This morning, we continue our stewardship series with an exploration of two different theologies. The theology of owning. And the theology of receiving.
First, the theology of owning. I own this CD. It is a Chris Thile CD – one of my favorites. If I want to play this CD, I put it in the holder and push play, and listen to one of the most masterful bluegrass artists of all time play Bach cantatas and partitas on the mandolin. I bought this CD, and I own it. I spent something like $20 on it. But what if this CD was signed by Chris Thile? Or what if it was not just a release by a record label, but a personal recording that Chris then signed and gave to me? And then – in this continuing fantasy, Chris died in a horrific accident on his way home from giving me this CD. All of a sudden, my owning it is a bigger deal. I probably don’t want to just throw it on the desk…maybe I don’t even what to play it for fear of something happening to it. When we own something, there is a responsibility, and even a fear that comes with possession. That’s why we insure things that are valuable to us. That’s why we have security systems, and buy expensive safes, and try to protect the things that we own.
For I want to talk next about a different theology – the theology of receiving. Today’s passage from John is a part of a much longer passage known as the Farewell Discourse. Several chapters in John contain this farewell speech from Jesus, before he is arrested and crucified. It is a long sermon, basically, sharing his last words before death.
It leads up to this last “mission statement” that is meant to address the disciples in a moment of fear. As he tells them that he is going to be killed, there is, of course, plenty of fear in response. This is the last time he will talk to them before the dominoes start to fall, before he is arrested, before they are suspected of breaking religious law because of their association with Jesus. Jesus is quite literally asking them to pledge, to sacrifice, to give something precious up. And, of course, what is their primary emotion? Fear!
But that fear comes because they are operating out of a theology of ownership. Think about Jesus’ message to his disciples – not just in this passage, but throughout the Gospels. “I am going to ask you to give up what you have. Your homes. Your families. Your vocations. Your money. Your life.
But here is where our second theology comes in. Because Jesus tells his disciples every time that they are asked to give up something that they own, that they will receive something more meaningful in return. Jesus is moving the disciples from a theology of owning to one of receiving:
“What if you lose your home? You will find a home in the mission and community of the Kingdom of Heaven.
“Your families? You will be my brother and sister.
“Your vocation – I will make you fishers of men.
“Your money – you will be more free than you ever were when Mammon was your god.
“And your life, yes, even your life? All who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
And to make his point more clearly, Jesus uses a parable of childbirth to make his point to his disciples. Now, normally, I wouldn’t trust a room full of 13 men to accurately describe what childbirth feels like, but this is Jesus, so I’ll trust that he is making a valid point. And while I have never childbirth, it seems his point is valid one. He talks about the pain of childbirth, but not physical pain. The word he uses is one that describes an emotional pain. And I think that even those of us who have never given birth might understand – if not completely – the painful emotional process. Beyond the physical pain, there is emotional pain – fear of what it means to bring a child into this world, of whether or not one will be a good mother, of all that can go wrong (especially in Jesus’ day). But Jesus says that mothers who give birth take courage in that hour, for they trust that there will be joy as a result. For Jesus, getting ready to lead his disciples into an hour of testing, of betrayal, of persecution, he is reminding them that there will be joy in the end. And those of us who know the rest of the story believe it, because we know that Easter is coming.
And the big finale comes in the passage that we read today: “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!”
OK, so why have I brought this up during stewardship month? Why am I not preaching this passage in Lent, right before Easter, where it belongs? Because Jesus’ move from the theology of owning to the theology of receiving is exactly what I think we need to hear today. All month, we are talking about fearlessness. Last week I talked about fearlessly rejecting the world’s assumptions. Next week, we invite Dr. Joe Kutter to come talk to us about fearlessly returning our gifts. The basic theme for the month is the challenge of the assumption of fear that we will not have enough.
Jesus is giving his disciples one final mission statement of courage. “Do not be afraid of what you will lose. Instead, take courage because of what you will receive.” If fear is the religion of the theology of owning, then courage is the religion of the theology of receiving.
Now, the cynic might roll her or his eyes a little to hear this preached during stewardship Sunday. “So you are saying that I don’t need my money, so I might as well just give it all to the church? That seems rather convenient.” But that’s not my point. Of course, we need money, and I am not suggesting that we all enter a vow of poverty here. Nor am I suggesting that we should not own anything! Instead, I want us to think about how we own things. How we steward the money and possessions that we have. Does our stewardship comes from a fear-based theology of owning, or a courage-based theology of receiving?
My point is that I think we together need to challenge the prevailing perspective from one of owning to one of receiving. And the end result will be a lifestyle change of generosity, simplicity, and abundance. I hope the church will gain from such generosity – I love this church, and believe in our mission here. But I also hope that generosity will change us. We, like every church and every part of our society, have to fight against the theology of ownership. My pew. My class. My church. My dollars. You better make me happy or I am taking my money with me. My money. That’s a theology of owning. And that’s what you will see 99.9% of the time out there, especially in our society. “My money. I earned it. I can do whatever I want to do with it.”
But in here, we talk in a different way. We discussed together as a subcommittee of Finance what the theme of this month would look like, and along the way I received one email from our church treasurer, Ann Havenor. She stated, rather profoundly, that “giving involves being vulnerable, and vulnerability can lead to fear.” If you doubt the profundity of those words, consider what your feelings might be if I invited you to not simply turn in a pledge card, but in fact your whole purse, wallet, and checkbook, credit cards included. Vulnerability can lead to fear. But that “can” is the most important word in that sentence.
Because, as Jesus invited and in fact commanded us, vulnerability can also lead to trust. Norman Wirzba correctly labels our focus on things and money and affluence as a problem of distrust. “We do not really believe that God has and will continue to provide for us. We live….on the assumption that we have to take care of ourselves, and do everything in our power to secure our lives, for no one else will.”
But Jesus espouses a different theology – one of receiving. We receive our homes, our families, our vocations, our money, indeed our very life, as a gift. Again, Wirzba’s distinction is helpful: “to belong to Christ is to live out of a new identity in which the cares of God, rather than self-care, are the determining focus.” So, instead of being motivated by fear, we are motivated by trust.
A theology of receiving leads us to trust. To courage. To joy. Because the Christ who came from God, and went back to God, and dwells with God, has already shown that he is victorious above and beyond our wildest imagination. That victory is not coming – it is here! For John, and for us today, Resurrection has transformed and is transforming every present moment of our lives. And as those moments explode with the very power of Resurrection, our emotion must not be one of fear, but joy. And our actions must not be manifestations of fear, but of courage. “Take heart! Our Lord has overcome the world. Let us rejoice and be glad in this day!”
So, if the metaphor of owning is the CD, then what is the metaphor for receiving?
Some of you will know that the fuller name for a radio is a radio receiver. “Radio” refers to the waves that are floating around in the air everywhere. You can’t see them, but the room right now is filled with radio waves. And so, in order to hear your favorite radio station, you have to use a radio receiver. Of course, there are a bunch of competing waves all over the place, so to hear what you want to hear, you have to turn your receiver to the right frequency.
In order to truly tune your heart from the religion of fear and the theology of owning, it means that you have to find the right frequency. You have to work to make sure that you are tuned to the One who wants you to receive the message of grace, of abundance, of belonging. There are a bunch of really bad stations out there with really bad messages. But if you take the time to find the right station, then like the words of the ancient hymn:
Come Thou Fount of every blessing
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.
May we tune our hearts to know and revel in the courage that comes with the grace of God!