Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 24th Sunday after Pentecost + November 19, 2017
Reading: Matthew 25:14-30
The last time I preached, the gospel lesson was the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:1-12), and so during that sermon I quoted Jesus’s proclamations multiple times: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” and, “blessed are the poor.”
As part of our confirmation program our students have to turn in worship notes. Sandy Vollmer gives them worksheets on which they answer questions about the church season and their own faith practices, and, of course, the sermon. One of the questions is, “What’s one thing that the sermon made you think about?” After hearing me repeat some of the Beatitudes over and over Brett Forsberg answered that question with a very insightful — and very challenging — question of his own: “If the poor are blessed, what does that mean for people who are rich?”
When I read Brett’s question, I immediately flashed to all these difficult Bible passages — passages that give us trouble whenever they come up in Sunday school. Like the list of “woes” that follows the Beatitudes in Luke’s Gospel: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry…” (Luke 6:24-25). Or Jesus’s famous line: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Matt. 19:24). Even Mary’s beautiful Magnificat song, which we love to sing during Holden Evening Prayer, declares: “[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:52-53).
If the poor are blessed, what does that mean for people who are rich? If the lowly are lifted up, what happens to the powerful? If it’s so hard for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom, what are we supposed to do with our money?
Maybe this morning’s parable can be our guide to answering questions like those and to understanding passages that seem to condemn the wealthy. In this parable, a master gives each of his slaves some money, and then he leaves on a journey. When he returns, he wants to see what each of them has made of his money. Have they used it well? Have they multiplied it? Or did they just hide it away, terrified of losing it?
That’s the question for us: What do we do with the things God has given us? Do we bury them, or do we multiply them? Do we keep funneling our wealth back into a cycle of wealth, using it to make ourselves wealthier or more comfortable or more secure? Or do we break that cycle and use our wealth to multiply God’s blessings, to be part of the work of blessing the poor, the depressed, the mourning, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned?
And of course we shouldn’t take this parable so literally that we think only of money. We should reflect on all the riches we individually have: intelligence; athletic ability; good health; patience; artistic ability; a caring nature; our place in society. All these things are riches we can use to multiply God’s blessings.
This parable calls us to ask seriously and creatively: How can we use the gifts God has entrusted to us to multiply God’s blessings?
And as we ask that question, “counting our blessings” becomes more than a mental activity we do to make ourselves feel better. Counting our blessings is a task we should do as part of our discipleship, part of following Jesus, part of working alongside God in the mission of the gospel. We count our blessings to remind us of all that God has entrusted to us.
The problem is that our culture is constantly tricking us into doing just the opposite. Think about how often you see advertisements. Watching TV. Looking something up online. Stuffed into your mailbox (whether you like it or not). On billboards while you’re driving to work. And all these advertisements are designed to make you want. To remind you that there’s something out there that you don’t have yet, that you’re missing, something that could make your life even better.
And in addition to any pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” next door, our TV shows and movies flood our minds with images of lifestyles richer than our own. We take in the power plays of the Underwoods on House of Cards or follow the shiny lives of celebrities or gasp at the houses people buy or renovate on HGTV and our own lives look pretty plan in comparison.
With all of that advertising and that peeking-in to what we don’t have, it can become easy to fall into thinking: well, I don’t have enough. Look at all those people who have enough money to afford all those things I don’t have. Or, look at all those people who are so much smarter or more talented or more powerful than I am. They are the ones who need to be generous and help with the world’s problems — because they are the ones who can.
I’ve heard people with more money than I can realistically dream of ever having talk about “those rich people out there” and how “they should give more.” We can get stuck comparing ourselves to people who have it better — or even just to the people around us — and totally miss seeing all that we do have to offer. It’s easy to think of ourselves as not having enough to be generous or to really make a difference.
Today’s parable reminds us that it doesn’t matter whether we have an abundance or barely enough: we are called to use whatever we have been given to multiply God’s blessings.
A few years ago I went to a panel on the question “Should we give money to people on the streets?” On the panel were lawyers and professors who specialized in studying poverty or helping people who are poor. They gave long complicated answers about the social system and the causes of poverty and the resources available to people in need…answers that didn’t really provide an answer to the basic question. The last person to speak was a woman who had just recently gotten settled in a job and a home after years of homelessness. The answer she gave to the question, “Should we give money to people on the streets?” was a story:
She talked about having recently had enough money that she could buy herself a treat. She bought a bag of her very favorite chips: those chili-flavored Fritos. You would not believe how good she made those Fritos sound when she described how much she liked them. Anyway, she bought herself a bag of those chips, then sat down on the bench at the bus stop with her snack and settled in to enjoy the taste of her hard work paying off. Then a man approached her, asking if she had any change to spare for a bus ride. “Well,” she said, “I had a dollar still left in my pocket, so I gave him that. And then I still had some Fritos left, so I gave him the rest of the bag. I figured, since I was so blessed, I better share what I could.”
When we have an attitude of scarcity — thinking over and over, What if I don’t have enough? — we end up like that third slave in the parable: fearfully burying what we do have in hole in the ground. The woman at the bus stop, still very poor by our standards, had an attitude of abundance — Look how much I’ve been blessed! –, and so she saw ways that she could multiply God’s blessings and jumped right in.
So let’s work on that discipleship practice of counting our blessings, naming all that we have, and looking for the opportunities we have to invest in God’s mission to bless the people in need around us.
One of the great gifts of being involved in a church is that it connects us directly to opportunities to use what God has entrusted to us, to multiply God’s blessings in the world. We can use our financial resources to support the work of this congregation and its partners in ministry. We can give our companionship to men experiencing homeless and loneliness when we host them here at Room in the Inn. We can give our words and our love to the people in our congregation who are grieving or struggling. We can give skills in building or cleaning to help in disaster response; or skills in cooking to provide meals for those who are sick. There are as many opportunities to invest in God’s mission as there are blessings God has given to us. Some seem grand, some seem small, but God uses them all to multiply blessings.
Let us pray. God of abundance: You call us to count our blessings and see what you have entrusted to our care. Drive out our fears of scarcity and fill us with faith in your abundance. Help us to be creative in using what we have, whether it’s a little or a lot. Multiply our offerings and our efforts to bless your people and your Kingdom. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.