Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity Strathcona, Sept. 25, 2016
Texts: Jeremiah 32:1-3A, 6-15; 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31
At one time I was deeply involved in Stewardship in this Diocese, including 1½ years as Stewardship and Planned Giving Officer. In that capacity, I received many preaching invitations, most often to parishes that perceived themselves as needing help in their finances.
“Stewardship” has become an important word in church life over the last few decades. We did various financial programs before that, but an apparent overemphasis on money per se led us to look for a more “theological” term. It’s not a bad word—it has both biblical and theological import—but it seems to me that it has become a code-word for how we fund the church. I believe most church people, if asked, would now say that stewardship is about getting more money out of church members.
In my last parish, I got a strong negative reaction if I raised the question of Stewardship programs. Previous programs had used some strong-armed tactics. It ended up putting them in a worse financial situation than they might otherwise have been.
A few years ago the church renamed our national office of Stewardship and Financial Development as “Resources for Mission,” emphasizing that the main thing is the Church’s mission, which requires a variety of resources, including, but not limited to, money.
The church sits uneasily with money. I read of a recent meeting of national staff in which they had concluded that we need a new theology of money. I would agree, but I would drop the word “new”—have we have had any really coherent teaching on this subject? Historical church attitudes to money have veered between the extremes of seeking either great wealth or intentional poverty.
In my various parish visits for Stewardship preaching, the clergy often said to me that they were grateful that the Diocese had someone to come and talk about these things, things which made them very uncomfortable. I understand that: a parish priest speaking about money from the pulpit cannot help but be aware that his or her own stipend is a major line item in the parish’s budget—in many cases the largest single expense. It can sound like you’re begging—even if your theology of stewardship is totally sound.
This brings me to today’s lessons, all of which have something to do with money. Maybe they will help us (and maybe also Church House!) get a handle on a theology of money.
First, I Timothy, the source of one of the commonest and most erroneous Bible quotes. People often say that “money is the root of all evil,” but note what is actually written:
…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.
It is not money that matters but what we do with it in our lives and in our hearts. Money per se is ethically neutral, a convenient means of exchange, a means to an end, whether good or evil. It has no real existence beyond that, but how we regard it and use it has immense spiritual significance.
…in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
And further on,
(The rich) are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
It’s what we do with it that counts. God’s Mission is the all-important thing. If we have wealth, we are charged to use it for God’s purposes before ours. Regardless of our own personal wealth or poverty, the challenge is to seek the good, to look to know what will help advance the Kingdom of God in this world, and to use our God-given resources towards that goal.
Sometimes it may be very unclear what will actually advance the Kingdom. The prophet Jeremiah lived in just such a time of great uncertainty and anxiety. The Babylonians were threatening the Kingdom of Judah, the kings were weak, and the people had retreated behind a triumphalist theology. (God had made a covenant with them and would not allow his holy city and temple to fall. All they had to do was invoke his name.) The prophet saw otherwise, understanding the reality of the threat, and the people’s confidence to be misplaced. So he does a prophetic action: he buys some land. This looks like madness when the invading hordes are at your gates, but he offers it as a sign of hope. This may not seem the right time to affirm God’s purposes (probably better to be getting all your stuff together in preparation), but Jeremiah asserts that now is the time to work for the Kingdom.
If not me, then who?
If not here, then where?
If not now, then when?
The answer he gives us is “Me, here, and now.” It is always the right time and place to do God’s work.
And do it we must, lest we end like the rich man in the Gospel. There’s much else that could be said about this story, but it seems that at least part of the message is the injunction to do good when the opportunity presents itself. The rich man had years in which he could have helped Lazarus, but he did nothing. As Jesus tells it, the consequences are clear.
Notwithstanding the current recession, we live in one of the most fortunate countries in the world. The vast majority of our people are well-fed, decently housed, educated, and in good health. We have been given great riches, as a people, and as individuals.
Let us then not fail to use what God has given us for the good of God’s people and God’s world.
Let us keep the eyes of our Spirits open, that we may see the need around us.
And let us keep all of our resources at the ready to do God’s work.
May it be so.
Clergy get guilted a lot.
“You did this…”
“You didn’t do that…”
“You didn’t say…”
“You weren’t there…”
“You were there…”
Whatever they do (or don’t do), clerics have to expect that someone will be annoyed with it.
When I was in parish ministry, the thing I was most often criticized about was visiting. The model of ministry which I grew up with, and that most of my parishioners expected, was that the clergy would spent the largest amount of their time visiting their flock, in times of need and in almost every time. Just dropping in was totally acceptable.
When I started out, there were some people for whom that model worked, but far more for whom it didn’t. The folks for whom it worked were mostly older, very settled, and accustomed to receiving guests at the drop of a hat. Others? Younger folk had busier lives, fuller schedules, and were often not open to just welcoming someone into their home, even if they had nothing else on.
There’s a generational divide at work here, of course, but also a divide in lifestyles. My first parish was largely farm folk, for whom hospitality was a way of life. My second parish was mostly double-income families, at least one of them commuting. Commuter-suburb ministry turned out to be hugely different from farm-town ministry.
I have clergy friends who still regard visitation as the heart and soul of their work. That ended for me over 25 years ago. The change in my situation forced me to begin asking what parish ministry was really all about. Did it still mean that the pastor had to spend most of his/her time running around trying to find someone at home? Or did it mean that more time was spend building up the community so they could care for each other. and so be better equipped for mission?
I hope by now it should be no surprise that I decided that the latter was the appropriate course.
A community which is dependent for its existence only one person is no community at all. On the other other hand, if that one person has worked to enable the community to thrive through all sorts of tribulations and joys through the graces it possesses, that person has done something truly wonderful.
I didn’t do much visiting at all in my third and last parish. Do I feel guilty about that? Not at all! But I do feel gratified that I worked to build up a team of people who were committed to reaching “in” to care for the people within the community, building up the Body of Christ in ways that one person like me could never do.
Visiting people is important. Read what Jesus said about it in Matthew 25:31-40:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
This is not a call to a specialized group of people, but to all of God’s people.Don’t guilt your clergy about who they haven’t visited. Rather, ask yourself who you have reached out to.