- November 15, 2020
- 10:30 AM
Sermon for 15 November 2020 (Pentecost 24 A revised)
Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary
Texts: Philippians 4.10-20; Psalm 123; Matthew 25.14-30
Title: The Matter of Giving and Receiving
“I have learned to be content with whatever I have…In any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need” (Philippians 4.11-12).
My friends, what is the secret of being content? How can we learn this secret in the same way that Paul did?
Well, here we are, at the very end of the apostle Paul’s Letter to the Christians in Philippi. Here at the end, Paul arrives at what is likely to be the primary reason for sending the letter in the first place: acknowledging the gifts that the Philippians have sent to help Paul in his imprisonment.
The apostle calls this “the matter of giving and receiving”, and he seems almost embarrassed about what the Philippians have done for him. He feels compelled to add a number of qualifiers: “Not that I am referring to being in need…not that I seek the gift…in any case, it was kind of you to share my distress.”
What Paul makes clear is that, in the matter of giving and receiving, there are blessings for both the giver and the receiver, when God is in the center of the exchange.
A few years ago, a church in Chicago collected an unexpected windfall. Back in the 1980s, LaSalle Street Church had joined three other faith communities to create a low-income housing project in their neighborhood, and through the years each congregation retained a small interest in the property. The housing project was eventually sold in 2014 for a considerable profit, and each of the four congregations received a check for $1.6 million for their portion of the proceeds.
The leadership at LaSalle decided to tithe the first ten percent of this surprise blessing. The made a plan to give away $160,000 – a sizeable amount for a medium sized congregation. But the most interesting part was HOW they decided to do it.
To each member of their own congregation, LaSalle Street Church wrote a check for $500. The check came in an envelope that contained one sentence of instruction: “Do good in the world.”
Each parishioner was asked to pray and reflect on how God would have them use their $500 to do the most good, and then they were free to follow whatever divine guidance they received.
Isn’t that a great idea? I love it. That project is genius for how it integrates the principle of the tithe with God’s call for all of us to be generous givers. And it does it in a way that is fun and creative and that demonstrates trust in each person’s ability to make good, God-inspired decisions.
It’s super fun to be generous. At least that is my experience! There is a special joy in the opportunity to give gratuitously, with no strings attached, in a way that makes a real difference in the life of someone else.
Paul was writing about the matter of giving and receiving, and about the blessing involved in the exchange. “Not that I seek the gift,” he wrote, “but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.”
Does that sound familiar? Does it sound a little like something Jesus said? When he taught about treasure in heaven? Do you remember those words?
The Lord said, “Sell your possessions and give alms. [Give the money away. In this way,] make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven” (Luke 12.33).
Believe it or not, I think that is the core message of today’s bizarre parable from Matthew’s Gospel. It is certainly NOT about investing money. Most of the people gathered around Jesus were ordinary folk, people who were just barely able to make ends meet and keep food on the table. They did NOT have money to invest!
But they DID have the same gifts of grace that every other human is given: time, the ability to love their neighbors, the opportunity to care for others, the chance to be a generous person, the choice to serve and honor God with this gift of life. In this way, each person can invest their talents and create an abundant treasure in heaven.
We know that both Jesus and Paul taught that LOVE is the core of what it means to be the people of God, and remember that this love is active concern for the well-being of the other, no matter what. It is unconditional, not dependent on circumstances.
So, let’s try inserting the word LOVE into the climax sentence of this parable, and see if it helps makes it any clearer.
“For to all those who have [LOVE], more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have no [LOVE], even what they have will be taken away” (Matt 25.29).
Yes, isn’t that right? Those who live with love always get more love in return, because there is no zero sum game with love. Giving love away just makes it reproduce more and more until there is an abundance, shared in giving and receiving.
But those who live without love, those who are afraid and calculating, who are always measuring and counting and making sure that no one takes advantage of them, those who are looking out for number one, even what little love that had will be swept away by their self-interest. What a sad way to live!
I hesitate to mention it, because it seems so corny and trite. But honestly, for me, the best demonstration of this parable is in the classic Christmas movie, It’s a Wonderful Life.
You all know it! And well, if somehow you don’t know it, then I am giving you an order to make sure you watch it at least once this coming Christmas season!!!
Mr. Potter is the one who hid his talent, because he had no love for those around him.
But George Bailey?! Well, you know how it ends. His five talents became five more when all of his friends rallied to help him out. And why did they do that? Because he gave love away and it multiplied. Because he was generous, and his treasure in heaven was available when he needed it most.
But, of course, old man Potter had a point. There IS always a risk in living a generous life, in giving away love. It is true that people may take advantage of you.
And THAT is why faith is absolutely necessary! After all, as Richard Rohr so aptly explains, the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.
Mr. Potter chose the way of certainty over the way of faith. He was not about to risk his own safety and security.
To love is to take a risk. To give to others is to take a risk. It was risky for LaSalle Street Church to give away $160,000, and to entrust their own people with this money. It was a risk for these Philippian Christians to send gifts to Paul when he was in prison.
It was risky for Jesus to go into Jerusalem and to face the cross. That’s where this parable is spoken – in Jerusalem, just days before his betrayal and passion.
So what is the secret of being content? How can we learn this secret in the same way that Paul did?
When you get to the bottom of it, contentment is all about faith. Trust is what allows contentment to grow. This is precisely what Paul tells us in the very next sentence:
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4.13).
Meaning, it is safe for me to give away my comfort and my freedom, and it is safe for you to give away some of your wealth and possessions, because there is not a moment in time when Christ is not holding us, not bearing us up, not giving us the strength we need to face another day.
My friends, can you – will you – face the days and weeks to come with that same kind of faith that allows us to take risks, to be boldly generous, to make sure that love is growing in abundance all around? May it be so.