This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

To Hoard or to Invest?

Matthew 25:14-30
I live in a house that was built about 55 years ago.  It has a one-car garage.  The Master Bedroom has two normal-sized closets.  It has a very small basement, and an attic that is hard to get to.  In its day it was a fairly good-sized house, I think.  Certainly it was considered to be more than adequate for a family with three children.
Today, however, as I drive around some of the newer developments, I find that many new houses have two or three or even four car garages.  At least one of the closets in the Master Bedroom is often a veritable room in itself, literally as large as one of the bedrooms in my house.
It is clear to me, then, that in the past half-century, we have become a nation that accumulates much more stuff.  When I was a kid I don’t remember such a thing as a “garage sale.”  At best the church might have an occasional rummage sale.  But no one had enough overflow junk in their house to have to invent the garage sale until the 1970's.  And back then there were no self-storage facilities, huge garages where you could keep your overflow stuff until you got a bigger house.
We have become, in the last three decades, a collector culture in which we are encouraged to acquire and hoard things, storing them, saving them, burying them in our basements, attics, and garages.  We have become masters of acquisition.  Indeed, the whole world economy has depended on our habits of acquisition.
A friend of mine is a real collector.  Instead of books, he has on his shelves little collections of things.  Here is a set of various Santa Clauses.  Over here, different figurines of elephants.  On this side a congregation of stuffed Disney characters.  Over on that side, sets of coins.
In his attic he had, carefully filed and stored away, several years of Hess trucks, still in their original, unopened boxes.  He had twenty or so years of National Geographics.  He even had boxes of match-books, and more boxes of ballpoint pens.
In his dining room he didn’t just have china, but sets of plates and cups, some of them commemorative, and he could tell you right off the top of his head which items he was missing.
Now, this is kind of extreme, but I know just how he feels, because I am a collector too.  I collect books, and CD’s, and those ceramic animals that come in tea boxes, and Bibles, and other stuff.  I do realize however that it is a disease.  There’s even a TV show about it now.
Sometimes I go into these anti-materialistic fits, and I will pack up boxes of stuff to bring to Princeton and sell to the used-book and used-CD stores.  Later I will feel guilty that I might have unloaded something really valuable or that I might need someday.
But this whole collector mentality pervades our culture.  Indeed, I think the economy relies on people buying stuff they don’t really need.  On credit….  And I get nervous as I see children brainwashed into making collections of game cards, or cartoon DVD’s.  Yet even I quietly put away my son’s Beanie Babies in plastic bags for posterity.

But our addiction to stuff is killing us, I think.  It is no accident that the same dynamic of congestion in our homes is also reflected on our desks, on our highways, and even in the arteries feeding our hearts.  We are caught in this ideology of collecting, hoarding, grabbing, keeping, holding, and storing, and it plays out in terms of clogging, obstructing, weighing down, choking, blocking, and damming the flow in our lives.
I am convinced that our stuff is killing us.  It is killing us because we are designed by God to be efficient channels of the gifts and energies of creation.  God gives us raw materials and raw talents and our job is to improve them, add value to them, enjoy them... and pass them on.  We are to pass them on so that others may enjoy them and add further value to them and so forth.  So that from the naked resources we receive, we see the value and the meaning increased all the time.
When we block it, that process stops.  Not only is value not increasing, nor people being helped; but we are personally dysfunctional.  We are not filling our function.  We are a disease in the system.  We need to be removed from it. 
This is what is going on with the servant who had been given one share in Jesus’ parable.  The other servants, who had been entrusted with more, immediately went out and gave it away.  That is to say, they invested it.  And make no mistake, every time we give something away it is an investment of some kind.  But this third servant does not give the money away.  He buries it.  He keeps it.  He hoards it.  He puts it in a box on a shelf in his attic.
He does this, he says, out of fear.  He is afraid of losing it.  He is afraid of what the master will do to him if he loses it. 
And the lesson he, and we all learn is: To fear losing is to lose.  More to the point: To fear losing is a basic and fundamental act of faithlessness against a God of abundance who has already promised that you won’t lose, you can’t lose... except by being afraid to lose.
Now, not too many of us bury our money in our backyards.  But we bury it in other ways.  We bury our resources when we trade them for useless stuff, which we then bury in storage in our closets, garages, and houses.  We bury our resources when we use them only to feed our own desires, compulsions, comfort, and luxury.  The master will come and say, “So, what happened to that million dollars I gave you over the last two decades?”  And all you can point to are cars, clothes, household appliances, electronics, sporting equipment, stocks, CD’s (both kinds), insurance, and other stuff that mainly benefit only you and yours.
God’s gifts are given for the common good.  They are to be used in making the world better for everyone.  More bluntly, they are not to be hoarded, saved, stored up, and retained, but given away, redistributed, spread around.  This is the profit the Master desires.

When I was in college I used to go home for the summers.  One summer my father hired me to do a job for him.  He had this hobby of handicapping the races at Saratoga, and he gave me the job of going to the track and placing his bets.  I had to do this according to very strict rules.  He told me his picks, and I was to bet them only if they went to three-to-one.  When he wanted to parlay, I was to take all the winnings from one race and place it on the next.  And so forth. 
The reason he asked me to do this was that he got too excited.  He wouldn’t wait until a horse was at three-to-one; he wouldn’t sit out the races he knew he shouldn’t bet.  In other words, he was too involved because it was his money and he was the one who stood to gain or lose.
I, however, didn’t really care that much about the races.  And I certainly didn’t have any money to put on horses at the track.  He knew this.  He knew that I would faithfully carry out his instructions to the letter and not get swept away with excitement.  He knew that between trips to the betting window I would be curled up with a book somewhere, barely conscious of the race at all.
This system worked very well, as I recall.  It was all because of the fact that since this wasn’t my money I was free to do with it exactly as instructed.  So, when I came home late at night, weighted down with cash, he would greet me, saying, “Well done, good and faithful son!  You have proved trustworthy in a small matter.  If I had anything big I would certainly put you in charge of it.”
But if I had simply locked the money he gave me at the beginning of the night in the car and gone to the library, fearful of losing it, what would have happened then?
And let’s not forget that the servants in the story are not doing this for their own gain in the first place.  This is the master’s money and the master gets whatever return they can manage.  The master is the beneficiary.  The servants don’t get to keep one penny of what they make with their investments.  They are not doing it to increase their own wealth, but the wealth of the master.
The Kingdom of God is like this.  It is not about giving back to God just what God has given to us.  It is about giving back to God more than what God gave us to begin with. 
Neither is it about taking what God gives and making something out of it for yourself.  No, it is about taking what God gives and making something out of it for God. 

Someone once asked C.S. Lewis if we could take our books to heaven.  Now this person, as well as Lewis, was a great reader and book-lover.  And Lewis replied, “Yes, we may take our books to heaven.  But only the ones we have given away.”
That is the mystery of this parable.  We only have what we give away.  That which we try to save and hoard and collect, we lose.  That which we dedicate only to serving and helping and glorifying and feeding ourselves, we lose.
But that which we give away, we gain.  The trustworthy servants in the parable gave away their bags of gold.  And both end up with double what they had to begin with.  That’s the kind of return you get when you give away the resources entrusted to you.
That’s the spirit we come to you with in this season when the church is concerned with stewardship.  Now, stewardship time is when the session gives you an opportunity to give away money... to invest it, to do with it according to the will of the One who entrusted you with it, the One who gave you your mind and skill, the One who gave us the raw materials of the Earth.  And Jesus is right here promising that if you do give it away, it will produce a significant return.  That return will be not to you personally, but experienced in ways that benefit us all.
It will be used to help the needy, the deprived, the dispossessed, and the hurting.  It will be used to teach ourselves and others about the truth of God’s love for the world, revealed in Jesus Christ.  It will be used to worship and glorify God, and to deepen our own spiritual lives so that we come to identify with all of God’s creation.  It will be used to invite others to share with us in that love and service, and so fulfill their own destinies.
It will be used to help people to see that it is not what they collect, hold on to, keep, store, or hoard that is important.  Indeed, these practices only kill us and stifle our spirits under piles of junk.  Rather, what saves us is the way God’s gifts flow through us to others.
God gives us his Son that his life might flow through us.  God gives us all things, that we might be a blessing to all.  God blesses us with life and love, to share and distribute according to God’s commandments.  This is the way God has given us to glorify and enjoy God.  Let us keep faith with that sacred calling, not to be worthless and lazy servants, but to be trustworthy with what we have received.

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