I preached this sermon to the good people of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Fairfield, CA on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.
Grace and peace from God our Creator, hope in our Redeemer Jesus the Christ, and the promised gifts of the Holy Spirit are with you, always.
As was said at the start of the service, I’m Pastor Casey Kloehn Dunsworth, your Lutheran campus pastor to UC Davis, and Program Director for LEVN, the Lutheran Episcopal Volunteer Network. I spend my days, and evenings, and weekends with young adults—undergraduates, graduate students, and recent graduates. It is a privilege to serve in this capacity, accompanying students and service corps members through some of the most formative years of their young adult lives.
With my students, I gather for worship and dinner each week, and meet for Bible Study and to engage in different spiritual practices. The rhythms of the quarter system take some getting used to; students revel in the deep breaths and slowed down time we spend together. I am grateful for the opportunity to guide them through the challenges they face, praying for them, celebrating with them, and grieving with them.
The LEVN program, too, gathers weekly for worship and dinner, as our seven young adults navigate life in intentional Christian community and 40 hours per week of service in a local non-profit organization. Throughout their year with us, we provide formation—theological and educational resources that can help frame their work in the world, appreciation of the natural beauty God has created here in Northern California, strategies for living together harmoniously, practices they can carry with them in their life after LEVN.
One of my favorite practices that we do together is an annual Thanksgiving-ish evening of gratitude and affirmations. We read some scripture and some other inspirational words around gratitude, from sages like ee cummings and Oprah Winfrey. And then we spend several minutes reflecting on all of the people and things for which we are grateful. And then we write each other words of affirmation that we can hold on to for those moments where our own assurance of our belovedness falters.
I love this practice, because it reframes our relationships and our community as one of gratitude and abundance. The close quarters of young adult life do not always lend themselves to such feelings, as the day-to-day messes of shared kitchens and shared experiences become heavy.
Though I am sure you encounter your fair share of messiness, I doubt that you all live with six or seven other adults, sharing one kitchen and 2 showers. Or that you came across the country to do so in a city you’d never seen, on a small stipend, while serving full-time in a busy non-profit.
Our LEVN volunteers have been invited to live counter-culturally for their year of service, and this shows in so many ways. We talk often about the difference between “scarcity” and “abundance” and how for people of faith, they can be two sides of the same coin.
It is not hard to reflect on our lives from a position of scarcity. There is never enough time, or enough money, or enough sleep, or enough energy, or enough...whatever just popped into your mind to fill in that blank.
The countercultural practice we invite our LEVN volunteers into is to reflect on their lives from a position of abundance. If this is not something you occasionally, deliberately take part in, I wholeheartedly encourage you to give it a try.
What, in your life, is abundant?
For what, in your life, are you grateful?
Because our annual national day of Thanksgiving is fast approaching, these themes are fresh in our minds and hearts. In celebration of this thanks, what happens if we approach the lectionary texts for this week with gratitude and abundance in mind?
The text this morning from the Gospel according to Matthew, another parable about slaves and money, is a classic head-scratcher. Which character did the right thing?
Which character is Jesus saying we are like? Which character is Jesus hoping we will strive to be more like? Which character is acting as God acts? How do we know? How do we translate this scenario into the world we live in? Should we?
The dissection and interpretation of the intricate math of this parable is less important to our story today than the question it leaves us with: what have we done with what we have been given?
Maybe we even have to start earlier than that: what have we been given? What have you received, throughout your life, from God?
This can be a tough one, because as we are Christians we are also Americans and we are very convinced that we have worked hard and earned everything that we have. You have worked hard, and you have earned so much.
As your guest preacher this morning I am excited to let you in on a very freeing truth: everything comes to us from God, who created us in their image and loves us unconditionally. There is no such thing as a self-made man.
The nation of our birthright citizenship, the families into which we are born, the socio-economic factors that shape our upbringing, the schools we attend, and the employment opportunities available to us are largely outside our control or influence.
Yes, within a set of parameters we make choices about our lives, but the gift of our life comes from God. The gifts of our intellect, our interests, our passions, and our vocations come from God. The gifts of our talents, abilities, and skills come from God. Our bodies are gifts, within our wide spectrum of ability and capacity. Some of us are all too familiar with the deterioration or sudden loss of those abilities or capacities; how precious those gifts have been.
Everywhere we have been, God has been with us. God has been accompanying us, and providing us all of the other people and institutions that carried us on our way.
That one family member or dear friend who has always been your greatest champion; that school teacher who really encouraged you; that mentor that showed you the ropes; that teammate who always had your back; that supervisor who gave you a chance; that doctor who walked with you every step of the way—gifts from God, each and every one of them. Our entire social fabric has been laid out for us by God and entrusted to us. This good earth, in its vastness and its fragility, was created by God and entrusted to us.
What have we done with what we have been given?
In our Gospel story, one slave is given 5 talents, another 2, another 1. The 5- and 2-talent-having-ones double the money. The single-talented-one squanders his. Buries it in the ground.
I have to admit that this slave’s behavior is most like mine; out of fear of the risk of losing the money entrusted to me, I’d likely just sock it away until the master returned, too. But this ignores the purpose of handing the money over in the first place. The goal was not to have the same money in hand when he returned; if he wanted that, he likely would have just kept his coins to himself.
Now, I’m making huge interpretive leaps here, because we know nothing of this scenario other than that it entailed a master and some slaves, and we know that masters never gave gifts to their slaves or treated them with dignity and kindness—this is a human rights violation, not a friendship.
But if we are the analogy-making types, we might wonder about how the story would play out of it were God doling out gifts and us standing to receive them.
Does God provide us every good gift and expect that we will squander that which we have been given? Does God provide us every good gift and expect that we will hoard it all to ourselves?
No, dear ones, of course not. God has provided us every good gift in the hope that we will use those gifts for the sake of the world. In gratitude to God for all that we have received, it is obvious that our next move is to give, too.
To which family member or dear friend are you the greatest champion? Which children in your community are you encouraging? Who do you mentor in your professional field or vocational sector? Whose team are you always on? Who are you giving a chance? Who do you walk alongside?
Our gospel text closes with this cryptic sentence: “For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away” (Matthew 25:29).
In this time of holiday preparation, it can be easy to assume that our gratitude is supposed to be for our things. Our homes, our prized possessions, our earthly treasures. It is a good practice to be grateful for things, but it is dangerous to stop there. When our gratitude is only for things, we can end up leaving the Thanksgiving table to get in line for Black Friday sales, elbowing other customers for the last big screen TV. Those who have much and those who have little can be equally guilty of this mentality of scarcity.
When our gratitude extends to all that we have, all that we are, all that we will be—no matter how much others may judge us to be—it is in this depth of gratitude that we truly know abundance.
If we believe that there is not enough, there will never be enough. If we believe that we are not enough, we will never be enough. You are enough. You are more than enough. And for that, thanks be to God. Amen.