On Coffee Mugs and Cows

One night many years ago, I sat sullen in our living room. I don’t remember why, but I was very grumpy and somewhat sad. Around the corner, Jackson was playing with his toys, quietly, while one of his shows, Jake and the Neverland Pirates, was on TV. 

I just sat, absent-mindedly staring into the distance, sitting with my emotions. Then, suddenly, there was interruption. It was Jackson, laying his Jake and the Neverland Pirate Duplo toys in my lap. He hugged me and then walked off. At first, I was confused. Why was he giving me his toys? He hadn’t asked me to come play with him. He hadn’t asked me to build with his toddler-sized legos. He had just given me his toys, hugged me, and walked off. 

Then, like a lightning bolt, it hit me: Jackson was trying to comfort me! He was giving me something precious to him, something he loved, wanting to make me feel better. Those Duplo toys, Jake and his Neverland Pirates, became suddenly incredibly meaningful. I got up, my mood instantly changed, and hugged Jackson back, thanking him for the gift. 

Jackson was faithful with what God had given him. He gave of what he had. 

What do you have to give? 

Let’s hear our scripture for this morning. It comes from the gospel of Luke:

Scripture 

Back when I was in graduate school, I took some students to a conference at the University of Michigan. They had found this conference on peacemaking and the university had agreed to sponsor them in their trip. They just needed chaperones. Being free and interested to see Michigan, a state I hadn’t visited, I agreed to go along. 

Every morning, we would emerge from our hotel rooms, me with my paper coffee cup in hand. I was always struggling with that paper coffee cup. Maybe you’ve had this experience at hotels: the lid kept popping off, the paper of the cup was so thin that I had to keep adjusting my hand because of the heat, even with a sleeve on it. But, you may be like me and understand that coffee is life, so I kept struggling with this paper cup. 

On the final day, as we emerged in our ritual, meeting in the hallway, the students presented me with a little gift bag. Inside was a University of Michigan mug, a way of not only noting my struggle each morning but a way of saying thank you for chaperoning them; a totally unexpected gift. It was a beautiful moment of giving and receiving, and I was then and remain very grateful today for their small act of giving. 

I was so grateful it became the mug I drank out of every morning. Until one day, my grip slipped and I dropped it. The mug broke into several pieces and I about lost it. It held so much meaning for me. Maybe you have small items like that at your house; things that anyone else would see as ordinary but, for you, they are incredibly special. 

I was in a rush the day it broke so I just left the pieces. When I got home my dad, who was living with us at the time, had fixed the mug. He had found just about every piece and puzzled them back together, supergluing them. The mug cannot be used to hold liquids, but it was together again. And ever since, it has sat on my desk, holding my pens and other desk items; a reminder now of two simple acts of kindness. 

What do you have to give? 

I have more heartwarming stories. But nowhere in my office is a reminder, a token, a memento, to savviness. Nowhere in my office is some reminder of a shrewd act. Nowhere do I have a reminder to make dishonest wealth for myself. 

Which is odd because items like that, if I had any, would relate directly to our scripture this morning. 

Here we have a dishonest manager, or steward as he’s sometimes called, who’s been found out. He’s been squandering the master’s property, utilizing it for his own gain. More than likely, this shrewd manager has been embezzling or otherwise skimming off the top, pocketing money for himself, thereby squandering it for his master. Now, he’s been found out. But before he is officially fired, he acts shrewdly; with great savvy. In fact, to be honest, I’m kind of impressed with this guy. 

Let me explain: Jews of Jesus’s day were not allowed to lend money at interest. Right there in Leviticus is a command to not lend money at interest. Masters and other rulers of his day, like the master here, would instead charge interest in the form of in-kind lending. So, if you need oil and I have some, I loan you fifty jugs of olive oil, but you must repay me 100. That’s 100% interest on that loan, which is still illegal by their laws, but it’s less frowned-upon because it’s not money. This is what the master has been doing with commodities like oil and wheat.

So, when the manager realizes the game is up and he’d better make other plans, he calls in the master’s debtors, settling the debts for the principal amount, writing off the interest owed. In doing so, he makes friends with them by forgiving their debts, hoping that they will hire him and welcome him into their homes as a result. He also cheats the master one more time of what he’s owed but in a way that the master can do nothing about. If the master were to go to the authorities, saying that the manager had cheated him, the master would have to admit to lending at interest. So the master can say nothing, which is probably why the master congratulates the manager at the end of the story; the manager has proven savvy, shrewd, very capable as a business person. 

Jesus then says some strange things in the story and ends with some admonitions that are famous: like whomever is faithful with little will be faithful with much, and you cannot serve God and money. 

This story is not like the chalice and paten I have on my windowsill in my office, given to me by my friend Anthony McPhail as a thank you for baptizing his oldest child. The chalice and paten were made by Tommy Martin, whom you know, and who was my district superintendent when I first got into ministry. It’s a very special gift, it represents friendship and so much more, its heartwarming; it’s nothing like this story, so it seems. 

What do you have to give? 

What did this dishonest manager have to give? 

Here, we have a very capable businessman. He gets it. Business takes relationships, it takes financial acuity, it takes a keen eye for opportunity, and the manager demonstrates all of that. He’s obviously very capable. He’s put his skills and talents, the gifts God has given him, to use for his own personal gain. And when he’s caught, he uses his considerable savvy to ensure his future. He will be fine. He will be taken care of. 

But imagine what he could have accomplished for the Kingdom of God! Imagine what he could have done if he had put his considerable skills to work not for himself, but for others, for God. 

The manager understood relationships; imagine how he could have spread the gospel if converted by Jesus. He understood finances; imagine what he could have done to underwrite churches and how he could have provided for the poor. He had a keen eye for opportunity; imagine how he could have found opportunity to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. 

This story is ultimately a tragedy: the tragedy of a gifted man putting his considerable skills to work not for God but for himself.

Think of modern business people you admire. Perhaps not the big names we all know, but people locally, here. They are the people who have done well for themselves because they are gifted in the world of business but then have put those skills, and their wealth, to work for the good. I can think of several here locally. Some of them have their names attached to endowed funds here at the church; a witness to their generosity and how they gave of what they had, putting their gifts to work for God, even after their death.

And that’s the moral of this parable: God has given us all gifts; we are to put those gifts to work not for ourselves, but for God and the church.

What do you have to give? 

It’s the question at the heart of this story. God has gifted all of us, and so we all have something to give to God, to further the work of the church. But when we talk about giving in the church, we sometimes talk either solely about money or we talk about doing big things. If we talk solely about money, we might hear a guilt trip from the pulpit or a command to have to give a particular amount. But that’s not what Jesus does here nor elsewhere in the gospels. 

And if we talk about doing big things, we talk about how one of us, who is perhaps gifted at coordinating people, is going to launch some big new ministry. Or we talk about how you should be giving the church $5,000 per month if you’re currently giving nothing. We want to jump from nothing to big things. That’s admirable; it shows passion! And I must admit, that’s a personal weakness of mine. I get excited about an idea and I start running with it, believing that I’m going to change the world! But that’s also not how Jesus speaks of giving, not here and not elsewhere in the gospels.

So this morning, in talking about giving, or stewardship as it’s often known, let’s speak differently about what it means to give to the church. Let’s speak of it as Jesus did. 

He said two things as a way of speaking to this parable and, in doing so, speaking of what it means to give to the church: whoever is faithful with little is faithful with much, and you cannot serve God and money. 

The call here, and elsewhere as Jesus speaks of giving, is to give of what we already have, to be faithful with what God has given us. The call, then, is to give of our Jake and the Neverland pirate toys, it’s to give a University of Michigan coffee mug and then to fix it when broken, it’s to give a meaningful chalice and paten set. The call is to give of what we have and nothing more.

Some of you have done just that since I began. I have received many cards in the mail, encouraging me in the work I’m doing here. Those are so wonderful to receive. I have a special drawer in my desk where I keep them. God has gifted some of you with the gift of encouragement, and you’ve chosen in writing those cards to give of what you have. 

Others of you have given of your time. I continue to be amazed at the amount of time some of you put in here at the church. And I’ve remarked as such. When I do, several of you have said back to me that God has given you time, and so you give it back to God. You’re giving of what you have. 

These are two examples of what it means to be faithful with what God has given us. They may feel like little things, and perhaps they are in the grand scheme of things. But, it’s us choosing to serve God rather than the world, it’s us being faithful with what God has given us, which is the call here in our scripture. When Jesus said you cannot serve God and money, Jesus was saying we must choose where we will put our gifts and skills to work: for ourselves or for the church. 

It’s like the Sunday I sat uncomfortably in church listening to the pastor talk about the need to give financially to the church. We weren’t giving anything at the time and our finances were incredibly tight. When we came home, Dana said we should start giving to the church. I pushed back. We didn’t have the money! And my attitude said giving was for other people to do, there were plenty of people at the church with far more money than us, and they should give. One day, when we were able to give, we’d make good. 

That wasn’t good enough for Dana. Defeated, I sat down with our budget spreadsheet. I found $10 per month. I figured Dana would reject that and hoped that she would so that we wouldn’t have to give any money to the church. When I told her, she glowed and said that’s what we would do then. So, with me doing so quite begrudgingly, we started giving to the church.

For me, that $10 per month was a turning point in my understanding of money management and my relationship with God. Giving even just that small amount monthly to the church taught me that everything I have is God’s; the money we have but also the gifts God has given me. They are to be employed for God’s purposes, not my own. I am to give of what I have, and no more than that, but still give. I am to be faithful with the little things. 

Since then, we have gradually increased our giving over time. It’s become a priority for us; a way of reminding ourselves that God is faithful to us as we are faithful with what God has given us; that we are to serve God and not ourselves with our gifts. Sometimes it’s a daily choice, but we do our best to be faithful with the little things.

Jesus said whomever is faithful in the little things is faithful in much. Our task, then, as disciples of Christ, is to be faithful in the little things. And that’s a fair point if we consider it. “[L]ife consists of a series of seemingly small opportunities. Most of us will not this week christen a ship, write a book, end a war, appoint a cabinet, dine with the [king], [or] convert a nation… More likely the week will present no more than a chance to give a cup of water, write a note, visit a nursing home…teach a Sunday school class, share a meal, tell a child a story, go to choir practice, feed the neighbor’s cat,” give your dad some Jake and the Neverland Pirate toys, present a gift of a coffee mug out of the blue, commit a random act of kindness. – Fred Craddock

That’s what it means to be faithful in the little things: do the small obligations, do the small acts of kindness, write the card, reach out beyond yourself with your gifts; whatever it is in your power and skillset to do to bless others, do it. Don’t miss the small opportunities to do good. Whoever is faithful with little is faithful with much.

What do you have to give? 

In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a man who worked in New York City and experienced that day returned home to Kenya, to his people known as the Maasai tribe. There, Kimeli, the name of the man, speaks with the elders after a joyous homecoming. He tells them of his experience working on Wall Street on September 11, of the devastation, of how his heart breaks for his new country and his friends there. The elders listen carefully and they, too, grow sad and concerned. They wonder to themselves what they can do for the people of America? 

It’s a big question. What could they do for a people so far away? They didn’t have money, so they couldn’t donate through a charity or relief organization. Then, an idea comes to them. They send a representative to the US embassy in Nairobi, asking for a diplomat to come down to their tribe so they could present a gift to America. When the diplomat arrives, he is greeted by the elders. Then they, in ceremonial fashion, present to the diplomat, for the people of the United States of America, the most precious thing they have. In fact, fourteen of the most precious things they have. 

The give American fourteen cows. 

I love this story because it’s beautiful in its simplicity. The Maasai, moved by compassion, gave of what they had. They were faithful with little. 

And the truth is, when we’re faithful with little, we do a world of good. 

This true story, captured in a beautifully illustrated children’s book by Carmen Agra Deedy, has done a world of good. Just as, in my own life, Jake and the Neverland Pirate toys, a simple mug, a chalice and paten set, your encouraging cards, have done me a world of good. 

What do you have to give? 

Can you send a card this week? Give of some time to the church or a ministry in town? Read a story to a child? Feed the neighbor’s cat? Put some money in the offering plate, maybe for the first time? Make a commitment at home to give regularly to the church, even if it is $10 per month? 

Whoever is faithful with little is faithful with much. 

We are all gifted people. God has given us talents, skills, intelligences. Our job, our call, is to be faithful with those. And what is faithfulness? Putting them to work for God’s glory, not our own. Like the dishonest manager, recognizing where we’re gifted, but unlike the dishonest manager, not making a tragedy of our lives by using our gifts only for our own gain. Through our seemingly little acts, God does a world of good. 

So this week, practice being faithful in the little things. And if you’re not sure where to begin, if you’re not sure how you’re gifted, pray this simple prayer daily, “God, where is there opportunity for me to do good?” I have no doubt at all God will show you. 

Whoever is faithful with little is faithful with much.

What do you have to give? 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

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