I am amazed and perplexed at the amount of freedom that we have, especially as a 21st century person who is a citizen of and lives in the United States. We are free to speak, to pursue our interests, to utilize our time the way we want, and to move about the country and world pretty much as we please and are able.
As Christians we are a people who are free to worship God and as United Methodists we speak of this in relationship to our time, our talent and our treasure. For those of us who exercise our freedom to generously give of these three elements we do so because we believe that God’s vision and mission emerges through our participation. We are free to be a part of what God intends and is doing in the world. But not all of us are convinced of the need personally or globally for generosity and so we exercise our freedom in other ways – many of them focused on ourselves.
A few weeks ago we celebrated the anniversary of our independence as a nation. In June of 2015 we will mark the anniversary of the ratification of the constitution that was written in 1788. In this document we are granted freedoms as citizens of this country. One of those is the freedom of religion (not from religion). The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law restricting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The framers of the constitution included this amendment in response to history, notably European history.
Here is an example. In 1685 the Edict of Fontainebleau was issued making it illegal to be a protestant in France. The religion of the king was Catholicism and thus it was mandatory that all subjects to the French king convert and practice his religion. For the next 100 years thousands of protestant men who refused to convert were sentenced to row in the galleys of the French navy. Thousands of protestant women who refused to convert were sentenced to life in prison. The children of protestants who refused to convert were sent into foster care to be raised in the home of a practicing Catholic family. In 1787, the same year the constitution was finalized, affirmed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification, the French Reformed Church finally gained recognition and the freedom to practice its traditions after 100 years of persecution.
Now don’t get me wrong – this is simply one example out of many and the persecution crosses both ways. It was not just Catholics persecuting protestants – the protestants had their turn as well. There is a phrase that describes this time in European history regarding church and state – “the religion of the prince was the religion of the people.” And no other religion was tolerated.
It was this and hundreds more years of the history of this practice that may have influenced our founding fathers in the writing of the religion clause – so that we might have freedom of religion regardless of which political party was in charge. What I hope we gain is a sense that we should not take for granted a right that our fore fathers intentionally designed for us. And that we have the freedom to accept God’s invitation to live intentionally for his mission and purposes.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus addressed a large crowd of people and during his teaching he addressed a number of topics – one of them was the focus on treasure. Ben Worthington, a biblical professor and author suggests that we look at Matthew 6:19ff in light of the prayer that Jesus had taught to his followers; the prayer is an outline for what was taught and 6:19-24 serves as an amplification of the first 3 petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.
1) Hallowed by your name
2) Thy kingdom come
3) Thy will be done
I would posit that Jesus’ point of emphasis is to answer the question, “what are you focusing on in life?” Here is a key idea for you to remember – focus defines purpose which defines action or as Matthew records Jesus as saying “whatever your eye focuses on becomes your ‘master.'” For many of us our treasure is what we are focused on and it is our master and we use our freedom to pursue whatever our heart desire is.
Historians who study culture, practices and beliefs have determined that the idea of “heart” had a much different meaning in Ancient Near Eastern Semitic anthropology than it does today. The heart was not used to talk about how we express feelings alone; it was understood as the center of thought, conscience, will and the control center for personality. Jesus point was that whatever your “heart” focused on would define your purpose which would define your actions. Thus his additional comment that you cannot serve God and treasure simultaneously makes sense. You can only focus on one or the other – not both. Jesus invited his audience then to focus on God who is to be honored (hallowed is thy name), whose kingdom should be sought after (thy kingdom come), and whose will should be given preference (thy will be done). I think the invitation is the same for us – to freely choose to focus on God and to utilize our time, talents, and treasure as an expression of this choice.
I can see how John Wesley might have been influenced as well by what was transpiring in the world during his time. Wesley lived and served in the Anglican Church of England during the time of the protestant persecution in France. Maybe he understood the value of being free to choose and teaching on many different subjects he also taught on treasure. Wesley is noted for saying “gain all that you can, save all that you can, and give all that you can.”
Wesley believed that we should be fully employed in our lives; he did not believe in wasting time or energy. But that does not mean that we have to be workaholics in our field of endeavor. Pastor James Harnish adds three notes to this maximum to be diligent in your employment.
1) Gain all you can without hurting your health – try to be balanced between work and rest
2) Gain all you can without hurting your mind – don’t cheat, lie or do anything illegal to get ahead
3) Gain all you can without hurting your neighbor – always consider how you impact others
Wesley also believed that we should save all that we could but he was not talking about having the security of a nice pension, 401K or savings account. He believed that we needed to be conscientious about how we used our treasure; thoughtful about our purchases. When he spoke of saving he meant from waste and inappropriate use.
Finally Wesley also taught that we should give all that we can – to take measurable steps in our lives to be generous. As a pastor and leader I take serious the need to teach committed Christians the discipline of routine giving starting first with a percentage commitment and then working toward the tithe. (The tithe is an ancient Hebrew model of giving 10% of your income to God’s mission and offerings are anything you give over and above the tithe.) Unfortunately this is a discipline that is lost on many of us mainly because we are free to choose to do something else.
I would like to encourage you to see this freedom in a different light – that the heart of the matter is that God has blessed us so that we might be a blessing to others. Our generosity should help transform the world around us into the vision God intends. Whether it is through helping to pay for pesticide treated bed nets so that we can eradicate malaria in Africa, or to help fund a missionary in Mongolia, or to help a local agency in their efforts to stomp out the commercial sex trade and human trafficking, our generosity is intended to make the world a better place.
I hope that many of you have come to better understand the practice and discipline of generosity and a narrower group of you from our Methodist tradition. My desire is for this to be a time of reflection and invitation – for you to focus on God’s kingdom and will for this world and to let your generosity be a reflection of the priorities in your life.
You have the freedom to focus on what you want, for that to define your purpose and your actions. My prayer and invitation is that you will focus on being generous with your time, your talent and your treasure – generous to God’s vision and mission for this world. May you see God’s name honored, his kingdom come and his will being done through your generosity.
Blessings for the journey.