The Gift Opens the Way

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This is the sermon preached by First Church’s Young Adult Service Community (YASC) Congregational Coordinator, Jennifer Sanborn on Stewardship Sunday, November 19, 2017. In addition to her expert leadership of the First Church internship program, Ms. Sanborn is an Admissions Recruiter at Hartford Seminary and, until recently, served as Pastor of Enfield American Baptist Church.

2 Corinthians 9:6-15

Matthew 25:14-30

First, let me offer a word of thanks to Pastor George and Rev. Kev for their invitation to bring my gifts to First Church as we together create the Young Adult Service Community–and especially for the invitation to bring part of my story to you this morning. Let’s pray together:

God, your Spirit opens the way to understanding–help us to hear your message for us in this moment, in this place, in this season in our lives and our world. Amen.

Proverbs 18:16, A gift opens the way… and ushers the giver into the presence of the great.

Do you remember the gift that opened the way for you? If a giver or a gift come to mind during this time together, bring them along with us in your memory.

I first received the gift of music from my family. In my immediate family of origin, we all played numerous instruments and had an insatiable appetite for singing together–in church, at home, and, especially in those years before smartphones, in the car.

Musical doors opened for me with a very particular gift, though, when I was 13 going on 14, and in my first year of high school. We lived on Martha’s Vineyard then–my father was a pastor and my mother, a music teacher at my school. When she discovered that a community branch of the New England Conservatory offered lessons for talented young musicians, she started a list of students who might audition, including her daughters. My sister Heather was an aspiring flute player and I was a pianist and singer who sat at the piano nightly and fantasized that I was the next Amy Grant or a future Broadway star. Let me pause for a word of gratitude to my parents who listened to me play and sing “On My Own” from Les Mis over and over and over. Every. Single Night. If you’re that parent now, then this word of thanks is for you too!

On the day of my audition at the Conservatory, I sat in the musty hallway with sweating palms, biting my nails and praying not to mess up. Whereas on Martha’s Vineyard I was comfortable and confident in my talents, the halls of the New England Conservatory were filled with children half my age who could play circles around me….I was intimidated. Despite this, I found a way through my piece that day, and I was invited to attend. For all four years of high school, I woke willingly each Saturday morning at 5am to catch the first ferry.

I was the younger sibling, and funds in our family were short, but I don’t recall questioning how it was I was able to go for lessons. It was some time later–whether months or years, I’m not sure–that I learned a woman loosely connected with one of my father’s congregations had paid for me and my musical adventures in Boston. Let’s call her “Mrs. H.” She had a granddaughter who studied at the Conservatory too, and she would have known that attempting to provide lessons for not just one child, but two, would have forced difficult choices for my parents. Quietly, with little fanfare, she paid for me to go and spend my half hour each week with Fredericka King.

Miss King was tall and elegant–she had true pianist hands, and her fingers extended far past the octave I could manage. Her playing was fluid and graceful in a way that made me realize I had *a lot* to learn. Fredericka King was also a woman of color….African-American, and I was to discover over my years of study with her that it was rare for her as a young black girl to have trained as a classical musician. I learned some of the obstacles she had encountered along the way, and the music I studied took on greater meaning because it was she who taught me. I had the fortune of studying with another person of color there, too, when a dynamic African-American composer, conductor, and future Baptist pastor, Geoff Hicks, was hired to launch an all-New England youth chorale.

It very well might have been another gift from Mrs. H. that opened the way to me auditioning for the Chorale. I have no idea where my parents would have found the money otherwise, but without questioning the how, I happily celebrated being accepted again into a musical community that rapidly expanded my circle of friends. I met Molly and Josh and James, and we were inseparable at breaks and lunchtime. James was a giant baritone who was black and gay–openly so….my first friend who was publicly known to me as LGBTQ. When I invited summer camp friends to come to my first concert, one of my camp friends, Kelvin, who is white, said, “You never told us that James is black.” In truth, it hadn’t ever occurred to me to say so–James was simply my friend. Kelvin noted how “cool” he found this to be–that I was just friends with someone black and didn’t need to make a big deal out of it. I began to understand that this wasn’t true in every place or for every person.

I went weekly from the relatively homogenous town of Vineyard Haven to one of the East Coast’s greatest cities. The students who sang or waited nervously beside me in the hall before lessons were from many nations, and in their homes they worshipped differently, ate foods I had never heard of, and lived in family contexts that I had only previously read about in books.

While in Boston, I learned about my friends from home as well. Week after week we spent hours together traveling by boat and bus or car. One week I noticed that one of my friends, a junior, was quiet and sitting alone, tended to by a senior who returned to tell the rest of us that our mutual friend had become ill during the day. A few days later, this friend who had been sick called to say that she had attended her lesson that Saturday morning, then departed to have an abortion. I learned then–and have persisted in believing since–that no woman has an abortion casually, and I have understood from that day forward that the political views we each hold have been shaped by personal stories that are deeply held and remembered, yet rarely revealed.

My years at the Conservatory included dozens of such discoveries about the world–I have only scratched the surface.

As is so often the case with the writings of the Bible, the story of Mrs. H and her gift to me feel connected to the story Jesus told his followers in today’s Gospel lesson. To refresh–a master gives a significant sum of money to three men enslaved to him. They each invest it differently, and are then held accountable for their returns. There are lots of questions about the character of the Master, and the end of the story includes judgement–the slave who buried his treasure and delivered no additional funds is thrown into the outer darkness. I have to admit, when stories in the Bible end with wailing and gnashing of teeth, I want to move on to a less challenging passage, but instead of being distracted by the close, let’s look with curiosity at the beginning.

A master gives his resources to people he had enslaved to invest. The words in the Gospel translation I used today are that he “entrusted his property to them.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine handing a year’s salary to the contractor who replaced my gutters and asking her to put it to good use, or inviting the man who cared for our children to oversee the bank account for a year or two. What if one lesson to claim today in this parable is the viability of giving to someone who is a bit of a risk….perhaps someone we would call “undeserving” if we were being completely honest. Surely, at 13 years old, I was a risk for Mrs. H. I had done nothing to deserve her gift beyond once or twice singing “Oh Holy Night” at church on Christmas Eve. There would have been a hundred other ways she could have given her resources for a more certain outcome.

We’re told in the Gospel that the people who were enslaved received resources according to their ability–some more, some less. The one with the most and the one in the middle doubled their treasures–and both offerings were seen as acceptable. The one who received the least and admitted being afraid, perhaps in a scarcity mindset, buried it, is the one who received punishment–banishment. This resonates with the Corinthians passage about those who sow sparingly reaping sparingly, and those who sow bountifully reaping bountifully. I’d like to believe I had a lot of talent at the age of 13, so perhaps this explains the generosity of the gift–but what was the return on the investment?

To my memory, I never spoke with Mrs. H about her gift–and because my parents have died, I have no idea if they shared with her musical programs or updates, appearing on her porch each year as though submitting an annual report. So, thirty years later, let me finally account for her gift:

Mrs. H, I still recall the fingerings for every major scale, but if you invested in me in hopes of seeing my young promise develop into a musical profession, I might as well have buried your gift in the ground. My high school years were my most musically promising and fulfilling. I went on to study for one year in college, but soon thereafter my mother died. I stopped singing and playing for others, and music became a more and more private affair for me. I took the talents God gave me and the investment you made in me, yet I have nothing more than what you gave me to show–perhaps I have far, far less.

Would she banish me to the outer darkness and declare the end of story? I surely hope not!

Hear instead this more full and complete accounting: Mrs. H, your gift might have saved my life. On Friday evenings when friends discovered alcohol and other drugs, I was home in bed, anticipating that 5am alarm clock. Your gift took me off-island to a world I might never have encountered otherwise. You gave me confidence in the city, confidence driving on the highway (no small thing for a girl living on Martha’s Vineyard in a one stoplight town), and a sense that my life and future stretched far beyond the four walls of my house and high school and the shores of our island home. I had one of my first kisses on the steps outside Jordan Hall, and, most importantly, the friends I made and the teachers I studied with inspired and directed my life’s commitments. To this day, I dedicate myself to the work of realizing racial justice, to ensuring full inclusion for LGBTQ people in the church and in the world, and to proclaiming the beauty of our diversity as the essence of God.

In truth, Mrs. H, I haven’t told you the whole musical story either. My mother died to the sound of my singing voice. My old conductor, Geoff Hicks, sang at her service in the holiest moment I have lived to witness, and I have called Miss King at the profound moments of change and transition in my life, including this one. You gave me the gift of music, yes, and ever since I have used it in the most sacred of ways–to connect with people, to bring earth closer to heaven, to be with God.

If I look at your gift, Mrs. H, and the ripple effects that continue out from it, you might say you are one the reasons I became an educator, a pastor, an activist, and, yes, even the Young Adult Service Community Coordinator at First Church of Christ in Simsbury. Because when Mrs. H’s gift from way back when met the power of an anonymous gift here in this congregation, the YASC was born and I was called to your midst. And though there was no criteria whatsoever that young adults in this new service community be musical, what is the trait that Bekah, Anastasia, and Sarah all share? They all have extraordinary voices and a desire to sing their questions, their faith, their doubts, and their love. Who could orchestrate such an outcome? Only the Spirit of God, moving across time and space and working through our generosity.

The connections between the Gospel, my story, and the story we are composing together here and now are many. You have chosen as a congregation to invest in young people….in the case of YASC, young people who have not come from you and are unlikely to remain physically with you, making them a bit of a risk. The outcomes of your generosity are an unknown, though I see already, from the brief time we’ve shared with Anastasia, Sarah, and Bekah, that they have grown and changed. They’re asking new questions about themselves and the world–they’ve met people they wouldn’t otherwise have known–they’ve shown up with their lives and their talents in a sacrificial way to say in Hartford and in Simsbury, “We, too, are part of the movement for a just world for all.” I don’t know about you, but I absolutely LOVE the idea that each of these young women will be telling a story ten, twenty, or thirty years from now about the gift that opened the way–and then the many gifts that are shaping and creating this time in their lives. Think of the lifelong effects of your gift to them as compounding interest, with the returns reinvested over and over in a better world.

Who gets to decide what way is opened by a gift? The giver? Sometimes, perhaps, we give in directed ways. Maybe we’ve even given in controlling ways, clutching potential outcomes in our fist like our life depends on it. More powerful to me, though, is the gift we entrust to the Spirit–a gift with some risk attached to it–a gift we give joyfully, even with our uncertainty and questions–a gift with outcomes that will reverberate far beyond our involvement as the giver. The invitation I hear in these stories, friends, is to release our resources and trust the Spirit of God. This is good news. We do not give because we have all the answers, but because we can ask and live with wise questions. We do not have to control the gift after we’ve given. We simply must give, then trust.

It’s countercultural, yes, but isn’t this always the way of God? To paraphrase Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth, let us give today with abandon–with thanksgiving for all those, like Mrs. H, who have given to us. Let us give with honor and glory to God who is the giver of all good and risky gifts. And let us give with delight that the Spirit uses our gift to open the way and do infinitely more than we would ever imagine. Amen.

 

 

 

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To Walk as a Child of the Light

bridesmaids-2

This is the sermon I preached at First Church Simsbury on November 12, 2017.

Matthew 25:1-13

Next week Rev. Kev and I will again invite you to come forward to drop your pledge card in the tithing box. I am always moved by the sight, especially of young families coming up together to renew their commitment to the church.

I like to imagine that the couple spent the previous weeks thoughtfully praying together for God’s guidance, ultimately agreeing to stretch in giving to the church just as they seek to stretch their faith.

Yet I confess, that it also occurs to me that the decision couples make about how much to pledge to First Church may have been arrived at, not by prayer, but after an argument, a bitter disagreement about family finances and where church fits in.

After all, it is said that money is the most common source of conflict in marriages.

In fact, there once was a couple, Kim and her wife Martha. Year after year Kim and Martha would attend the county fair, and every fall it was the same story: Kim was tantalized by the old-fashioned bi-plane in which anybody could take a ride for only $20, and Martha was disgusted by such an obvious waste of money. “$20 is $20,” she would always say. Kim would argue, but to no avail and she would go home without her plane ride. Many years passed this way, and Kim once again said, “Martha, there’s that bi-plane again. I’m 81 years old and this year I want to go for a ride.” Martha bristled, “There you go again. Don’t you realize that $20 is $20? Look at what we have gained by saving that money every year.” At this point the man who owned the bi-plane, and who had heard this argument as far back as he could remember, intervened. “Listen, you two, I’ll make you a deal. I’ll give you both a ride for free if you promise not to say anything during the flight. If you speak even one word, I’ll charge you the $20.” Kim and Martha thought that sounded fair, and off they went. The pilot put on quite a show. He took his plane through banks and spins and loop-the-loops, and then did the whole thing over again. Amazingly, he never heard a single word. When the plane landed he looked over at Kim and said, “I’ll have to admit I’m impressed. You never spoke once.” “Well,” said Kim, “I was going to say something when Martha fell out… but $20 is $20.”

Indeed, money is the most common source of conflict in marriages. I have found this to be true both as a pastor, and in my own marriage.

So, in anticipation of the decisions that will be made this week about giving to the church, this morning I specifically address our couples.

Renowned Marriage and Family therapist Dr. John Gottman tells a story about a couple:

The husband’s story went like this: “I don’t want to save for tomorrow. I want to live for today. I want to spend money enjoying life. Uncle Jack saved up millions of dollars living in a one room condo and he never went out. He never truly enjoyed life. I don’t want that.”

The wife’s story went like this: “My family grew up poor. We never had any money when an emergency came up or if somebody got sick. We never had enough to plan for the future. When my parents got older and couldn’t work as hard, they had nothing. They couldn’t retire. I don’t want to be like my parents.”

Just as in the story of Kim and Martha, one wants to spend now; the other wants to save for later. They are stuck in financial gridlock.

On the surface, the answer for this couple shouldn’t be so hard, right? Keeping a budget simply requires that there is more money coming in than going out. All they need to do is compromise, save some and spend some. But it doesn’t always feel simple, does it?

As these two stories begin to illustrate, our relationship with money is about much more than just dollars and cents. Our personal history shapes our feelings about money and what it represents.

It’s these personal meanings that guide how we deal with money in our lives and marriages. Logic has very little to do with it.

My wife Lourdes and I have certainly had our share of such conversations, including about our giving to the church. She grew up Catholic, one of nine children, on a sugar plantation in the Philippines. There were times when money was tight and food was scarce. I have learned that the anxiety bred by that kind of insecurity doesn’t dissipate, even in times of plenty. At Catholic Mass, her mom would drop a little something in the offering plate when she had enough.

I grew up middle class. My father was in construction, so when the economy took a turn downward we would eat more spaghetti and less steak, but I never had to worry about where my next meal would come from. I always assumed there would be enough. Of course now, as Senior Minister, I am expected to set an example with my giving.

You can see how our respective experiences lead to some interesting discussions about giving to the church. And we come by our perspectives honestly.

Though there are many money matters we may disagree about, there is one thing almost all parents agree upon, putting the interests of our children first. And no amount ever seems like too much when it comes to our kids. Whether it means paying for academic, athletic, and arts opportunities today, or saving for their college tomorrow, most parents find common ground by making their children their first priority when it comes to budget decisions.

But isn’t it interesting that Jesus consistently challenges the traditional, biological notion of family, instead calling us all to follow him into a new community of faith, sometimes called the realm of God, sometimes symbolized by a wedding banquet.

So let’s turn to the gospel lesson, The Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids, and see how Matthew might inform this conversation about family finances and giving. Mine is an admittedly imaginative interpretation of this story.

The story begins like so many Jesus tells, the realm of God is like this, meaning, this story illustrates the life that God intends for us.

Ten bridesmaids take oil lamps and set out to meet the bridegroom. Half take just the lamps with the oil they contain; the others take lamps with extra flasks of oil.

The bridegroom here, represents Jesus. So the bridesmaids are bringing their light, to enter with Jesus into the wedding banquet, the abundant life that God intends for them.

I find it interesting to think of these ten bridesmaids as a family, and the amount of oil they bring as representing the choices they make about how to spend money. Will they save it for themselves, or will they spend it in support of a new kind of family, a community of faith, the realm of God?

Now, Matthew already weighs in. Those who bring extra oil are wise and those who don’t are foolish. But as we have learned in our reflection on family finances, we might imagine a contentious conversation among the bridesmaids as they set out. The so-called foolish might argue that they are just being careful, conservative, frugal with their limited resource. Why waste money on unnecessary oil? The others, they insist, are making a reckless expenditure on oil for this bridegroom, not unlike Kim’s insistence on a bi-plane ride, after all, oil is oil. Of course the wise would fight back that money is no object, there has always been enough so why save; they should bring plenty to the banquet.

We might imagine that each set of bridesmaids comes by their feelings and choices honestly based on their experiences of scarcity or abundance.

Maybe those who bring less oil argue that they are saving money to give their children a better life.

But these bridesmaids, the ones who have to go to the store to get more oil, arrive too late to enjoy the riches of a life lived fully in God’s presence. A traditional interpretation of this parable concludes that the five so-called foolish bridesmaids are punished, shut out of the kingdom of God for not being prepared for Jesus’ arrival.

Instead, I might suggest a more nuanced and grace-full interpretation. To fully experience the good life that God intends for us, we can’t hold back. Those who go all in, embrace Jesus’ expansive understanding of family, and bring their light to the wedding banquet, enter fully into the life that God has prepared for them, for us.

Now maybe, in this retelling, the other five return home to their families and enjoy watching their children grow up. Maybe they continue to disagree about money, and lamp oil, and how much to give and how much to save. And maybe they never fully appreciate what they missed out on by not giving everything needed to keep their light burning bright, by not entering the wedding banquet. After all, life with our kids is pretty great.

But oh my, what those who were generous with their oil, whose lamps burned bright late into the night experienced when they stepped fully into God’s realm of love and light!

So let me see if I can wrap this up. We come by our understandings about money and giving honestly. There is more to these thoughts than just balancing a budget; our feelings about money run deep. We won’t always agree with spouses and partners about money matters, in fact making decisions about money can sometimes lead to conflict and separation from loved ones. So be gentle with each other in these “discussions” about family finances. Spouses usually do come together around doing what is best for their children, but remember, Jesus challenges traditional notions of family, instead calling us into God’s family. And, when we go all in; when we give all that is necessary to keep our light burning bright in the darkness outside our doors, then we will we enter fully into the magnificent life God prepares for us, a new community of faith, the realm of God. Amen.

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