We continue our study of Luke 12 and discover the ways giving directly counteracts the silent thief of greed.
Jesus, You have given freely, now teach me to freely give.
Last Sunday, we collectively held our breath and dove into the deep end of the pool called “greed.” It is never fun to talk about greed, and it is especially unpleasant when we are excited about and distracted by all the busyness of a new fall season. But despite our best efforts to stay distracted, the words of Jesus from Luke 12 would not let us off the hook. So we started the year by looking squarely at our problem with greed; admitting that we are all greedy in some way, and discovering how greed distracts our attention from the true desires of our heart and fractures our precious community. For all of us, this is a bitter pill to swallow, but we walked through it together.
And as I have come to expect from this incredible congregation, you handled the challenge with grace and even some excitement. Several of you came up to me after the service expressing a degree of gratitude that we are facing this topic head-on. Up until this point, I have yet to hear a single complaint…but I suspect that may change in just a few minutes!
Last week’s passage from Luke 12 was difficult to face, but this week’s passage is even harder. Jesus makes a direct call for his followers to “Sell your possessions, and give…” And he follows it up with a passage that many of us have heard repeatedly, and most of us believe that it is profoundly true, but few of us enjoy hearing again: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” This is quite the gut check, and just like his teaching from last Sunday, Jesus will not let us wriggle off the hook easily this week.
What’s more, when he finishes this command to give and store up treasure in heaven, Jesus then turns and gives a strange parable about servants who must stay alert to find their master returning at an unknown hour. It is an even more intense picture, with a dire tone and an intimidating challenge to us all.
But rather than focusing solely on the intensity of the challenge, we would do well to back up and begin at the beginning this week. Jesus starts this difficult teaching with some of his most comforting words, “Do not be afraid, little flock…” In contrast with what Jesus is talking about; greed, selling our possessions, giving, being constantly alert; the words “Do not be afraid” seem painfully out of place. And keep in mind that Jesus is speaking to a group of people who were mostly living without any financial security. They did not have a 401(k) or pension, no welfare or social security. If something unexpected happened, like an injury to the primary breadwinner of the household, poverty and starvation were an immediate reality. So for Jesus to tell this crowd of people who are mostly scraping by to simply “not be afraid” seems simplistic and somewhat cruel. Maybe we could avoid fear if we lived comfortably like kings, but how can you possibly expect us to not be afraid in this condition?
But Jesus continues on, and tells them not only to stop worrying, but to start giving! Sell what little you have, and give the money to someone who has even less. This is quite the challenge for the people gathered around Jesus that day. And I suspect that for most of us in this room, even though we have far more wealth and financial security than anyone standing in the crowd that day, we probably feel much the same way.
Not only are we supposed to stop focusing on acquiring things we don’t have or protecting our current possessions, but now we’re supposed to give what he have away? Greed was hard enough to face, this is an even harder teaching, Jesus! In the words of one of my favorite comedians, it seems harder to start giving than it is to start flossing.
I say this in jest, but the parallel is painfully true. Flossing is something we are all supposed to do. We know it is good, we know it is important. Our dentist tells us this every time we have an appointment and we sheepishly leave with a pack of floss in hand. For a day or two we remember to follow through, and we quietly pat ourselves on the back for this new growth. We are officially responsible adults, we are flossing. But then what happens? The floss gets covered up by other things in the drawer, we rush through our routine when we’re running late, we forget for a day, and then for two days, and before we know it our next dentist appointment is tomorrow and we’re frantically flossing in the foolish hopes that our hygienist won’t be able to notice. It’s a vicious cycle of dental shame, really.
Whether it’s flossing, or exercising, or paying that bill we always seem to forget, it is hard to begin something that goes against the grain of our daily life. (Full disclosure: as I wrote this paragraph I was reminded of a bill I had neglected to pay!) It is always hard to start something like this, even if we know it is good. And so, whenever we try to make a significant change, we resort to two motivators: reward or punishment.
Some of us respond quickly to the promise of a reward. Others of us respond to the pain of a future punishment. We came by this honestly, our parents used some combination of these two motivators to help us grow and change, and now we do the same thing to ourselves. In fact, most of us read a passage of scripture like this from a lens of either reward or punishment.
If I don’t give, I won’t be rewarded!
If I don’t give, I will be punished!
Both of these patterns make for good soldiers, people who follow orders and stay in line. But there is a dire problem with giving from the motivators of reward and punishment, they keep us locked in cycles of either greed of fear.
Some of us feel motivated to give by the promise of God’s blessing or favor. If we give, we are blessed. If we stop giving, the blessing stops. Many of us heard sermons like this in our lives, that we will unlock the blessing of God on our lives if we only give to some particular church or ministry (normally the one speaking!). This was the posture of many people in Jesus’ audience. In the culture of first-century Judaism, almsgiving, or giving to those in need, was a public practice that guaranteed someone a place of status in the religious community. The blessing came with prestige, honor, righteousness in the eyes of others. But this kind of pattern, giving in order to receive, is simply a masked form of greed. We haven’t rooted out the problem of greed, we’ve simply entrenched it even deeper underneath layers of moralism and posturing. We might let go of our greed for money, but we simply turn the greed to our status or righteousness. If we give in order to receive, we are back to square one!
But giving out of a fear of punishment is no better. If we give from a place of fear, we may avoid the trap of greed, but we become ensnared in the trap of fear itself. Our hearts are not free to give joyfully, and we are not able to live a life free of worry and financial anxiety. Instead, we fear the shoe that is waiting to drop around every corner, constantly trying to beat the punishment to the punch with a token of generosity. This is no way to live at all.
So if giving is an incredibly difficult change to implement, and we can’t rely on our typical motivators of reward or punishment, what on earth do we do? How do we possibly begin to follow the words of Jesus?
The key to solving this dilemma comes in a single word hidden in the first verse, a word that is translated poorly in our English Bibles. “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” In fact, the verb Jesus uses is a past-tense verb, not present-tense. Our translations should read something more like: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it WAS your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” One tiny word, one small verb tense, and everything changes.
Jesus is not saying, “If you let go of greed and give, then the father will give you the kingdom.” He is saying, “God has already given you the kingdom, and he was pleased to do it! You don’t have to give in order to get the reward of the kingdom. You give because you already have the reward of the kingdom. You don’t give to avoid punishment. You give because the ultimate price has been paid, there is no more punishment left to endure.”
According to Jesus, giving is not something we do to gain a reward or to avoid a punishment. Giving is the natural response of any person who understands the incredible gift that God has already given! If we focus on the free gift of the kingdom, and the grace that has been poured out on us, giving follows naturally. In the story that Jesus tells about the master who returns and finds his servants watching for him, the master doesn’t just walk in and say “good job,” the master actually puts on the garment of a servant and begins waiting tables for his own staff. This is absolutely unthinkable behavior, laughable, even, for any dignified master. Imagine the president donning a pair of coveralls and cleaning the toilets in the White House employee break room, that is the image Jesus is describing here. Jesus paints the picture of a God who doesn’t care about looking ridiculous, a God who loves so much and so freely that He is willing to serve and bless freely and generously.
The message of the parable of the watchful servants is not about being ready for Jesus’ return so that we can avoid punishment, as we so often hear from preachers and Bible thumpers. It is about living in a state of awareness, so that we can see and receive the thousands of blessings that God is already pouring out on us in his daily arrivals. It is about seeing the world differently, in a way that astounds us with God’s abundance and goodness to us.
If we can step back, for just a moment, and remove the lenses of reward or punishment that we typically use, and instead see this teaching through the lens of a kingdom which is already ours, we can begin to see the true miracle of giving. When we give freely and joyfully, not to receive praise or avoid punishment, we begin to live the kind of life that directly counteracts the effects of greed
Last week, we explored the ways greed silently robs us of our life. Greed distracts us from the true desires of our hearts, and it disrupts our relationships as we view others as competitors and threats. When we live a life of joyful, sacrificial giving, the exact opposite begins to happen. While greed distracts our attention and fractures community, giving sharpens our attention and fosters community.
When we engage in a habit of giving, especially a habit that causes us to reflect on what we truly need, we begin to realize that we don’t need as much as we are led to believe by the culture around us. And the less we need, the less we have to fear. The less we fear, the more we are in a posture of openness, a willingness to receive whatever comes our way without having to protect and defend. And from that posture of openness, our eyes begin to open to the blessings God is already pouring out on us. Suddenly, a worn out car becomes a gift of transportation. A 45-minute commute becomes a chance to reflect on the gift of a job that provides for our needs. An upcoming bill that we don’t know how we can afford becomes a chance to remember that we are not in control, and that we are always in a state of reliance on God whether we realize it or not. Giving freely and joyfully puts us in a posture that allows us to see God’s arrival in everyday moments. Giving reveals the hidden blessings that are constantly being poured out into our lives, the blessings of a kingdom that has already been given to us by a good God. When we engage in a regular habit of giving, our focus is sharpened on the things that truly matter in life.
And not only that, giving puts us in a posture that actually builds and encourages community, rather than the divisive force of greed. In the parable Jesus teaches, he says the servants are waiting up for him “during the middle of the night, or near dawn.” He’s referring to different watches of the night, the second and third shift. He’s not saying everyone is supposed to be alert all at once, in some kind of endurance competition! It’s not about one person being the lookout, it’s about everyone being on the lookout as a team. Jesus is saying, work together! If you build these postures of giving into your life as a community, you will encourage each other and pick each other up.
We are not meant to practice generosity alone. When one of us gets drowsy and is tempted to give up and give in to the patterns of greed or despair, the generosity of others can wake us up and remind us of God’s goodness. We can pick each other up, encourage one another, care for one another’s needs, and together see the incredible blessing of God’s kingdom lived out in a loving community.
Yes, the teaching that Jesus gives us today is challenging. Yes, giving is a difficult practice to begin living out. Yes, it requires sacrifice. But the kind of life that giving cultivates is the kind of life worth living. Giving cultivates a life that is no longer distracted by desires that can never be fulfilled; a life that is lived with eyes wide open, able to see the blessings that are already being poured out on us by a loving God. Giving cultivates a life that is no longer spent fighting others or protecting ourselves into isolation and loneliness; a life that is lived in gracious, loving, encouraging community. Giving cultivates a life worth living.
Now, this is where I could cue the 2020 giving program and unveil our giant wall thermometer with ten million dollars at the top and a feint red line at the bottom. We could challenge each other to go out and sell our most prized possessions and live together in poverty, and that would come with its own challenges and distractions. But just like flossing furiously right before your dentist appointment, you don’t get the benefits of giving from grand gestures or knee-jerk reactions. The benefits of giving come from a lifetime of building small, sacrificial habits.
Every week as a church, we remind ourselves that our mission is to grow in Christ and practice His way of life. This is an incredible opportunity to do just that, to begin a simple practice. This is an opportunity to start small and begin building some habits of giving that can overflow into a way of life that sharpens our attention and fosters our community.
So this week, I’m going to make a specific challenge to all of us. You have probably heard us mention a new online giving system that we implemented over the summer called Gyve. This system has many benefits, and it makes the giving process very simple, but one of the main reasons we chose to use this new system is for a day like today. A day where we challenge one another to begin a very simple, small, but sacrificial habit of giving to see God bless others in need.
I’ll call this our RoundUp challenge, and I want to encourage you to participate with us in any way that you can. If you download the Gyve app, you can join the Parish “RoundUp.” This links with your card or account, and rounds the transactions you make every day to the nearest dollar. The remaining change gets combined with everyone else’s remaining change, and over time those nickels and dimes become a substantial amount. And at the end of each month, The Parish is going to give that entire amount away to someone in need, either in the local or global community.
Remember, this is not coming back to the church at all, we’re not using this money to go to lunch or pay our bills. 100% of our RoundUp is going out of our doors to bless someone else.
So where is this RoundUP going to go? Well, this is the coolest part of the whole process. Once we set up this process and get it rolling, we get the opportunity to bless a lot of people in this community, in our nation, and around the world. Each month, we are going to choose a different community to give to, and at the end of each month we will give you an update on exactly how much you have given so that you can see the impact that your small gift is making.
To start this journey, we are going to give 100% of the RoundUp contributions we receive in August to a ministry called Trinity On The Border. Trinity is an Anglican chapel ministry located on the US-Mexico border in the area of Brownsville and Harlingen. They offer health care and pastoral care to the poor and asylum seekers, care for the workers who are on the ground there, a small Elementary school and a developing refugee resettlement program. Every day, more than a hundred men, women and children visit their Respite Center.
So instead of simply hearing about what’s happening on the border, or viewing it and wondering what we can do about it, how about we come together to do exactly what Jesus says to do? What if we took the treasure that God has given us, and freely and joyfully place it in the hands of those who need it?
Why do this using the RoundUP? Because it helps us take a first, practical step. For some of us, this may be the first step you have ever taken in creating a practice of sacrificial giving. We know it’s hard! We know it’s scary! So we wanted to make it as simple as possible, and we want to cheer you on in community as you get started on this journey.
For some of us, this step will be easy and painless, I want to challenge you to find a way to make this sacrificial. How can you give in such a way that it matters, that it is a conscious choice? If our giving is not sacrificial, it won’t begin to free the death grip of greed from our lives.
This challenge is for all of us, young and old, those in plenty and those in need, let’s find a way to follow the words of Jesus. Let’s find a way to begin exposing the lies of greed that hide in our hearts, and instead begin practicing the radically freeing way of Jesus.
Our breath prayer this week: “Jesus, You have given freely, now teach me to freely give.”
. Luke 12:33a