Checking Our Assumptions (Proper 28 A)

Proper 28 A

Mt. 25:14-30

Church of the Good Shepherd, Pawtucket RI

Nov. 16, 2014

The Rev. Gillian R. Barr


This week I attended a day and a half workshop sponsored by the Church Pension Fund called Planning for Tomorrow.  It’s 2 days of filling out worksheets about financial goals, total assets, and figuring out what you need to do to achieve both your short term goals and your longer term goals.  In one session they demonstrated the interactive online retirement tool.  You tell it how old you are, what your current compensation is, when you plan to retire, what savings you have, whether you’re married and your spouse’s finances, and so on, and it tells you how you’re doing in saving money for retirement, complete with multi-color bar graphs and a total score, color coded in red, yellow or green. Based on those predictions, you can then prioritize short-term action steps and goals.

It’s a pretty nifty calculator even in “basic” mode—similar to what most financial planners and programs use, but customized to the particulars of our clergy benefits plan and odd tax status. We can also go into “Advanced Settings” and change the underlying assumptions it’s working with.  Do you think it’s being too optimistic about the rate of return you’ll get on your savings?  What if your spouse retires early? What if you want to spend part of the rest of your career in a low-paying ministry such as overseas missionary?  As you change the assumptions, the calculations change and your score changes. You might move out of the cheerful green zone of a comfortable retirement at age 65 to the red zone which means you need to work really hard all the way to the mandatory retirement age of 72 just to be able to stay afloat.  It was fascinating to me to watch, as I changed the assumptions, and immediately sew the direct impact on my financial future and flexibility.

I went to the workshop because I know I’m now at an age where this is beginning to become relevant, and the Bishop recommends it 🙂 .  However, once I was filling out the pre-conference worksheets I realized that it came at a particularly good time for me.  I am ending a long time of change and transition in my work life and my geographic location, years of working for very low salaries and cobbled-together part time positions with no job security.  Because of all of the transition and uncertainty, I’d been being exceedingly conservative in my financial life, focusing just on my most immediate needs, trying to make ends meet, my biggest financial goal being to keep my credit-card debt at a sane level.    It was a very short-term restricted pessimistic vision.

I could really relate to the 3rd slave in today’s passage.  For years I’ve been operating out of a worst-case set of assumptions, out of necessity.  And it meant that I lived in a very crimped, limited way.

But now, a lot of the assumptions that had governed the past 10 years no longer apply. Now that I am finished with the lengthy ordination process,  am in a diocese with good leadership, and a healthy parish, I can make different assumptions, particularly about how long I will be staying in one place, and how stable my income will be.  These different assumptions mean I no longer have to be operating out of fear and scarcity and a sense of imminent panic.

It is amazing how much being able to make those more positive assumptions has changed not only the entries in my financial calculator, and the graphs and goals it spits out, but also my overall outlook and self-understanding.  And that in turn is making me more willing to take risks and try new things.

When my assumptions about my future were negative and limited, my actions were cautious. Now that my assumptions are more hopeful, my actions can be bolder and more ambitious.

The basic assumptions we have about reality, and the future, do determine our actions.

The parable Jesus tells in the Gospel passage appointed for today on the surface is also about money and investments.  And because it usually comes during the heart of most parishes’ stewardship seasons, it is often preached with an emphasis on how we use our financial assets for the service of God’s kingdom.

But the money and investment aspect is just the surface of the parable—a dramatic way to get across its deeper point.

Why did the third slave bury the money the master gave him?

Because he was afraid of his master.  He had certain beliefs about the kind of person his master was and that led him to react out of fear and terror, to the point that he was paralyzed.   His fear led him to focus on security and not losing what he’d been given.  He never considered any other options.

The mistake of burying the treasure wasn’t his first or biggest mistake.  His first mistake was in the assumptions he made about the character of his master.  There is nothing in the first part of the parable to substantiate his assumptions. The master actually seems to be very generous and trusting.  One talent is worth at least a quarter of a million dollars in today’s money, so he gave one slave over million dollars, one half a million, and one a quarter million, with no restrictions—and then leaves for years, simply trusting them to do the right thing.  He customizes the amounts given to the slaves based on their ability, not wanting to overwhelm them.

The first two slaves seem to understand their master’s character, as they act boldly with the money, and when he returns, they approach him without fear.  And he gives them even more money and says they can enter into his joy—he treats them as equals, not as slaves.  The third slave’s beliefs about the master actually turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The third slave in today’s parable could not believe that his master actually trusted him, wanted him to succeed, believed he had ability, and would greet him with pride. He had faulty understanding.  Unfortunately he never checked out his assumptions, and based his whole life on them.

What assumptions do we have about who God is?  about what our life with God is to look like?  about what the purpose of the Xn life is?  about what the purpose of a congregation is?

Church Pension Group recommends clergy go through their set of worksheets and check in with an advisor about once every 5 yrs, because situations can change, to make sure we’re not working out of faulty assumptions or towards outdated goals.

When was the last time you checked out your assumptions about who God is?  Have you updated what you learned in Sunday School, or when you were confirmed at age 11 or 15?  Have you expanded your knowledge of the Bible beyond the Bible storybook you read as a child, so that when you hear readings like the one from Zephaniah we heard earlier, you have some context for what you’re hearing? Or when you hear passages like the verses from Thessalonians last week, you know that what Paul was talking about has nothing to do w/ what the Left Behind movie would have us believe—the movies and books have very little to do w/ what’s actually in the Bible!

There is a study program, “What is the least I can believe and be a Christian?”  I don’t like the title, but I do like the book. A better title based on the contents would be, “Is what I think I know about what it means to be a Christian actually what Christianity really says?”    It goes through 10 erroneous beliefs that many people have picked up about God and Christianity which lead them to reject the faith, and explains why they are actually not true  . . . .and then turns to the positive, and talks about 10 beliefs about who God is which are life-giving.

What assumptions do we have about what the purpose of a congregation is?  Do we act out of a minimal, fear-based, set of assumptions, or a more hopeful one?

As I talked about in my sermon last week, this Diocese is turning around based on a new set of assumptions.  Bp. Knisely has told us clergy, and said to everyone at Convention last week, that he wants congregations and clergy to be willing to fail early and often, in our attempts to figure out what might work in this new context.  He would rather have us go out having tried everything creatively than ceding the field through contracting into ourselves—he’d like his epitaph be, “At least he went down swinging!”  It’s easy to be discouraged about stats saying only some small % of people are involved in churches nowadays. That such a small % of people are active in congregations means we have that many more opportunities to reach people—if our assumption is that our purpose is to share Good News in whatever way works, not to focus on preserving “church” in just the way it’s always been.

If we know God to be a God of love, if we really trust in God’s love and care for us and for all humanity, then we will be able to act like the first two servants, confidently taking risks, growing, being bold in sharing that love.

The wife of the previous Abp of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is also a scholar and writer.  Jane Williams’ writings are actually more intelligible than her husband’s. I’d like to close with something she wrote about today’s Gospel passage:

 “Why should the ‘good news’ of the love of God be so alarming? Perhaps because few of us actually know how to be loved. We know how to be pampered, or to indulge ourselves, or to whine about being misunderstood. But to be loved with God’s total, consuming, transforming and utterly perceptive love? Are we ready for that?” (Jane Williams,Lectionary Reflectons Yr. A, 2nd Sunday before Advent) 

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