Saturday, June 5, 2010

Life Overflowing: Material Wealth

“For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability….” Matthew 25:14-30

One Sunday morning Pastor Olson told his congregation that he had bad news, good news and bad news for them.

“Here’s the first bad news,” said the pastor. "Our church’s furnace has died and needs to be replaced immediately."

“But now the good news,” Pastor Olson continued: "We have more than enough money to do the job!"

Then he offered the second bit of bad news, though: "All that money is still in your pockets.”

This story makes for good humor, but it’s lousy theology. What if we thought of this as a good news/good news/good news story?

“Problems” Equal “Invitations”

GOOD NEWS: "The furnace has died and needs to be replaced immediately." Which is to say: God is sending us a challenge, an opportunity. God’s got some more work for us to do, to keep us out of mischief while we await his New Creation.

Broken church furnaces, third graders needing Bibles, hungry bellies, ears itching for the gospel—all those "problems" that confront us are really chances to minister, opportunities to be in God’s mission. Hidden beneath every “problem” we encounter is the invitation of God to go deeper, step up, move out, and forge ahead!

A wise pastor once said that when Jesus told his followers that we will always have the poor with us, he wasn’t complaining about a problem or making a dire prediction. Rather, Jesus was uttering a promise!

Abundance Trumps Scarcity

“GOOD NEWS: We have more than enough money to fix the furnace,” as Pastor Olson told his congregation. Whatever the challenge or opportunity that’s out there, the resources are here–in abundance!

That’s because God is the source of all that we are and all that we have–and God doesn’t know the meaning of the word “stingy.” In the Parable of the Talents, this breath-taking abundance of God is represented by the fabulous sums of money the master leaves behind with his three slaves. Before he goes away on his long journey the master leaves five talents with the first slave. That’s 75 years of wages or well over $3 million in our day, here in northwestern Minnesota.

Such overflowing wealth in this parable–it’s like a bell going off! It’s a clue, a sure sign, that the master (in the parable) is God! For no one is more generous than God. God has held back nothing from us–not even the precious life of his only beloved Son, given up to death on a Cross for you and for me.

Dear fellow disciples of our synod, we can meet and exceed our goals for financial stewardship in our congregations and our wider church, all in the service of God’s mission. God has lavished on us all the time we need, all the abilities we need, all the resources we need to get God’s work done.

God Works Through Us

And here’s the third GOOD NEWS from our friend Pastor Olson: "The money is still in your pockets!" The resources are at your disposal–you get to free them up.

What awesome trust God places in our hands! God lets us be the managers and caretakers of all that God possesses. God trusts us to make wise and generous choices with all that we have.

God could have done otherwise. God could simply extract our offerings by force. God could choose to levitate our wallets or do a little Star Trek "beaming up" of our dollars. God could do his own celestial version of “automatic withholding” of a portion of our paychecks.

But instead, like the master in the parable who went on a journey and turned over everything to his slaves, God recklessly grants us the freedom in Jesus Christ to do the right thing with our cash and with everything else that we have.

Duty and Delight

At last month’s synod assembly our keynote speaker Dr. Mark Allan Powell invited us to think of our offerings of material wealth in terms of both duty and delight (“duty and delight,” being a phrase familiar to us from our Holy Communion liturgy).

Lutherans tend to recoil from thinking about anything in the Christian life as duty. But many of us experienced Dr. Powell’s comments as liberating, not oppressing. He is right, after all. If God has graciously grafted us into his church, and if God’s church has work worth doing—it is our duty to support that in some commonsense, down-to-earth, intentional way.

But that’s only half of our giving. Dr. Powell also pointed out the role of delight in our offering of our material wealth. Over-and-above our “duty” giving, we experience God’s goodness each week in some fresh way that makes us want to give more—just for the fun of it. God is waiting with baited breath to catch the twinkle of delight in our eyes when we give back some of what has been lavished upon us. As St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “God loves it when the giver delights in the giving” (II Cor. 9:7, The Message). God gets a charge out of some of his own generosity rubbing off on us.

When Prof. Hank Tkachuk, my wife Joy and I visited our companion synod in India last autumn, we observed what “duty and delight” offerings look like in worship. At every worship service, an offering was received from all the worshipers who had gathered—just as we do (they use little bags rather than offering plates, though!). But this was the second “duty” offering of the day; earlier in each worship service the pastor invited “delight” thank-offerings from members who wanted to give extra thanks for some special blessing. These offerings were brought forward to the chancel, placed on a silver platter, and prayed over by the pastor.

Follow the Money

This might seem like too much attention to money. I’ve been noticing how often, in talking about stewardship, Lutherans like to say, “Stewardship is about more than money, you know.” I’ve also noticed how often Lutherans then use that same line to avoid talking about money-stewardship entirely!

Dr. Powell, during our synod assembly, opened our eyes to something: we have good reason to keep our eyes on our money, to watch what we’re doing with our money. Because, as Jesus himself proclaimed: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21).

You’d think it would be the other way around: where your heart is, your money will follow. But that’s not how our Lord put it. Jesus turned the tables on us, saying to us (in effect): “Show me the money. Follow your dollars. See where you’re already placing your material wealth, and your heart will follow that.” One of the best ways to become disciples of Jesus who give more generously is to start acting in ways that are generous. Start giving more of your money away to the sick, the needy, charities and church….and your heart will tag along!

Your Brother in Christ,

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:

1. Think of a “problem” in your own life or in your congregation’s life right now. How might God be tucking an opportunity into this problem?

2. Why is it so easy for us to fall into “scarcity mentality” rather than “abundance mentality?”

3. Think (or share with others in your group) about a time when you experienced great joy in giving.

4. Do you believe you can actually give your way into a more generous life? Why or why not?

This is the fifth of twelve articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.

1 comment:

  1. I like Mark's line about "Getting our money wet." However I used this line at Recovery Worship and got a very nervous laugh.