November 15, 2015

2 Corinthians 9:6-15
Psalm 91
Mark 12:41-44

“Free From the Uncertainty of Riches”

I bought a new car this week. Actually, Nick and I signed the paper work a couple of weeks ago before he went out of town for work, but it arrived on Thursday and I handed over our old car and picked up the new one on my own. It felt like a strange thing to be doing in the middle of this Stewardship series. You see, there was all this fuss about a new car. The sales people, in particular, seemed to want me to be SO EXCITED! It made me think of old game shows like “The Price is Right” where a curtain opens to reveal a shiny new vehicle, the announcer proclaims, “A New Car!” and the studio audience erupts in cheers of joy.

Nick and I thought carefully about this large purchase, decided it was time to get ourselves a more reliable and larger car, and agreed that we would trade in the old one and remain a one-vehicle family to keep our expenses down and make sure that we didn’t lose precious time spent together. I love driving, and it is kind of fun to be driving a new car, but the scriptures and the theme of today’s service remind me that our material possessions (our riches) provide us neither security, nor true joy and peace.

These things are uncertain. These circumstances of our lives are precarious. Imagine if you were to suddenly lose all your things, your home, your possessions, your car, your favourite clothes… There are millions of refugees in our world right now experiencing just that… travelling through danger to an unknown destination with only the things that they are able to carry with them.

If something like that were to happen to us, would we be completely devastated? Would our faith be shaken by the fact that all our stuff was gone, or could we trust God to be with us and help us through a time of trouble? I am reminded of the example of Job who lost his home, his possessions, his family, and even his health. While his friends told him to curse God and die, Job remained steadfast, calling out to God for help in the midst of the circumstances he could not understand.

But rather than simply pondering how each of us might react if we were to lose all our uncertain riches, today we are invited to consider how God is calling us to live with whatever possessions and resources we have received.

The wealthiest people will attest to the fact that an abundance of riches does not actually make them happy, but what does often bring them joy is the opportunity to give.

Most of us learned when we were quite young that giving to others – whether it be a present or a service – makes us feel good. Drawing a picture for grandpa, helping make breakfast in bed for mum on her birthday, saving up our allowance and choosing something special for big sister for Christmas. We remember the joy and excitement of giving, even when our resources for what to give were fairly limited.

Our giving was an expression of our love, and it wasn’t the quality or value of the gift that really mattered to the one who received it, but it was our love and care that touched their hearts and blessed their lives. I still have this little paper heart that 6 year-old Grace made and gave to me one Sunday morning a few months ago… not because it’s the most excellent heart I’ve ever seen or because I need a paper heart for some reason, but because it was a sincere expression of her love.

I imagine that some people might be surprised by the fact that we are spending so much time taking about money in church – a whole month on the topic of stewardship! Isn’t church a place where you talk about spiritual things? Where you ponder the existence and nature of God? Where you reflect on life and the potential of life after death? But instead, here we are talking about money and what we might do with it.

You see, money and what we do with our money is actually a major topic in the Bible. If you use any kind of Bible search engine or old-fashioned concordance, you’ll find a massive number of references to money, giving, sharing, tithing, offering, and related topics. Both the Old and New Testaments cover the topic extensively, and Jesus included plenty of teaching about how his followers should think about and use their money and possessions.

In today’s reading from 2 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul is writing to the Christian Church at Corinth, and arranging to send a few Christian brothers from Macedonia to Corinth to pick up the bountiful gift that the Corinthians have promised to make to the wider church.

Interestingly, Paul’s letter is not so different from an email that I received this week in my role as Clerk of Presbytery. The email came from Heather Chappell who works in the Stewardship Office of The Presbyterian Church in Canada, and the subject line said, “2016 Expected Allocations for Presbyterians Sharing.”

The attachment contained a spread-sheet including each of the congregations in our Presbytery of Northern Saskatchewan, what they gave to Presbyterians Sharing last year, what we promised to give this year, and what they hoped and expected we would agree to give in 2016 towards the wider mission of our denomination. Perhaps Heather should have used Paul’s words to the Corinthians in her email: “So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to go on ahead to you, and arrange in advance for this bountiful gift that you have promised, so that it may be ready as a voluntary gift and not as an extortion.”

Paul goes on to encourage his Christian friends to give generously – not because they are being required or forced to give, not because they are being guilted into giving – but for the pure joy and peace that comes from sharing what they have. He writes, “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

He reminds them that the things they have come from God, and that the reason they have been blessed with such abundance is SO THAT they can share it with those in need. “And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.”

Paul tells the Corinthians that when they give generously they will get something in return. As we talked about last Sunday, what they get won’t be cash, but they will be blessed. He writes, “You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the rendering of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God.”

Neither we nor the early Christians share our offerings for the sake of being enriched, but we do it in order to glorify God by our obedience and the generosity of our sharing. And those who receive the gifts do not thank us, but they thank God for us and for the gifts of God of which we have been good stewards.

The Rev. Dr. Janet Long writes about the troubling human tendency to place our trust in material wealth and uncertain riches. We might want to blame the modern world, media, advertising, and the society in which we live for our struggle with materialism. But the writers of the psalms and proverbs identified the same human problem thousands of years ago, and the early Christians who had wealth also needed encouragement to part with it for the sake of the church’s ministry and mission.

Janet writes, “We know better. We know that riches are uncertain. We’ve lived through recessions, experienced times of plenty and want, and heard about (if not lived through) the Great Depression. We know not to trust wealth, not to build up treasures that deteriorate or disappear. But we seem unable to stop ourselves. We need bigger garages and bigger closets.

But Janet also witnesses, “I’ve seen what happens when people decide to stop that cycle of having and hoarding and start a cycle of giving and grace. Their hearts lose all kinds of clutter, and their spirits are free to be filled with the deep and abiding richness of God’s love.

“How do we get from here to there?” Janet ponders. “I wish there were a clear outline of fail-safe steps. Obviously, there isn’t. But there are some strategies that can help. One is to engage in purposeful thanksgiving by making a list of blessings for which you are grateful. A fullness of heart sets the tone for discerning wants from needs.

“A second is to volunteer in a program that responds to the needs of the poor – a food bank, a soup kitchen, a thrift store. Such acts of service provide perspective.

“A third is to relate your giving to your own financial position. The long-standing practice is to tithe (commit 10 percent to the Lord’s work); other possibilities include contributing the amount of one’s water bill as a remembrance of one’s baptism or the equivalent of one’s communications bills as a form of prayer.”

Today’s Gospel story makes it clear that the value of our giving is not tied to the amount on the cheque. “Jesus sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny… [and Jesus said,] ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’”

My prayer for each of us today, is that we will have the courage of that poor widow to place our trust in the care and protection of God, our Maker… and that we may live free of the uncertainty of riches, so that we can give our gifts and our lives more and more generously and cheerfully for the sake of God’s coming Kingdom. Amen.