Sermon by Rev. John VanSloten, Calgary, Alberta,
(Note: Since the mandate of The Living Word is to provide sermons for reading in public worship when there is no pastor we do not usually publish sermons written in the first person singular. We decided to make an exception with this sermon. For the congregation to understand this sermon you will need to explain that the original author, the Rev. John VanSloten worked in real estate development before becoming an ordained pastor and you will read this sermon as if you were him.)
God Gathers Us for Worship
Welcome: Today we’re going to talk about the Christian life and how we’re living it before God... God’s given us everything; how well are we stewarding that gift?
*Call to Worship: James 1:17-18
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He chose to give us birth through the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of all he created.”
*Opening Hymn : Oh give the Lord Wholehearted Praise (PH 111)
*Song of Praise: Amid the thronging Worshippers (PH 239)
*Opening Prayer †
We Confess Our Sins to God
Song of Confession : PH 258 – Lord have Mercy on us
Prayer of Confession
Assurance of Pardon : 1 John 1:5-7
God's Will for Our Lives: Romans 12:1-2
1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your proper worship as rational beings.
2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. (TNIV)
We Hear God's Word
Prayer for Right Hearing (illumination)
Message: PARABLE OF THE MINAS – LUKE 19:11-27 (The Message)
Hymn of Response:Take my Life, PH 288
We Respond with a Feast of Thanksgiving
Offering Prayer †
God Sends Us Out with His Blessing
*Parting Hymn : Lord Speak to me that I may speak PH 528
Today we’re going to be talking about God and money – focusing specifically in the area of giving and generosity.
Last month I got a call from my former boss/partner/very savvy business developer friend, Scott Rutledge, and was very surprised to talk to him for as long as we did, normally he doesn’t have much time to talk about things like relationships or life. But he listened and he was this sort of genuinely interested, caring guy on the other end of the line. And after a while I just had to ask. I said, “Scott, what in the world has gotten into you?” And he told me that he had retired – fifty years old or so, all he had to do now was take care of his three places in London, Muskoka, Etobicoke, and his investments. This guy had made so much money – brilliant, brilliant real estate developer. Creative, driven, focused and probably most importantly, he had (and you could just tell, like some guys have it and some don’t) …this guy had the touch. He knew how to see the deal and how to do the deal unlike anyone else I’ve ever known. And nothing got in his way once that deal presented itself.
I remember when he first hired me, I got a phone call about a week into the job from somebody who was consulting to us and they asked me whether all my fingers were still intact – whether any of them were broken yet. I found out that evidently Scott was not the come-alongside, empathetic, let-me-be-your-fellow-team member kind of player when he ran his company. Not the empathetic manager. And after about two or three months, I grew to be very intimidated (being the shrinking violet that I am…) and I remember one of the things he used to always have me do early on (‘cause he didn’t know who I was so he wasn’t trusting me much) was say, “Here you go, John, here’s a set of plans – take them to your office and make them better”. The idea with retail shopping centres back then and still now is, you maximize your square footage on a piece of property and to the extent that you can do that, every square foot times $20 per square foot of income capitalized at a 6.5% cap rate is ‘x’ amount of additional dollars coming into the developer’s pockets. So I would take these plans, and I would roll them out on my desk and I would (because I was afraid of him and intimidated by him), I would work them and work them… I’d move the parking and move this store here and do this and do that and get rid of landscaping and just butcher the whole thing, and I would come back and maximize his return on investment often adding hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars to the bottom line, again and again and again. I got addicted to it. It was such a cool job. I figured I’d show him that I could produce even under pressure. And I did. Which is why, I guess, he’s got three houses, and I’ve got one….in Glenbrook.
(Why did I tell that story?) Oh yeah, it’s interesting to see, looking back on that situation and my relationship with him, how on the one hand, such a jerk and a hard-butt kinda guy brought out the best in me. [He] raised the bar in terms of my performance. [He] increased my drive and my creativity. Those were all good things. There’s something about knowing that your boss is hard and tough and is going to hold you accountable if necessary, that pushes you to do whatever it takes – to not take ‘no’ for an answer when you run into a problem, [to know that] you’ve gotta solve it. To push yourself past yourself. Ever worked for somebody like that? Ever thought about life with God as being somewhat like that? Well, Jesus did, or at least once he told a story that seemed to insinuate that life with God is a bit like that. And he told it to a whole bunch of people who had one view of who God was and how God plays out and the world works, and he wanted to clarify reality for them, and told them a story that most certainly shocked them. And I’m going to read you that story this morning. It’s a parable from the gospel of Luke, chapter 19. So, (here’s the setting) a bunch of people following Jesus, all trying to get their heads around what it means to follow God and who God is and what their lives ought to be….and Jesus tells them this story: (from the Message, Peterson)
“There was once a man descended from a royal house who needed to make a long trip back to headquarters to get authorization for his rule and then return. But first he called ten servants together (employees, staff), gave them each a sum of money, and instructed them, ‘Operate with this until I return.’
(I then passed out $500. to various members of the congregation saying these next few words…) So he reached into his pocket, pulled out a wad of fifties, walked up to people and said, “take care of that…..here you go……young lady…..fifty bucks…..hey, guys, I’ve got twenties here, so if it’s a hundred between the three of you, if you could take care of that…..fifty…..one for your wife as well…..hi…..fifty bucks…..and two more…..right on, Sue…..thanks”)
“…and instructed them, ‘Operate with this until I return.’
“But the citizens there hated him. So they sent a commission with a signed petition to oppose his rule: ‘We don’t want this man to rule us’.
“When he came back bringing the authorization of his rule, he called those ten servants to whom he had given the money to find out how they had done.
“The first said, ‘Master, I doubled your money.’
“He said, ‘Good servant! Great work! Because you’ve been trustworthy in this small job, I’m making you governor of ten towns.’
“The second said, ‘Master, I made a fifty percent profit on your money.’
“He said, ‘I’m putting you in charge of five towns.’
“The next servant said, ‘Master, here’s your money safe and sound. I kept it hidden in the cellar. To tell you the truth, I was a little afraid. I know you have high standards and hate sloppiness, and don’t suffer fools gladly.’
“He said, ‘You’re right that I don’t suffer fools gladly – and you’ve acted the fool! Why didn’t you at least invest the money in securities so I would have gotten a little interest on it?’
“Then he said to those standing there, ‘Take the money from him and give it to the servant who doubled my stake.’
“They said, ‘But Master, he already has double…’
“He said, ‘That’s what I mean: Risk your life and get more than you ever dreamed of. Play it safe and end up holding the bag.
“As for these enemies of mine who petitioned against my rule, clear them out of here. I don’t want to see their faces around here again.’”
Great story… again. Right between the eyes… again. And a bit unsettling… again. And it should be. And what was it’s message? Did you pick it up? What do you think it was? What was Jesus trying to teach us about who God is and how we are to operate in the kingdom of God life – that God is like a nasty real estate developer and you’d better watch your caboose when you deal with him? Not entirely. I think the story is primarily about doing something with the gifts that have been given to you, entrusted to you with your life. And more precisely, taking risks with those things that you’ve been given….and investing those things to gain a return on investment for God’s kingdom work in this world. When I first read this parable I wondered why Jesus would have put this nasty master character into the parable. And I thought sometimes Jesus, when he teaches, teaches by contrast – he makes an example that’s black in order to make a point that’s white. Maybe that’s what he did [here]. If you can be motivated by a nasty boss to get a return on investment even though you don’t want him to be your master, shouldn’t a good and perfect boss like God who wants better things for your life be worth investing your life for? Possibly.
And then I thought maybe there’s another angle. Maybe the story is more about the nasty servants – because the story says that the citizens there hated him and they were backstabbing petitioners, trying to get him out of government and maybe the master really wasn’t that bad, but they just hated him for his high standards and the fact that he was boss and had a privileged life and his goodness and greatness (you know that [judging] side inside of you that sorta can do that?). Maybe they hated the fact that he was the boss and they weren’t the boss. Human beings are capable of those thoughts and feelings…
And then I remembered back when I was little kid in catechism (7 or 8 years old) and had to read these Q & A’s in our church and one was all about sin in our lives and it was pretty harsh and it talked about what sin meant and the answer to that question was “sin means that we have a natural tendency to hate God and our neighbours”…I’m going whoa, that was harsh – it was harsh back then and it sounds harsh now…..but, could the problem in the parable be more [about] the servants than the master? (Anyway, that was a theological consideration I had… which may have you thinking, “This sermon is going downhill ever since [He] started talking about that,” so I’ll get back to the previously scheduled message).
Regardless of the reason, there was a management problem in the story. And despite the circumstances of the management problem, whether it was the management or whether it was staff, there was a message in this parable that you need to do your job with your life, with what you’ve been given, diligently. Take the baton that God puts into your hand, and run with it. Use what’s invested in you, and maximize your returns. Do the right thing, even when you don’t understand. And know, in the finality of it all, that at the end of the day there is an accountability, with God, where he’s going to ask, “Hey, how’d you do with what I gave you?”. And that God maybe has very high standards for our lives and is the kind of God who doesn’t suffer fools well, or sloppiness. I mean [we’re talking…] , eternal things, things that last forever, the things in our life that have significance in the kingdom of God… which will roll on for eternity – those types of things. And we’ve got a choice, you’ve got a choice, I’ve got a choice, everyday, with every decision I make in my life – I [You] can either, as the story said, risk your life and get more than you ever dreamed of, or play it safe and end up holding the bag. So the big question from Jesus’ parable is, How well are you investing what you’ve been given? What are you going to do with that $50? Your life? I mean, that was the church’s money, just so you all know….which means that it was God’s money….That’s probably a good principle to further elucidate here.
There’s an understanding within Christian teaching and doctrine, that money, when it comes to understanding money and material possessions, [that] everything belongs to God. God is the creator of all things, he owns all things, it’s his property, we are just tenants, we’re stewards, we’re carrying the good things of God along in our lives and generating them and creating them and passing them on and giving them to others. But it’s God’s stuff – your talent, your ability, the skills that he’s given you to work in a dental office, the creativity he’s put into your mind as an artist, the way that your larynx is configured so that you can sing, the way that your mind works so that you can figure out returns on investment, whatever you do is a gift from God.
Now if you live in that kind of a reality, and understand what you have in those terms, that impacts how you carry those things and disperse those things in your life. It’s sorta like you’ve received those things from God in an open hand and you can’t close your hand and crunch it and say it’s now mine – it’s still God’s – and you walk through life and if somebody needs something, it’s still in an open hand so it can be passed on via your time, by listening, by giving money away…..And at the end of the day if that means giving it all away, then you give it all away – your hand is still wide open – it’s not yours, it’s somebody else’s. You have a freedom to give and be generous with your life in all of those ways when you understand that everything isn’t yours, it’s God’s.
So when I worked as a real estate developer, and we had to award contracts and give out money for jobs and profits to companies, because it was the company’s money and we were paid to take risks and get deals done and meet schedules, I was able to spend that money because it wasn’t mine, (I still had to treat it a bit like it was mine and be responsible with it and not be frivolous), but there was a freedom within that context because it wasn’t my money… [a freedom] to spend it and invest it at a higher risk level than this normally risk averse man would do.
So the big question is, ‘Do you live with an understanding that all you have and own belongs to God?” If you do, genuinely, then grab a coffee and bagel and head on home early, because you’ve got it all figured out. That is the meaning of life when it comes to generousity… knowing that it isn’t yours to begin with. You’re going to make the right choices and you’re already living out this ‘more than you ever dreamed of’ kind of life…. In that kind of freedom. You’re already doing God’s work with your money. Maybe you’re already seeing that and experiencing that as you give things away and in the giving, sacrificially for others, the whole materialism, advertisers telling you you are what you own, that isn’t even sticking to you any more. Through your acts of letting go, they’ve lost their ability to convince you that you are what you own. You’re not weighed down or consumed by consumeristic tendencies. Maybe for you the joy of giving is a real gig in your life. Or maybe there’s another kind of story around generousity that’s been playing out… maybe you’ve given to something, sacrificially, you’ve put out your time, money, whatever, and the later on in your life it comes back on ya, a bit of a pay it forward kind of thing. God provides or replaces or maybe even gives you more than you gave away in the first place. It’s a very mysterious thing.
So last December (a time when you got to decide to meet your giving obligations to the church) I found myself if a place where I needed to make a decision re: my giving to the church (the church that pays me J ) We had just bought a house and were spending all kinds of money fixing it up and we had a choice to make. Eventually we did the right thing and gave the money to the church. Then two days later two letters come in the mail with two Christmas cheques from grandparents. Yeah! We gave and God provided for our needs. We ended up having the most peaceful and blessed Christmas ever, in our new home.
Do you see the freedom in that? Now you’ve gotta be careful with [how you do] the math in that, because a lot of Christians and (and this is really important) Christian churches have taken that truth that as you give God continues to provide in your life, and they’ve gotten it a bit backwards, saying “give, because you know God’s going to give you a high return on your investment”. And they’ve developed this sort of health and wealth mathematical, linear way of defining God in your personal economy. And so giving becomes not a selfless, “I don’t know what’s going to happen in my life” faith based act, but instead it becomes a “I’m going to invest out because I know God’s going to give back to me and I’m going to get richer in the process”. That’s not the kind of giving I was talking about when we sort of lay it out and throw it out. That may or may not happen. But sometimes when you give away your stuff and you’re past the point of viability, maybe God’s answer back to you is another kind of gift. Maybe he will give you contentment with less, or strength to make it through while you’re sweating….or a knowledge of God through the process of suffering like you would have never known had you not got into that tight place in your life. The truth is, God will provide for all of us. And there is a huge freedom in knowing that, but it will come in all kinds of ways, so don’t be mathematical about it. And you know that when you do that. You experience the freedom of God, you experience how God provides and takes care of you as you do generous living. Which is really where the catch 22 is, right? How do you do giving when you don’t know that God’s going to take care of you in your life? How do you trust enough to take the risk, which is what the fool’s problem in this parable was all about. And the bottom line is, that’s really hard to do.
Earlier I told a really nice story about the pastor dude y’know, giving money to the church, God provided, y’know, It did happen. It was a really nice story. You don’t know the 10 other ugly stories that come alongside that in my life on a regular basis. You don’t know the time 2 years ago when we got a huge bill from a student loan that we didn’t know about and I just about cursed God and screamed at God and did this absolutely faithless response. You don’t know how much I’m the third guy in that parable, burying my talents and y’know, hiding my tail between my legs, and afraid and ducking when God throws a ball, and looking the other way when he feathers me a perfect pass when we’re coming in on the goalie….I mean, that’s reality in me….and if you’re honest, I’d imagine you could relate a little bit. You see, I’ve got this natural tendency in me to turn away from God and the things of God. I, if I’m really honest about what’s inside of me, don’t want to follow another master, because I wanna be the master, and I prefer to trust in myself and my own judgment, and build my own little kingdom.
Jesus told this parable to hit people like me between the eyes. I am a ‘petition writer’. I want to get God kicked out of office, I’m inherently revolting in who I am. And if I want to get really honest about that, in matters of faith and taking risk for God, often I don’t because of fear, I am risk averse when it comes to matters of faith. What did the parable say? “To tell you the truth, I was a little afraid. I know you have high standards and hate sloppiness, and don’t suffer fools gladly.” I read those words and I say, “God you know what kind of fool I am, even after seeing you work in such amazing ways over the past 10 years of my life, I’m still so much a fool.” I cower and run and hide and bury.
Maybe this is the place where you and I need to begin if we want to change and become less risk averse for the things of God. Admit, “God I want to live life all about me… I want to accumulate possessions and stuff for security because I just don’t trust you… even though I say I want to trust you I’ve got this pathetic fearfulness and brokenness inside of me that causes me to act in a way that is totally opposite to what I want.” Say that. Pray that! And maybe today try starting again with trusting God and generous living.
So what are all you guys gonna do with all those $50. dollar bills? A better question, “What are you guys gonna do with your whole life?” Are you going to give it to your church community? Monetarily, via your time, serving? Are you gonna give it to the vision of this community that wants to connect with the world and risk all of our collective lives so that the truth of who God is and his reality and the fact that we can know him can be made known? Maybe you’re gonna invest in another way.
Maybe you’re like a really savvy oil and gas player, and maybe you can invest your life or money in that and double the return. Go for it. Like we’re talking the most important resource we can imagine – a human life. Like maximize return. This is a kingdom of God play that we’re endeavoring in.
Maybe you’ll take the money and invest it in an education so that all that has been innately given to you and built into you – the beauty of your creativity – and your eye for color and aesthetic and shape and balance and form could be developed and you could grow into the artist that the Great Artist made you to be. And in developing and putting works out there proclaim and speak words of God through image and paint and sculpture and creative word or dance – whatever you do and give back to God the investment that he’s made in you that way. Or maybe, if I gave you fifty bucks, maybe you gotta just sorta stuff it into your pocket and go home and pay a bill. Y’know, buy that school book that you didn’t know you had to buy this semester. Whatever. Pay for that thing that you can’t afford to pay for. Do it. Go ahead. Honestly. On New Hope . I stand corrected. On God, right? It’s all his anyways, isn’t it? So whatever you do, whatever I do, whatever we do collectively with our lives, be wise, stewardly, use your heads. That goes for all of us and every bit of each of us. With your money, with your time, with your relationships, in how you work, everything invested for him.
And remember the message of Jesus’ story...
He totally trusted his father, was used in miraculous ways to bring healing and hope and understanding and wisdom into people’s lives, took a huge risk, coming into our arms as a little baby, and then growing up and being held in the arms of our culture and our society as an adult, teaching radical things, and because of that risk paid a huge price and was murdered, crucified and killed – sacrificially gave everything of himself, even his God-ness, so that other people could sit in a church 2003 years later and have an inkling of who God really is, and have a story teller who can point them in that direction, who can have life and freedom and hope in a future like we’ve never known. Remember that story, fellow petitioner, fellow revolter, and then in the remembering, with the help of God, just take his hand and live that sacrificial and giving life.