There once lived a man who was the stingiest guy around. All his life, every time he got paid he cashed his paycheck, took 300 dollars and put it under his mattress. Then he got sick and was about to die. As he was dying, he said to his wife, "I want you to promise me one thing." "Promise what?" she asked. "I want you to promise me that when I’m dead you’ll take my money from under the mattress and put it in my casket so that I can take it all with me.” He died, and his wife kept her promise. She went in and got all that money the day he died, went to the bank, deposited it, and wrote out a check and put it in his casket."
It is said that shrouds do not have pockets and never do we see a u-haul attached to a hearse. The only thing we can take with us is what we give away – or as author Louisa May Alcott puts it: “Love is the only thing that we can carry with us when we go.” In order to move on to the next phase of our life’s journey, whenever we turn the corner, we have to let go of our old baggage. We need to say goodbye to what once used to define us and embrace the unknown new. We need to keep our light burning, remaining alert, for God is doing a new thing.
Recall how Abraham and Sarah left their family and long-established home behind to go forth as God called them. We remember the people of Israel left behind material security as they traveled from a state of slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land. It was been a journey fraught with anxiety and fear of the unknown. The people, stuck in old habits, grumbled and complained at the slightest struggle. They hung on to old ways. Yet God was faithful and provided every step of the way. Today, we heard Joshua stand before the people as they prepare to enter the promised land and ask, after all this, “Whom shall you serve? Will we remember God’s favors when we are settled in, enjoying our new home and its bounty? Yes, Joshua declares, for me and my house will serve the Lord. Join me! Choose! By the same token in our gospel reading we see Jesus responding to being challenged and questioned by suspicious leaders, but here he turns the tables, seeking to get people to wakeup, be prepared, and to root their lives in the love of God and neighbor. When Jesus calls us, will we let go of the past, let go of all we cling to for security, and follow our Lord?
For the next several weeks, leading up to Advent at the end of November, our texts ask us to explore our level of commitment to love God and to put God first in our lives and to love our neighbor as ourselves. To stop hoarding ourselves. Stop hoarding our gifts and talents. To embrace the call of giving ourselves away to God’s vision. This message coincides with the season of giving thanks, getting ready for Thanksgiving. Furthermore, in most churches it is stewardship season – a time where congregations and friends are asked to make a pledge for the following year, so budgets can be set, mission giving determined and giving priorities determined. Our plate is full, but the time now is critical.
Today, Joshua asks us: whom shall we serve? Additionally Jesus warns us against becoming like the “foolish bridesmaids” who fail to do what is required; they become actually useless-- according to the original Greek -- they failed to care for their lamps, their light properly. The illustration is stark, the questions direct. Who are we serving? Are we living every day, or are we hoarding life, stuffing it into a mattress for some far-off rainy day? Are we minding our lamps, so they burn bright at the time they are needed? For the time Jesus beckons.
There is enormous potential in Community Presbyterian Church Merrick/First Presbyterian Church of Freeport. Think of the potential to deepen our love of God, for outreach into our community, for serving each other and growing in the faith. Do we want to make this vision real, make God’s purpose came alive, and do we want to be a part of it? This is the pressing question, a question we will address head on over the next few weeks as we prepare ourselves for Thanksgiving, for Advent, and for the long-anticipated season of Christmas. All this too in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, in the context of national and global unrest. In light of all this, how shall we serve the Lord? This season, we are asked to shine by not hoarding ourselves, but giving of our time, talent and treasure.
Many churches loathe to appear materialistic or overly focused on money. They find stewardship campaigns awkward. We are apologetic about asking for money to pay the bills. It all feels unspiritual. We are not trained to address money matters. I never learned about paying bills, giving away money neither at home or in church. Yet fundraising drives are taking place all around us – I must throw away about 15 requests for everyone I respond to. So today I would like for us to pause, to reflect on the process of giving, letting go, in order to deepen our spiritual lives, strengthen our moral lives. We live in a time where God is calling us to momentous change, to move to a righteous and just society, at a time of deep division and mistrust. We as people of faith have a role to ply. Our faith must shine, our witness must shine, our caring must shine. Giving of ourselves as God seeks to use us to establish the reign of heaven here on hearth. So, we are asked to give of ourselves, our time our talents and our treasure.
Recall that scriptures teach us that “Everyone shall give as s/he is able, according to the blessing of the LORD your God which he has given you.”
If we choose to serve God, our commitment must be reflected to a significant degree in local ministry, our church.. As unglamorous and unspiritual as it seems, we have to pay the heat, the light, the repairs, the staffing of this congregation. We pay for worship, for missions that we participate in here in this place, locally, city-wide, national and international. In the time of COVID, we have all taken big hits. Costs have risen while budgets are reduced or fixed. Yet we are still asked to raise these issues, to trust God and discuss stewardship. We all can give something, even if it’s the widow’s mite. Our personal spiritual growth requires that we practice giving. Jesus did not call us to raise our standard of living, but our standard of giving. Our goal as a healthy, vibrant church is that everyone is important, everyone can give. No matter what it is, can we have 100% participation? Everyone’s light must shine.
Joshua puts it to us: who will we serve? The questions are clear: Does our Church make a difference in your life? Does not faith has a place in the secular arena? We still have something to share, to say, to make a difference. Is this the kind of community you want your children to which you want your children/your neighbor’s children raised? We need to reflect carefully on these questions on these questions for the next several weeks. Jesus is calling us to be wise bridesmaids, bridesmaids who made sure their lamps could shine at midnight. If the church is not making a faith difference, for us for our community, then frankly, we need to change. If our Church, however, does make a difference for you, then if you wish to grow in faith, give what you can financially, give what you can of your time and your talents as part of a mature spiritual life to which each of us are called.
We need to shine. We need to bring forth our light, to the glory of God. Over the next several weeks I challenge us to several goals: that we have 100% in giving to our stewardship campaign. Everyone gives something. Give what you can. When you get your pledge card, pray and challenge yourself to increase it, even if it’s a baby-step. But make a pledge to give. Giving changes our lives and it will change the church.
The second way to shine is to get involved. For Advent, I challenge you to come to church every Sunday. Watch the recording every week, if you can’t come in person. Make church a priority. If for some reason you are away then go to the local church. Stay connected to faith, to a spiritual community, to God. One hour a week is not a lot. So get involved. Bring in food for the hungry. Take the food to the food pantry. Visit or call a homebound person. You are needed for the healing of the world. There’s a place God has made for you to give and shine. Find it and plug in.
Even in the age of COVID, you can get involved in the life of the church. Your talents are needed as leaders. As Presbyterians we ordain our deacons and elders to service, it’s a big deal. To keep our church healthy, we need a turnover of new leaders. Leaders who have been serving for years need a sabbath. And the Church frankly needs the insights of new leaders. You may be overwhelmed by the idea of being ordained, becoming a deacon or elder and serving the church. So talk to current elders and deacons and learn what the ministry is about. We need to grow our church make our church strong and frankly, to do so new leaders are needed. I have confidence that there are many here who can step up and lead. Pray and see if God is calling you to service, yes in the time of COVID yes, in the time of social change. Let your light shine.
Let us make it happen. Don’t hoard your time, talents and treasure. Let us not be stingy with our lives. With our talent. With our Treasures. Be a Giver-however God is calling you forward to be. The time is urgent. The Bridegroom calls. Get involved. Help transform our church, our country and the world. Our community our Nation needs our witness. That is how we serve. That is how we keep our lamps burning bright. Amen.