Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 28, Year A)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on November 13, 2005. 
Based on Matthew 25:14-15, 19-29 (Proper 28, Year A).

Money. It’s a topic no one wants to hear about from the pulpit. It’s fine if Jesus talks about it, as he does in this morning’s gospel. We just don’t want our clergy to preach about it. Because when we start preaching about money, people get uncomfortable. We start to squirm a bit; maybe start coughing. The pews all of a sudden seem even more uncomfortable than they already are.

Episcopalians are particularly vulnerable to this. Money seems an unseemly topic to discuss from the pulpit. It’s so…undignified. And traditionally we like to talk about money about as much as we like to talk about evangelism. Which is not much. We even refer to our annual pledge campaign as our “stewardship program,” thereby avoiding any reference to money. The danger is that we can talk in lofty language about stewardship while forgetting that this is also about money. I’ve heard stewardship sermons that don’t even say the word. They may include beautifully articulated phrases about the theology of stewardship, but money becomes the giant elephant in the sanctuary. No one dares speak of it. And an opportunity to discuss a critical piece of our relationship with God in Christ is lost.

But I don’t think it’s the topic of money itself that turns us off. Indeed, money is generally one of our favorite topics. We like money, we want money and we enjoy spending money. So it’s not the topic itself that makes us uncomfortable. I think what really makes us squeamish is the topic of giving away our money. And that’s what I want to talk about this morning. (Is it getting hot in here?) 

I just glossed over the word stewardship, but I do think that it’s a critical context in which to look at our pledge program. Because this over-used word isn’t just a way to trick parishioners into talking about money. It’s not just a euphemism to soften the blow. The concept of stewardship is all-encompassing. It’s a recognition that all we are, and all that we have is a gift from God. And that faithful lives are based on the human response to this divine gift. So stewardship is the giving back to God of our selves through service and the sharing of our financial resources. God has made us stewards – caretakers – of this church, this world, and our relationship with one another. Money alone doesn’t fully define stewardship. But one of the ways we act as stewards is by giving money to our church. We can’t ignore this. And Jesus himself never skirted the issue.

This morning we get the parable of the talents. A talent was a sum of money. It has nothing to do with the traditional stewardship “trifecta” of time, talent, and treasure. In fact it was a large sum of money, equivalent to the amount a day laborer would have been paid for fifteen years of work. So rarely would the average person ever have been entrusted with one talent, let alone five. But that’s what happens. A master divides eight talents among three slaves. One gets five, another two, and a third get one. And then the master goes away for what we’re told is “a long time.” Upon his return, the master settles the accounts. The first doubles his return, making five more talents. The second also doubles his return, making two more. And the third returns the single talent he was given.

What’s curious in this parable about God’s kingdom, is the fate of the third slave. The one who buries his talent and then returns the single talent to the master upon his return. He doesn’t seem to do anything wrong. He didn’t lose the money or squander it. Yet his actions are condemned.

In the context of stewardship, this seems to be a warning to those who approach their relationship with money out of fear. Instead of joyfully using our resources, we often bury them. We become hoarders. And along with it we bury our faith; we bury our trust in God. It forces us to keep looking down, worrying about our buried treasure rather than looking up and glorifying Jesus. And many of us have adopted this posture in our relationship with our money. We’re pack rats, living in fear. Waiting for that rainy day that may or may not come. Fearful that if and when it does, God will not be able to provide.

Last month we had an amazing rummage sale. I’ve never seen so much stuff. Rummage was everywhere. This year, I’d like to challenge us all to give as freely of our money as we did of our rummage. It’s easy to give things away that we don’t want or need. We’ll do that by the truckload. Or at least the minivan-full. But what if you were asked to part with things you really cared about? What would you choose to give away? There is grief in giving something away you care deeply about. I’m not asking you to give until it hurts. But I am asking you to give until you at least notice it. We give rummage away out of our abundance. And our pledging habits often follow the same pattern. ‘Only after I have everything I could possibly want or need will I get down to the business of figuring our my pledge to All Saints.’ But unless pledging comes from your heart, unless it comes out of what really matters to you, it’s as easy as giving away the old sporting equipment wasting away in your garage. And Jesus deserves more than that.

Stewardship, like our faith lives, is not always easy. To fully realize our faith, our giving must be a primary part of our relationship with Jesus Christ, not merely a tangential one. Supporting the mission and ministry of All Saints’ as a central piece of your faith identity is crucial to your relationship with Jesus. I can’t be clearer on this. And it’s why I’m standing up here this morning asking you to give money to your parish. Even if it makes us all a bit uncomfortable.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2005


Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 27, Year B)

A Sermon From All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Briarcliff Manor
Sermon preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck, Rector, on November 9, 2003. 
Based on Mark 12:38-44 (Proper 27, Year B).

An usher passing a collection plate is a scary sight. The collection plate itself is harmless. Actually they’re often quite beautiful. But there’s something about the sight of an usher holding this plate that makes us nervous.

It puts us on the spot. The moment the plate passes in front of us we’re forced to confront our values and our generosity in a very tangible way. So, it’s worthwhile to reflect upon what specifically goes through our minds as the collection plate passes. Sometimes it’s the horrifying realization that you’ve, once again, left the envelope on the kitchen counter. Sometimes, especially when you visit another church, it’s the realization that you’ve forgotten to bring your wallet. All you can do is smile awkwardly and shake your head as the plate passes by. Which wouldn’t be so bad except for the other people in your pew. What will they think? That you’re cheap? Or ungrateful? Or poor? Sometimes when the plate appears you reach confidently into your pocket only to come out with a tissue and a bent paperclip. And for a split second you consider sliding the tissue underneath the other envelopes, hoping no one will notice. Finally there’s the occasion when you realize that all you have is a single dollar bill. Which is good because at least you have something to put in the plate. But you can’t just toss it in without embarrassing yourself at your own cheapness. So you quickly fold it over to make it look like a big wad of cash and fling it into the plate with great bravado. Unfortunately it invariably unfolds and your great secret is exposed.

I would bet that at least one of these experiences resonates with you. Because when it comes to money, we so often focus on our selves and our own emotions. We are self-conscious and self-centered givers. Which is why we don’t always greet the collection plate with a sense of gratitude and joy, but rather with fear and a sense of burden. Our self worth is intrinsically connected with our net worth. And so giving money away is a painful process. We seem to be losing a piece of our identity.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Jesus points us in another direction, a direction that doesn’t negate the importance of financial resources but keeps them in their proper place.

Money is important. But the reason it’s important is in the way we use it. How we spend our resources says a lot about the priorities of our lives. Our checkbooks can be windows into our life’s values. But money itself is not our identity. Money is a part of us but it doesn’t ultimately represent who we are. Our true identity is in our relationship with God.

As we reflect upon our own attitudes toward money this morning, I can’t help but wonder what was going through the poor widow’s mind as she approached the temple treasury. Maybe she had peace and joy in her heart. Maybe she took great pleasure in giving away everything she had to live on. But I’d bet she was absolutely terrified. Imagine cashing out all of your assets and simply giving them away. I don’t care how much of a cheerful giver you are, it would be frightening to walk away from all the security you have ever known. And it’s not as if she could go out and start a business the next day. There weren’t any bootstraps available to impoverished widows in ancient Palestine. Her class were among the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society. There was no prospect for work. Begging would be the only means of survival.

And make no mistake, by praising this woman’s faithfulness Jesus is not affirming poverty as an acceptable condition in which to live. Remember in the previous verses he’s condemning the religious elite who have put in place this system of financial tyranny. The temple treasury enforced taxes upon all Jews, not just the wealthy ones. This widow may have been freely offering her last two coins to God, but she also may not have had a choice. We don’t really know. But Jesus’ point for us is that sacrificial giving is the key to gaining entrance to God’s kingdom. That’s the ideal that he draws us to and that’s the ideal that he holds before us on this stewardship Sunday. We are challenged to give not merely out of our abundance but, like the poor widow, out of our poverty and fear as well.

Sacrificial giving isn’t about giving until it hurts. It’s about giving until the joy starts to come through. It’s about giving through the heart rather than the wallet. It’s about moving past our barriers of self-conscious giving towards a giving of true gratitude for mercies given.

I guess the church itself is partly to blame for our fear of money. Collection plates should really be more consistently called offering plates. Because that’s what they hold – our offerings to God and neighbor. The word ‘collection’ conjures up images of the tax collector. And while Jesus may have eaten with them, no one wants to come to church to pay taxes. It puts the usher in the role of the rector’s henchman. Rob them blind and then get on with the service. The word offering much better captures the essence of what’s going on here.

So as you give prayerful consideration to your pledge this year, reflect upon the message of Jesus. Remember that Christ himself is the one true offering.  His sacrifice upon the cross is the ultimate in sacrificial giving. Through it an abundance of grace has been poured out for us all. And our own offering of time, talent, and treasure to the ministry of the church is a tangible way that we too can pour out the abundance of grace for ourselves and for others.

 © The Rev. Tim Schenck 2003