Matthew 6:19-34

Sixth Sunday of Thanksgiving

A small booklet published recently by the Congregational Vitality Initiative of our denomination asks the question, “Are You Ready to Talk about Money in Your Church?’’ Of course, what makes this question so discomforting is that even though Jesus spoke about money issues only slightly less often than about the realm of God, many churches subscribe to an unspoken taboo against talking about money. So what about us?

By way of adding levity to an often tense conversation, or in the words of our Gospel reading this morning, seeking “to get us to relax,” this booklet asks a number of humorous questions. For example, as our annual stewardship sermon on the “amount” begins, are our first thoughts:

  1. “Did I leave the oven on?” or
  2. “I’m so glad my shallow, materialistic neighbor is here to hear this” or
  3. “Ok, hit me with your best shot, hot stuff!” or
  4. “I wonder what God might have to say to me today about my own finances?”

At least for those of us who value the ministry of our faith community, we could think of Stewardship Sunday as one of our high Holy Days, when we rejoice in the opportunity to give generously of the resources with which we have been blessed in support of the ministry through which we receive and share the blessings of our extravagantly generous and endlessly loving God. But instead, it is not uncommon to see what our Stewardship Ministry Team has come to call “the grimace” when the word stewardship is even mentioned.

Why then is it that something which might be a source of joy is often perceived as a source of dis-ease? Last year, we diagnosed the problem as “cirrhosis of the giver,” and suggested that healing from this debilitating heart condition could best be effected through opening our hearts to the reckless generosity of God’s unlimited love. But perhaps even more pernicious as a barrier to our full embrace of the JOY of Stewardship is the dis-ease Ken Matejka has identified as being foremost among a common “hierarchy of greeds”—the pervasive and enervating, “Money-Nucleosis!” Although the Bible is often misquoted as claiming that “money is the root of all evil,” it is actually not money itself, but rather “the love of money” that Paul decries. And it is precisely this danger that Jesus seeks to address when he warns us that we cannot serve both God and Money, as if there were no conflict between them, or worse still, as if our relationship with God could be divorced from our relationship with money. Indeed, it is this tendency to underestimate the determinative effects of our money upon our individual and corporate lives that American Jesuit theologian John Haughey names when he laments that “we read the Gospel as if we had no money, and we spend our money as if we know nothing of the Gospel.”

Thus it is that our Stewardship theme this year is about “transforming our relationship with money,” thereby both acknowledging that we do have a relationship with money, and suggesting that that it might be both possible and desirable for this relationship to be transformed in some way. As has been true for a few years now, we are once again projecting a significant shortfall in funding our church’s ministry spending plan for 2012. Yet, as will be explained during our Stewardship Luncheon Presentation following our worship service this morning, this troubling future has not yet been determined for us. To be sure, we may need to make some difficult choices with regard to further restricting the ministry we wish to fund, but it’s still equally possible that we might choose to embrace the JOY of Giving in such heretofore unprecedented ways that we could live into an entirely different future than the one currently projected. As we’ll discuss following lunch today, our current median pledge is only a little more than 1% of Plainfield’s median income, which is actually really good news, as it means that we still have significant resources among us that we just have not yet managed to draw upon more fully. For example, if each of embraced the spirit of planned, purposeful, proportionate giving in such a way as to increase our 2012 pledge by just 1% of our household income, we would not only close the gap between currently projected spending and income, but we would even have sufficient resources to dream about new ministry initiatives we have long felt called to engage in!

But although our church does need our generous financial commitments in order most fully to embody the ministry we so cherish, the primary reason for transforming our relationship with money through embracing the Joy of Giving is not about our church’s need to receive from us, but rather our need to be people whose generosity more nearly reflects that of the One whose image we bear. From within the context of our consumer, materialistic culture, wherein a sense of the scarcity of never having enough is intentionally cultivated within and among us, being invited to give can feel threatening and burdensome; hence, the stewardship grimace! In addition to the very real expenses weighing heavily upon us all, we live within a culture that encourages conspicuous spending and accumulation, consistently prodding us to buy more, bigger, better, newer, in such a way that we are perpetually dissatisfied with whatever we currently have, and seducing us into believing that our salvation and happiness lie in just acquiring next whatever it is we still do not have. At its worst, such money-nucleosis is both paralyzing and anti-thetical to any form of generosity or sharing with others.

Yet the Good News is that as people created in the image of the One whose nature it is to give and give again, we too have a built-in need to give, and ultimately know our greatest joy to arise not out of what we possess for ourselves, but out of what we give of ourselves by way of meeting someone else’s need and/or making our world a better place. Indeed, the Hebrew word for salvation has more to do with freedom and liberation, than with security and stability. Spiritually speaking, therefore, as a way of resisting the burden of ever-increasing accumulation and the anxiety of never having enough, being invited to give can feel welcome and liberating; hence, the joy of stewardship! As Anthony Robinson writes in his book, Stewardship for Vital Congregations, “few other single aspects of the church’s life hold such possibility for personal growth in relationship with God and for personal transformation,” precisely because the spirituality of stewardship nurtures the generosity of our hearts in contrast to the worries of our fears. Just as the affliction of money-nucleosis stifles our generosity with fear and anxiety, so the spirituality of stewardship nourishes our God-given generosity with trust and love.

Although it’s certainly true that when Jesus spoke about our relationship with money, he wasn’t counseling specific support for any form of church per se, it’s also true that he was concerned about the dangers of money-nucleosis even in his day. Hence this morning’s Gospel reading, wherein Jesus invites us out of the worry that always accompanies being overly concerned about having enough money, into the joy of seeking first the realm of God, reminding us that not only can we not serve both money and God, but that where our treasure is, there will be our hearts as well. In essence, Jesus is urging us to resist allowing ourselves to be defined by our wealth and/or our possessions, and instead use our resources by way of living that which matters most to us. In stark contrast to our culture’s obsession with conspicuous consumption, our faith calls us to conspicuous generosity, assuring us that our hearts will actually feel more free and joy-filled precisely to the extent that we dare to let go of that which our culture tells us we need in order to feel fulfilled and secure. The spirituality of stewardship loosens our grip on what our culture tells us is ours to hold, for the sake of living the love of the One who reminds us that nothing is really ours to begin with. As Richard Foster observes in his book, Money, Sex, & Power, “God’s ownership of everything also changes the kind of question we ask in giving. Rather than ‘How much of my money should I give to God?’ we learn to ask, ‘How much of God’s money should I keep for myself?’ The difference between these two questions is of monumental proportions.” Or put more humorously, in response to a man’s pulling away from a full immersion baptism because he had forgotten to remove his wallet, a wise pastor called out, “come back now—we already have too many un-baptized wallets among us!”

Of course, almost by definition, those of us gathered here today have already begun to move beyond our culture’s money-nucleosis. To be part of a faith community is to affirm our understanding that God’s economy is based more upon gift and grace than upon merit and product. And at the heart of such a “gift” economy is counter-cultural recognition that it in giving that we receive that which matters most to our hearts and souls. But by the same token, one of the primary reasons why we gather together as part of this alternative economic community of abundance, is to find support and encouragement for daring to risk ever more extravagant generosity over and against a culture which insidiously stifles us with fear and a sense of pervading scarcity. To find the strength and courage to redirect our treasure away from further consumption toward more generous sharing, we need God and each other, so that we know that we are not alone, and we have others with whom to share our stories of deeper fulfillment and fuller life through stretching out of our comfort zones. Perhaps this is why Jesus advised that where our treasure is, there too shall be our hearts. Had he said instead that where our hearts are, there will be our treasure, we would have readily understood him. When we use our money to purchase or support something we believe in, we are putting our treasure where our hearts are, and as dangerous as this can be at our worst, so too can it be incredibly beautiful and inspiring at our best. But much more pernicious at its worst, and transformative at its best, is the wisdom that our hearts follow our treasure. And indeed, that what we do with our treasure reveals the condition and priorities of our hearts.

Herein, then, lies the joy of stewardship, the opportunity to continue moving beyond the hold of money-nucleosis upon our lives into the spiritual health and well-being of the generosity which is the essence of life itself. Each year at this time in the life of our faith community, we are invited prayerfully to consider what matters most in our lives, and the extent to which our evolving relationship with money will reflect the values of our faith. None of us would be here today if our wallets had not already been baptized into the joy of giving, but how does remembering this baptism make a difference in our discernment as to how much we choose to pledge in support of the ministry of this faith community? Each of us is here because we have already decided to put at least some of our treasure where our hearts are as partners in this ministry we are privileged to share together. But how much larger might be the percentage of our income pledged for the coming year if we dared to share even more of our treasure than our hearts yet tell us is prudent and possible? Far from being neutral and detached, stewardship is inevitably a measure of the generosity of our hearts, which in turn speaks to our relationship with our money. Through and beyond the voices of our culture which tend to stifle our generosity with fears of not having enough, or even ambivalence about foregoing some purchase by virtue of honoring whatever pledge commitment we seek to fulfill, Susan and I have been amazed by how our relationship with money has been transformed, and how our hearts have opened, as we have sought to embrace the joy of increasing our pledge each year in accordance with the principles of planned, purposeful, and proportionate giving which we will discuss further during our luncheon conversation immediately following this morning’s worship service. We know this has likewise been true for many of you, and we pray that each of us will be emboldened to take yet another step this year along our shared journey beyond the dis-ease of money-nucleosis, into the extravagant generosity of our God whose giving knows no ending. Amen.

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