Don’t (Just) Send Money!

(Preached at Alma United Church on October 22, 2017)

The date: the third Tuesday of September, 2002.

For those of you in the know, the third Tuesday of the month back then was always the meeting of presbytery, and I had just started what would end up to be a two-year ministry at Zion/St. Andrew’s Pastoral Charge in Cambridge. I was there, and I found out that night that presbytery meetings can be life-disrupting, if you let them. Especially the announcements.

The Reverend Elizabeth Eberhardt-Moffat rose to speak about a program that Parkminster United Church was running for their youth called “Youth Trip to Central America.” A group of youth and leaders would be heading off in March to Nicaragua in order to participate in a Habitat for Humanity build, as well as to visit some of our Mission and Service partners. Did we know any youth who would like to go?

Now, at that point I was somewhat cautious of the whole “mission trip” idea. Wouldn’t it be best to send money, and employ people down there to build the houses? And what good would it be to send our youth to visit our mission partners? Was it just a ploy to get them to be life-long contributors, or was there a deeper purpose?

However, despite my caution, I did have a seventeen-year-old son who might be interested. His sister, to my way of thinking, was a bit too young—in Canada, you have to be sixteen in order to participate in a Habitat for Humanity build.

However, when Allison found out I was only considering David, she got a bit upset, and made me promise to ask if it was okay for her to go too. Months later, after a number of Saturdays spent at Parkminster learning Spanish, and Nicaraguan history, and how to function as a group, both Allison and David were off to Nicaragua.

Two weeks later, two very different teens got off the plane.

A number of people have wondered, over the years, why my two elder children, of all the young people they grew up with, stayed with the church. And not just stayed with it, but became actively involved, David as an ordained minister, Allison as a Sunday School teacher.

My answer is simple. They’ve been involved in service since they were very small children.

I took them to nursing and retirement homes when I preached, and they played their instruments. They helped pack shoeboxes and hampers. They took part in church dramas and musicals and worship services.

But most of all, they went to Nicaragua.

The ordination rate from that first group of what would eventually become “TCOW” (Two Countries, One World) was somewhere above twenty percent.

Think about that. What would our church be like if twenty percent of all the kids who passed through our Sunday Schools and youth groups felt called to work within the church as paid accountable ministers? What if another twenty percent wanted to become lay teachers and leaders?

It would change their lives, and ours.

But why does service have such an effect? Isn’t learning about poverty and injustice enough?

My answer to that is, not really.

What we miss when we send money, and stay in our little churches and learn, is the personal contact with those not like us. And it isn’t the money and the learning that changes us, it’s the personal contact with other human beings.

I can learn about the injustice we’ve done to our First Nations people. I can send money to be put in the Healing Fund. But nothing beats sitting on the concrete floor of a bus station, listening to a beautiful young man dying of AIDS tell me his story as he sips some kind of alcohol from a discarded Tim Horton’s cup.

I never learned his name, but only that he was from Vancouver and had contracted AIDS after sharing a needle with a woman who had tested clean, and yet was in the three month “window period” before the disease could be detected by the tests.

We can sit here and learn about poverty in Canada. We can donate to the food banks. But we’ll understand more if we sit with the people we’re helping, and ask them what’s going on in their lives, and is there anyway else we can help.

We can work for prison reform, but nothing beats visiting a woman from Nova Scotia in an Ontario women’s prison who’s there, far from family and friends, because there weren’t any federal prisons for women anywhere else. Or of talking to the chaplain, and learning that if she’d been white, or able to afford a better lawyer, she probably wouldn’t even have been convicted. Or of hearing that despite the fact that she had never taken the last name of her abusive ex-husband, the bureaucrats in the system insisted that she be called by that name.

Personally serving—feeding, clothing, housing, visiting—brings us into contact with others in a way that sending money does not.

When I worked at Forest Grove United Church, a woman who volunteered at the Out of the Cold program told me that her husband had been reluctant to participate, but that she had finally convinced him to go with her one day. That evening, while serving the meal, he met a former co-worker, lining up for food.

And that man realized that there but for the grace of God go I.

In the book bullseye, Jamie Holtum and Debbie Johnson separate “service” and “giving generously”. Both are necessary, and Christians who aim to follow Jesus should be growing in both areas, and not assuming that because they give to the food bank or the Mission and Service fund that they can stay home and not get their hands dirty.

Jesus tells the disciples much the same thing. When told that the thousands are hungry, he says to his disciples, “You feed them.” Not “pay someone else to feed them,” or “tell them to share with each other,” or “tell them to go home,” but “You feed them.”

When asked for an example of what it means to be a neighbour, Jesus tells a story about a Samaritan who stopped, bound wounds, transported the victim, and took him to shelter.

We are instructed by Jesus to do. To heal, to comfort, to feed, clothe, and shelter.

We are instructed to get involved in the world and with other people.

We are instructed to get to know our enemies, and our outcasts, and those who are simply different from us. To learn their stories, to understand their points of view.

We are being told that giving money isn’t enough.

We are being asked to give ourselves.

A story is told that during the bombing of a city in World War II, a large statue of Jesus Christ was severely damaged. When the townspeople found the statue among the rubble, they mourned because it had been a beloved symbol of their faith and of God’s presence in their lives.

Experts were able to repair most of the statue, but its hands had been damaged so severely that they could not be restored. Some suggested that they hire a sculptor to make new hands, but others wanted to leave it as it was—a permanent reminder of the tragedy of war. Ultimately, the statue remained without hands. However, the people of the city added on the base of the statue of Jesus Christ a sign with these words: “You are my hands.”

You are the hands of Christ. Go into the world, and use those hands to serve.

Amen.

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Send Money!

(Preached at Alma United Church on November 12, 2017)

An American joke for you, but it could very well be Canadian, too:

Two well-worn bills arrived at the Federal Reserve Bank to be retired – a $100 and a $1. As they traveled down the conveyor belt, they struck up a conversation. The hundred reminisced about the interesting life he had, traveling all over the country.

“I’ve been to the finest restaurants, Broadway shows, Las Vegas, and amusement parks,” he said. “I even want on a Caribbean cruise once. Where have you been?”

“Oh,” said the one dollar bill, “I’ve been to a Methodist church, an Episcopal church, a Baptist church, and a Lutheran church.”

“What’s a church?” asked the hundred.

Would you pray with me and for me, please…

Today is the fifth sermon in the bullseye series. So far in the series, we’ve explored drawing closer to God through worshipping weekly, using spiritual practices, creating authentic community, and serving, and so far in the series, I’ve felt like I’ve been preaching to the choir, so to speak. You and I might have learned a little more about these topics, and we might have been a little bit challenged, but in general, we’re doing okay. Not only that, we don’t mind talking about these topics in church. Reading the bible and praying and worshipping and caring for one another and serving are what we’re all about, right?

So it’s natural we talk about those topics.

Today and next week are going to be a bit more challenging. This week, I’m going to explore the bullseye target of giving generously, and next week I’m going to talk about sharing Christ.

Lots of churches seem fixated on sex. Homosexuality is a sin, adultery is a sin, sex before marriage is a sin. More churches, especially moderate churches like the United church, talk about social justice and social service. Many of our sermons are about how to live a more Christian life.

And yet how seldom we talk about money. In my experience, these talks happen twice a year—the first time when we make the budget for the year, and the second time, just before Christmas, when the finance committee realizes that its projections of givings were a bit (or a lot) optimistic, and appeals to the congregation to increase its offerings so that we can make budget.

There’s a lot of guilt involved. There’s a lot of “we can” or “we can’t” afford this or that. There’s a lot of worry involved—will we have enough to fix the windows or put on a new roof or pay the minister? Sometimes members of the finance committee have seemed to me to be a bit like Chicken Little—“The sky is falling! The sky is falling! The church is going to go under if we don’t get more money in the offering plates!” I’ve sat in church meetings where it was stated that the biggest problem was that the church needed “more bums in the pews so that there would be more money in the plate so that we can keep up our beautiful building.”

But in my years of being a church member and in sitting in on budget discussions, I haven’t heard a lot of Christ brought into the discussion.

Which is a bit odd, when you think about it.

Jesus said nothing at all about homosexuality. He said very little about adultery—there are only two references in all four gospels. He says nothing at all about war, with only one reference to peace, and one saying about interpersonal violence.

The gospels do mention him going to worship, and of course he talked about caring for others, and led by example in this regard.

But in the gospel of Luke alone, there are at least 37 references to money. Jesus talks a lot about money. How we acquire our wealth and how we spend our wealth are of utmost importance to Jesus.

Part of our problem, especially in North America, is our affluence. When we hear Jesus say to the rich young man, “Go, sell all your possessions,” we don’t put ourselves in his place, because we don’t consider ourselves rich. We identify with the poor widow putting in two coins, and not the rich man ostentatiously putting in a large sum. We hear, “Blessed are you poor,” but fail to hear, “Woe to you who are rich.”

After all, we’re not rich. Are we? Just a show of hands: who here considers themselves to be rich?

Who here thinks that they are in the top ten percent of wealth owners globally?

Here’s something that I found a bit shocking: It wasn’t news to me that only 8.4 percent of the worlds population controls a whopping 84.6 percent of global assets. What I did find eye-opening was that the amount of assets needed to put a person in that 8.4 percent was only a hundred thousand dollars.

In Canada, that means that anyone who owns more of their home than the bank does is in the top 8.4 percent of worldwide asset owners.

We tend to think of “the rich” as those who are super-rich. Billionaires like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet. Not us poor Canadian farmers and factory workers! But the truth is, we live in a wonderful country, and all but the very poorest of us are rich in comparison with the majority of the world’s population.

So when we look at money, and what Jesus has to say about it, maybe we can look with different eyes.

The first thing I’d like to explore is what our culture has to say about money. Money is important in present day society—all of our indicators about how well we’re doing hinge around money: Gross Domestic Product is a dollar amount; the Poverty Line is a dollar amount; minimum wage is a dollar amount; the price of groceries or gas is a dollar amount.

And yet, for something so important, we’re not taught to talk about it rationally, and we generally don’t even think about it until disaster is imminent. Then when we do think about it, we have all the emotions that come with being in trouble: guilt, pain, fear. So as soon as the trouble goes away, we stop really thinking about money or keeping track, and we’re headed for trouble again.

An example of this is seen in those who win huge amounts in the lottery. On average, it takes just seven years for a lottery winner to blow through their money and end up back where they started, or even worse. Seven years, for a win that should have had them and their heirs living well for generations.

Most parents keep their financial situation from their children. They don’t share their budgeting process, if they have one, and the most common way they “teach” their children how to handle money is by giving them an allowance that’s often too small to pay for more than the cheapest things.

Our schools teach almost nothing about budgeting and saving and investing.

And the wider world is more invested on parting us from our money than teaching us how to handle it. Even bank investment councillors are little more than salespersons, who have quotas to make in order to increase the banks profits.

Ever present advertisements tell us that we need to spend in order to be happy. Buy this car, this beer, this trip, and all that horrible work will be worth it!

How many of us have ever heard or seen an ad that says, “Hey! You don’t need to buy that new iPhone—your old one still works just fine!”?

The world wants us to spend or give based on emotional response, not thought. Even many charities use emotional response as a tool for getting money from your bank account to theirs, and it doesn’t always result in the most effective solutions to world problems.

One tool that Christians can use to take away the emotional response factor in purchasing and investing and giving is to take the time to budget. Sit down on a regular basis with your bank book and really think about where you want your income to go, and what you want from your assets. What do you truly value, and are your expenditures a reflection of those values? And please, for the sake of future generations, include children and grandchildren in these talks!

The second thing I’d like us to explore is gratitude. Hearing that middle class Canadians are among the richest people in the world brings to me a feeling of gratitude. What a wonderful place we live in! Our crops are usually bountiful, we have a diverse industrial base, we have world-class universities. Our wealth enables us to fund social programs like universal health care and social assistance programs that mean that even the poorest among us have something, even if it’s not quite enough by our standards. As someone who isn’t rich, I’m grateful that I live in a country where others have more than enough and are willing to fund government programs that benefit all Canadians and not just some.

And gratitude can bring us to a place where we realize that all that we have truly comes from God. So often, we tend to think that we’ve earned what we have by the sweat of our brows, and so it is ours, ours, ours!

By widening my focus to a more global scale, I realize how untrue that thought is. Do I really work harder than a young girl in Africa who has to walk a mile or more just to get water for her family to cook and wash? Do I work harder than the factory worker in Bangladesh who made my blue jeans? I know I don’t—in large part, my wealth is not due to my own efforts, but to the fact that I’m white, I’m educated, and I live in Canada.

As Christians, we believe that everything belongs to God, and we are only stewards. But when it comes to giving, we think that we are “losing” something. We sing the words, “We give thee but thine own,” but fail to really feel them in our hearts.

What if, instead of saying to ourselves, “I’m really generous—I’m giving ten percent of my income to the church!” we think, “How generous it is that God lets us keep 90 percent of what isn’t ours in the first place?”

So how do we go about fixing our relationship to money?

When I first read this book, and decided I wanted to go through it with a congregation, I thought to myself that perhaps I should do it first. I’ve told you about my experiments with daily devotions, but the other thing I decided to work on was my relationship with money.

I started by taking the suggestion of turning the usual approach to budgeting on it’s head. After reading many books on the subject, I’d had author after author suggest that giving was an important part of financial acumen, but that saving and paying bills came first. Authors Jamie Holtom and Debbie Johnson instead suggest this: Share, save, give. So I decided that I would set apart my givings first, which is also the Biblical standard. I did not start at ten percent. Instead, I calculated what percentage I usually gave, when I did give, and decided that I’d continue with that amount, only budgeting for it first, before anything else came out of my income. As I grow more confident with the process, and as my income increases so that I’m earning more than I need for the basics of life, I hope to increase that percentage. But it’s working. I now don’t end up on Sunday morning wondering if I have the money to put in the envelope, and feeling guilty if I don’t—it’s all taken care of!

Holtom and Johnson suggest that if you want to increase your givings, but you’re not really sure you can, to take the pressure off a little. If you’re new to weekly giving, start small and work up, as I’m doing. If you’ve been giving for most of your life, but are inspired to try and increase your givings to a true tithe or even more, you can either work up to a new level gradually, as I’ve suggested, or pick a target and try it for a month or three to find out how it works for you.

Either way, I think that you will see changes. When your focus changes from what you’re giving away to what God has given you, you move from living in scarcity to living in abundance. You’ll be able to ignore the fear-mongering of sales people trying to tell you that you won’t have enough for retirement, to leave to your children, to pay for your funeral, and so on. You’ll realize that you don’t need a new car or watch or vacation to feel rich, because you already feel blessed.

You’ll see that you’re not giving  your  money to God, but rather that you’re investing God’s money in God’s mission.

You’ll find out not only that you can give, but that you want to give.

And that’s truly cause for celebration!

Amen.

 

Introduction to the Offering

The pastor of a tiny country church had been having trouble with stewardship and tithes and offerings.  One Sunday he announced, “Now, before we receive the offering, I would like to request that the person who stole the eggs from Widow Jones’s chicken coop please refrain from giving any money to the Lord. God doesn’t want money from a thieving sinner.”

The offering plate was passed, and for the first time in months everybody gave.