November 8, 2015

Jeremiah 29:4-14
Matthew 6:19-21
Luke 19:1-10

“Free to Be Rich”

This month we are talking about stewardship and reflecting on what we do with the money and other gifts that we have received. The weekly themes come from a resource prepared by the Ecumenical Stewardship Centre, with today’s theme focus titled, “Free to be Rich.”

I must say that I was a bit surprised by that title at first. It seemed almost in contrast to the Gospel story that Patti shared this morning with the children. Zacchaeus wasn’t so much “Free to be Rich” as he was becoming “Free to be Poor” when he met Jesus and got inspired to give his money away.

When I read the title, “Free to be Rich,” I immediately began to worry that this resource might be promoting what is often called the “prosperity gospel.” I remembered being down in the United States a few years ago, turning on the TV, and finding that about half the channels were showing TV evangelists. After searching for something I was more interested in watching without success, I turned back to one of the evangelists to see what she was teaching.

I remember the Scripture verse she focussed on very well, because she repeated it over and over – Luke 6:38 – “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

While the evangelist preached… “a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over… a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over…” a message scrolled across the bottom of the screen – a toll-free number that viewers could call to make their donations to her ministry.

She told stories about people who had given large sums to her ministry in the past. They gave, and then they won the lottery. They gave, and then their investments doubled in value. They gave, and then their businesses flourished, or they got promoted at work, or they received an unexpected inheritance.

I laughed at the ridiculousness of her promises. And then I cried because people were in fact giving. I could see the donations coming in on the TV screen.

And this woman’s preaching would continue to deceive people into giving so that they would get rich. Imagine that! Giving motivated by greed, instead of giving motivated by love, generosity, or commitment.

Of course, we know that Jesus’ words are still true: “the measure we give will be the measure we get back” – just not the interpretation that the TV evangelist had on those words. When we give of ourselves, whether it be in money, time, or talent, we do get as much back – just not in the form of cash!

The abundance we receive will not be in the form of money, but it might be in joy, in peace, and in meaning and purpose in life. It might be in the feeling of fulfillment that comes from participating in God’s good purposes in the world, and making a difference in other people’s lives.

When asked what matters most in life, the vast majority of people don’t say it’s money or possessions, but they claim that faith in God and relationships with family and friends top the list. We know that these are the things that make our lives truly rich, but we don’t always act like it.

Even when such blessings are ours in abundance, most people do not describe themselves as rich. It is difficult to stop comparing ourselves to those who have more material wealth and to see ourselves as having more than enough. It is challenging to open the clenched fists that are holding on tight so that open hands are free to receive God’s gifts.

This morning we read a passage from the prophet Jeremiah who was bringing words of encouragement and advice to the People of Israel who were in exile in Babylon. As you likely remember, the city of Jerusalem had been conquered, and many of the people had been exiled to Babylon where they had to get used to different cultures, different religions, and different ways. Many of them struggled with their predicament and began to despair that they would ever find their way home again.

This passage resonated in my mind and heart as I reflected on the last few weeks in and around St. Andrew’s. At the end of October, the Session, Board, and Stewardship Committee had a joint meeting to examine our church finances because some were starting to worry or even to despair. The bottom line is that we are likely on our way to another deficit year, and without the surplus in the bank that we had the last few years, this will soon become a significant problem.

As we met and looked at the figures, there was no denying the fact that we need more money to keep running our programs and doing our ministry in and from this building. But as I reflected on our situation, I also became very aware of the richness of our congregation.

I am reminded of a minister who, at this time of the year, reported to his congregation that he had some good news and some bad news for them. The good news is, he said, we have enough money to balance the budget and even end up with a surplus this year for more mission and outreach. The bad news is that some of that money is still in your pockets! And then he called for the offering.

Our treasurer tells me that if everyone in our church made a commitment to tithe (even a 5% tithe, rather than the traditional 10%) that we would have more than enough money to meet our budget requirements and do much more.

But we are also rich in many other ways. We are blessed with a wonderful church family, with a growing number of young families in our midst, with amazing staff who love God and serve the church well, with a committed Session and Board, as well as committees and groups through which many people offer their gifts of time, talent, and service.

We have a building in which to worship, and from which to reach out into the heart of the city. And we have a strong legacy of ministry and mission from those who came before us over the past 90 years. We have to give thanks to God and celebrate the richness that is ours, and the abundant love, mercy, and grace that God is continually pouring into our lives.

When the exiles were struggling in Babylon, the Lord encouraged them through the prophet to keep on doing what they knew they should be doing. Build houses, have families, and live in that place. And I believe that we are called to do the same… worship God, nurture faith, build community, care for one another, and reach out in love. We have to keep on doing the ministry and mission for which we have been called.

But Jeremiah adds something extra. He says, Seek the welfare of the city in which you live, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. I think that means that we must resist the temptation to hunker down and focus our attention only on our own needs… guarding the little that we have for our own purposes.

The fact is that our mission and service to others is what we are all about. The theologian Emil Brunner expressed this beautifully: “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.”

Like the exiles, we don’t know exactly what lies ahead on our journey, or how long it will take to get there. That’s why we have to trust that God has plans for us – plans for our welfare, plans for our prosperity and not for harm, to give us a future with hope.

In the meantime, we may need a change in perspective to see the richness that is already ours. The Rev. Dr. Janet Long tells about such a change in perspective, as she invites us to take the view of a child:

“In the congregation I serve,” Janet explains, “we have a very large jar in the building corridor every Sunday for collecting coins. It is for the benefit of a home for at-risk children in our area to help change the lives of those children our ‘other family.’ On one occasion when the jar was nearly full and the decision was made to empty the jar and count the money to give to the home, the children were asked how much they thought was in the jar. One little boy, with an incredibly big heart, said he thought the jar contained $50,000.

“Actually, it held $1,200. But through a program of tithing on a capital campaign, that same home received well over $50,000 from our congregation to address capital needs on its campus. Acknowledging that paying off our building mortgage wasn’t the only thing that mattered freed us to be rich.

“Often that’s all it takes: the realization that one’s own needs aren’t the full story. Recognizing opportunities to be a blessing to others makes one very rich indeed.”

One final thought: The author of Psalm 23 uses the image of the overflowing cup to describe God’s presence and care filling his life with blessings so abundant that they overflow to bless the lives of others. May we know today that our cups also are full to overflowing, and may we give thanks to God. Amen.