Sermon: We Give Thee But Thine Own

Sunday, August 4, 2019
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

When I was very young, my home congregation actually had a pretty good sized Sunday School program.  Once a month, they would gather us all together in the basement for an assembly.  We sat in neat rows, from the little preschool kids in the tiny folding chairs at the front, all the way to the big, cool ninth-graders in the back, in their last year of confirmation.  I don’t remember a ton of what we did together, if I’m being honest.  I’m sure we sang songs and read scripture and all that good stuff.

But the one part of those assemblies that has burned itself forever onto my brain was the part where we took the offering. Every month, in Sunday School, we would pass the basket down our neat little rows.  And the reason I remember it so well is because we always sang the same verse of the same hymn:

We give thee but thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is thine alone:
A trust, O Lord, from thee.

I don’t think I will ever forget the words of that song. It’s certainly a meaningful text.  We give you what is already yours, no matter what the gift may be; everything we have is yours alone, O God, a trust from you. And for me, as a child, those words were very obviously true.  When that basket came down the row and I put in my dollar, it wasn’t a dollar I had somehow earned with my six-year-old sweat and toil.  It was more than likely a dollar that my parents had given me that same morning, for the express purpose of me putting it in the offering basket.  It was freely given to me, so that I might freely give it.

And I don’t think it ever even crossed my mind to hold onto that dollar and not put it into the offering.  For one thing, it was fun to have a dollar to drop in the basket. I would sometimes fold mine up into fun origami shapes before I put it in – which, in retrospect, was probably not as amusing for the person counting money as it was for me, lol.

But it was also easy for me to drop in that dollar, because it wasn’t like I needed it for myself.  I didn’t need to hold onto it and save it up to buy things.  My parents already gave me everything I needed. They made sure that I had good food to eat, clothes to wear, a warm house to live in, and toys to play with. They made sure I got an education and they took care of me when I was sick.  My parents generously provided for all my needs, and they even gave me abundance over that, so that I might turn around and be generous toward others.  They did this out of love for me, because I am their child.

This kind of giving is a reflection of how God gives to us.  God fills the earth with abundance – with food and water and places for us to live, with materials for us to make clothes and toys and any of the other stuff we need – with good stuff for us to share with each other.  And God does this because God loves us.  And we are God’s children.

The rich man in the parable Jesus tells in our gospel reading has received an abundant share of God’s bounty.  His land produces such a large harvest that it won’t even fit in the barns he already has.  He rejoices in his good fortune – but not once does he ever stop to thank God, or even to recognize that everything he has is a gift from God. Nor does he give a thought to sharing his wealth with others.  He is a wealthy landowner, not a farmer himself, which means that he has had to rely on the labor of others – servants and peasant farmers who worked the earth – in order to reap such a harvest.  But his thoughts are only full of “I,” “me,” and “my”: “He thinks to himself; what shall do with my crops?  I will do this; I will build bigger barns for my crops and my goods.”  In his thinking, there is absolutely no hint of “we give thee but thine own.”

Now to be fair, it’s easy to beat up on this guy from a theological point of view.  Jesus obviously presents him as a foolish person in this parable – I mean, even God calls him “you fool!”  Ouch.  However, if we take a look at this guy from a sheerly human perspective, the picture changes.  By human terms, this guy just looks like someone who’s doing pretty well for himself.  He’s not squandering his wealth, like some other irresponsible people in Jesus’ parables have done.  He’s saving up what he has and trying to ensure a good future for himself.

To an extent, that’s just common sense.  I mean, I have a savings account, like I’m sure many of us here do.  I even have a retirement account that gets paid into every month.  Some of you probably have money invested in all kinds of different ways.  The point of this parable isn’t that these things are automatically bad – in fact, they can often be part of what it means to be wise stewards of what God has given us.

But the mistake this rich man makes is that he has given his life to his riches.  He surrounds himself with wealth.  And he trusts that his wealth will keep him safe and comfortable for years to come.  But then the inescapable reality of death cuts straight through the heart of this delusion.  God confronts him with the reality that his possessions can’t save him from death.  His riches aren’t able to give him life, any more than my Sunday School dollar would have been able to give me a life apart from my parents.

This is one of the big struggles at the heart of human life.  We have such a strong tendency to put our faith in what we can see. Money buys us food and shelter and all the necessities of life, so we think that if we have more of it, we’ll be better off, and life then becomes a zero-sum game of competition.  People who have money have power in this world, and they get to make big decisions about how the rest of us will live.  And the more wealth and power that people have – like our wealthy landowner – the easier it is for that wealth and power to take first place in our lives; the easier it is for money to become our god. And the more we become alienated from both God and from our neighbor.

You can tell how just how much humans struggle with this by how often it’s referenced in the bible.  Every single one of our readings for this morning addresses our human tendency to put our trust in worldly stuff.  The writer of Ecclesiastes mourns about the vanity of accumulating wealth, saying:

I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind.  I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to those who come after me – and who knows whether they will be wise or foolish? Yet they will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.

The psalmist is just as harsh, writing:

Truly, no ransom avails for one’s life, there is no price one can give to God for it… When we look at the wise, they die; fool and dolt perish together and leave their wealth to others.

And the author of Colossians urges us to turn our faith away from earthly things and to set our hopes on God, saying:

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God… Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).

All of these texts remind us that there is real risk in putting our trust in material wealth, and in losing sight of the one who gave it to us in the first place.  No matter how much we work and scrimp and save and hoard every penny to ourselves, none of this stuff can save us from dying.  It’s like trying to build a sandcastle to protect ourselves from a hurricane.

Instead, God implores us to look past the glittering treasures of this earth, to remember who gave us this stuff in the first place, and why.  God has given us everything, out of love.  And God alone can give us salvation and life.  God reminds us that, on our own, we will die. And this is not to shame us or scare us, but to save us – because the idols of wealth and money that we cling to don’t have the power to give us life – but God does.  We don’t have to trust in our own wisdom or in our hard work to earn our life and salvation.  We don’t have to cling to every dollar that passes through our six-year-old fists. God has abundantly given us all these things and more.  And God will continue abundantly to provide.

Knowing all this can free us from our constant worries about material things, if we let it.  We have been freed to imitate God in our generosity toward God and toward our neighbor.  Because, at the end of the day, we know:

We give thee but thine own,
Whate’er the gift may be;
All that we have is thine alone:
A trust, O Lord, from thee.

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