they eat, they begin to forget about old wrongs, and old loves are rekindled.  Indeed, something mystical and redemptive begins to settle in on the group.

After the meal is finished, Babette tells the sisters that she was the chef at this famed restaurant.  While they assume that Babette will  return home now that she has these lottery winnings, Babette tells them that there’s nothing left of these winnings.  She had spent all 10,000 francs on the dinner, for such was the cost of a meal for twelve at Café Anglais.  In gratitude for the welcome these two sisters had provided her, she had given of herself to them with great extravagance, spending all that she had to bless them and their congregation.  It is a story of sacrifice and blessing, but it is also a story of Thanksgiving.  

This is, of course, the story of Jesus as it is shared throughout the New Testament.  In Philippians 2 we’re told that while Jesus shared equality with God, he humbled himself and took on the form of a servant, going so far as to die on a cross.  Here in Ephesians 1 we hear a word about an inheritance, which is shared with all those who are destined to receive it.  They are marked by a seal, which is the Holy Spirit, who is given to them as a pledge of this inheritance that Christ as the elder brother has chosen to share with the body of Christ.  

We are invited to share in the riches of this inheritance, which has been been witnessed to in the power of God that raised Christ from the dead and seated him at the right hand of God, far above all authority on earth.    

Don’t you think that the folks who brag about spending their children’s inheritance  may have more in common with the prodigal than with Babette, whose act of self-sacrifice brought blessings to others?   Now this was her choice, but she didn’t regret it.  And the message of the gospel is that in the interests of the reign of God, the Son became a human being, so as to share our lives that we might experience the blessings of God.  That is, so that we might share in the inheritance of God.  

As we hear the message of Jesus’ willingness to share the inheritance with us, so that we might experience the full redemption that comes from being part of the body of Christ, we stand on the eve of Thanksgiving.  On the Day of Thanksgiving we are invited to offer up expressions of gratitude, both in word and deed, for the blessings of God’s gifts to humanity.  In the words of one of my favorite songs from Godspell: we sing:
All good gifts around us 

Are sent from Heaven above

So thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love . . . 
This song reminds us that while we may plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, it is God who feeds and waters the seed so that it brings forth life.  For this we give thanks.  

Babette, like Jesus and the widow, gave all of herself for others, and she did this as a sign of thanksgiving.   As we gather in the harvest of commitments made in support of the ongoing ministry of this church, the request made here isn’t that we give all our money to the church, but rather that we give ourselves fully to Christ, who shares with us the riches of God’s inheritance.  Even as we bring in this harvest, as saints charged with giving generously, we are also invited to spend this inheritance for the glory of God.  We do this in order to see the reign of God made visible on earth as in heaven, even as relationships are restored, justice is established, and beauty is rediscovered.  

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church
Troy, MI
Christ the King Sunday
November 20, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Good Investments -- A Sermon

Matthew 25:14-30

Have you ever watched Jim Cramer’s CNBC show Mad Money?  If you don’t know who Jim Cramer is, he’s a wild-eyed stock picking guru who wants to help you make money in the stock market!   The motto of the show is that “there is always a bull market somewhere, and he wants to help you find it.”   Jim Cramer, it appears, believes in the principle of abundance over scarcity.  In his mind, somewhere there is an investment that will make you a profit, you just have to look for it, and he’s willing to help you make that discovery.   Now, I don’t spend much time watching his show, since  a little goes a long way, but I’m intrigued by his ability to pick good places to invest.  He seems to know his stuff!  

But money isn’t the only thing we have to invest.  We also have our lives to invest, but the question – where will you invest?      

We’re nearing the end of the liturgical year, and the lectionary texts are featuring passages that lift up the Day of Judgment.  In the passage that follows immediately after the Parable of the Talents, which we heard read this morning, we hear Jesus describe the Day of Judgment.  God is sitting on the judgment seat, surrounded by the sheep and the goats.  God divides the sheep from the goats, sending the goats to condemnation and the sheep to God’s rest, and the basis of this judgment isn’t whether you prayed the prayer of salvation, but rather how you treat the “least of these.”  

In this parable that leads into this judgment scene, Jesus tells the story of the master who goes on a trip and entrusts his property to three of his slaves.  To one is given five talents, to another two, and to the third is given one talent, each receives according to their ability to handle the responsibility.  The master doesn’t tell them what to do with the money, and this isn’t a small amount of money, since one talent is equivalent to about fifteen years’ wages, but the first two slaves seem to understand that they should invest these funds on behalf of the Master. 

When the master returns, he asks them to give an accounting, and the first two slaves tell the master that they’ve doubled this amount.  As a result, they receive the master’s commendation, for they are “good and faithful servants.”  

As for the third slave, well, things don’t go so well for him.  He lives his life in fear of the master and so he decided to go and bury his talent in the ground, and now he returns that one talent to his master.  The master is a bit perturbed and asks the servant why he didn’t at least put the money in the bank and earn some interest, after all it is insured by FDIC.  Do you remember when a pass book account earned 5% and you probably thought that wasn’t a very good return?  Today, if you put money in a basic account, it doesn’t earn much more than what you would get by burying it in the back yard.  Of course, that’s not the point.  The master asks this servant why he did what he did, and he answers – well I know you’re a harsh master and you reap what you don’t sow, so I’m giving you back what you gave me.  No more and no less, so don’t I get a reward for not losing anything?  

How does this servant look at the world?   Is it a half-empty glass or a half-full glass?  Does this servant operate from the principle of scarcity or the principle of abundance?  Is life a zero-sum game, so that if you have something, then it must have come at my expense?  

Doesn’t it seem as if the point of the parable has more to do with what we make of what we’re given than the amount we start with?    This third person, who receives a word of judgment, seems to not understand how precious this gift he’s been given really is, and so he buries it.  

So, what to do?  How should we live in the world with the gifts that God has entrusted to our care?  It’s not a question of what we deserve or what we earn, but what God has given us to use for the kingdom.  Do we play it safe, or do we take a risk?  Do we walk in faith or in fear?  

Are we willing to take the risk of failure in order that the gifts of God might be used?  The first two servants appear to have taken some risks, and they were rewarded.  They went out and invested aggressively, and doubled their money.  But the third servant let fear get the better of him, and so he cautiously buried the money in his back yard.  The master received back what was his in the beginning, so no harm, no foul, right?  But is that what God expects of us?  In football terms, do we go into a  prevent defense before we even score a touchdown, believing that a zero-zero tie is better than a loss?   

Martin Luther famously called on Christians to "sin boldly."  He believed that we shouldn’t live timid and fearful lives, but instead, we should depend on God’s grace and live life boldly.   It’s better to try and fail, than sit back and do nothing, because there is no reward in doing nothing.   

The gifts of God are not treasured heirlooms that need to be put behind glass-enclosed cabinets with signs that say “don’t touch.”   The Christian life isn’t a museum of sanctity and piety.  Rather it is an invitation to share in the gifts and calling of God.

When Brett was young, we gave him a set of toy pistols that had belonged to his uncle.  They were in perfect condition when he got them, which leads me to believe that they hadn’t gotten much use.  But because Brett and his friends played with them, before too long they were in sad shape.  The plastic bullets were missing, the holster was mangled, and the handles were broken.  Although these toys survived intact for forty years, they were destroyed almost overnight.  Oh, it would have been nice if they had been treated with greater care, but that’s not what always happens when we use our gifts. Sometimes things get broken when we use them, which is why Luther told Christians – if you’re going to sin, then "sin boldly."  

It’s okay then if you mispronounce a word while reading scripture.  It’s okay if one person’s prayer isn’t as eloquent as another.   You may not know what to say when visiting at the hospital or the nursing home, but the person being visited will still be blessed by that visit.  Sometimes we make mistakes, but when we live boldly, we experience God’s grace and forgiveness.  

To each is given a different talent and a different gift.  These are expressions of God’s abundant grace.  There’s no scarcity to worry about, so if the master reaps where he doesn’t sow, then so be it. 

This parable isn't about stewardship, but it does have stewardship implications.  And since this is stewardship season, it's appropriate to point out these implications.   Our giving through the church – whether it is our tithes or our gifts to the various special offerings; the  time given through the various ministries of the church or time spent in learning experiences such as the series on Islam – these are ways in which the work of God is extended into the world.   They are the means by which we invest the gifts of God.   

We are disciples of a risk-taking God, a God who chose to create the world and entrust it to our care.  It is a gift to be cherished, but these gifts are also to be used for the good of all.  It may involve change and doing new things – like our involvement in Motown Mission, the Perry Gresham Lectures, the series on Islam, a service of remembrance during Christmas, or an organ recital that brings beauty to the community.  We’ve been blessed with an abundance of grace, and we’re invited to invest these gifts of grace in the work of God’s realm.  If we follow this calling, when the master returns, we’ll hear the words:  “Well done good and faithful servant, because you have been faithful with a little, I will put you in charge of many things." 

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
November 13, 2011