I debated about putting the title of this sermon in the newsletter this week. It’s a dead giveaway: “Now, Concerning the Collection …” They are actually Paul’s words, not mine, but they let you know right away that it is time for the annual Stewardship Crusade; time for the annual “money” sermon.
Because we’ve been doing this the same way for a decade, I’ve been studying some of the ways other churches do this.
Some use the “Easy Payment Plan.” That’s where everyone does just as little as possible. The preacher never mentions money, no one gets offended, and nothing ever happens. The church never does anything. It’s comfortable and cozy, but, given the shape the world is in, I’m not the least bit interested in being in that kind of church. I don’t think you are either.
Then there’s the “Weep and Wail Plan,” sometimes known as the “running mascara” approach. That’s where the preacher cries and wails about what a crisis the church is in. It was made famous by … well, you can forget that one.
Some preachers use the “Pie in the Sky” approach, promising that you can buy your way into heaven. A friend told me about a pastor who got a call from the richest, meanest, nastiest man in town, who asked if he would go straight to heaven if he left his entire estate to the church. The pastor thought for a moment and said, “Well, I guess it’s worth a try.” But we believe we are saved by grace, and not by our works. So much for that one.
Then there is always the “Hard Sell” or the “Captain Hook” approach. The preacher takes after that guy in the TV commercials who breaks car windows with ball bats. In my favorite “Kudzu” comic strip, the Preacher is looking out over the pulpit with a beatific smile saying, “While the collection plate is passed, let me remind you about our Church Building Fund.” In the next frame he is leaning out over the pulpit with a rod in his hand, and all around him is the sound of a huge BZZZT. In the last frame he smiles to himself and says, “The cattle prod has done wonders for the building fund.”
I want you to know that we’ve considered all of these, but I prefer Paul’s approach. No tricks, no gimmicks, no wailing, no pleading. He just lays it out there: “Now, concerning the collection …,” and offers some very practical advice to the Christians in Corinth, which, by the power of the Spirit, is for us as well.
First, he writes:
“Every Sunday each of you must put aside some money, in proportion to what he has earned …”
He tells us to give systematically, regularly, and in proportion to what we have earned.
The members of the Finance Committee love this verse. After all, the electric bill comes here every month just like it comes to your home. The bank is downright touchy about those monthly mortgage payments. Even the United Methodist Publishing House sends a monthly bill for all that literature our children use in Sunday School. The Finance Committee wants me to point out to you that it’s right here in the Bible — inspired stuff. We are told to give regularly.
The reason for that pattern goes much deeper than church finances. We heard it last Sunday from one of our witnesses who described the way they include their commitment to the church as part of the family budget, right in there with the car payments and the braces on the kids’ teeth. It’s not a thing of responding to some special appeal or giving for a particular crisis. Christ’s work is not woven into the fabric of our daily lives until it is a regular part of who and what we are.
Paul also said to give proportionately in relation to what we earn.
Last week I suggested that the anxiety of our times might be driving a lot of folks back to Mayberry, with Andy, Opie, and Barnie Fife. Do you remember the time Andy gave a rich New Yorker a $100 speeding ticket? Here’s how he explained it to Barnie:
“You take Mr. Williams here. Just as I’m getting set to fine him $5, he takes out this grrreeeaat big roll of money and he says to me with his nose in the air — and that takes up a mess of sky — he says, ‘All right, let’s get it over with. How much is it — $5, $10?’ See a little old five or ten dollar bill couldn’t have meant less to Mr. Williams. So I just had to heavy up the price so he’d feel the weight of the law a little bit here.”
God is not a traffic cop and your pledge is not a fine. But that is exactly what Jesus taught. Did you know that Jesus talked more about money than He did about heaven? Do you remember that day He was in the Temple? The rich folks came by, dropping their gifts into those large silver offering containers. Everyone could hear the gifts clank to the bottom. No one noticed — no one but Jesus — when a poor widow brought two tiny coins and quietly dropped them in. No one heard it but Jesus, who said that she had given more than all the rest — because the rich folks gave out of their abundance, they never miss it, but she gave out of the sustenance of her living.
What matters to Jesus is not the size of the gift, but the difference it makes in the life of the giver. The important thing is not how much we give, but how much we have left over once we give it.
You’ve seen the figures. It will cost $23,122 per week for this church to do what our people want it to do next year. Every year someone asks me what it would cost per person to underwrite the budget; every year I figure it up. We have about eight hundred households, individuals, families — what the church finance folks call “giving units.” That means we could underwrite this budget with $28 per week per giving unit.
Right off, you can see the problem. For some of us, $28 a week would be an act of generosity bordering on extravagance, equal to the widow in the Temple. But, when you look at the tax rolls for our county, it becomes immediately obvious that, for most of us, $28 per week would be so selfish, so miserly that it would make the unconverted Ebenezer Scrooge look like a saint.
I’m one of those. If my family gave only $28 a week, we’d never miss it. Our giving would never cramp our style or make any difference in how we lived. There are some folks here who need to consider an annual commitment equal to one week of the church program, or $23,122 per year. For a few of us, if we gave that much we would still have too much left over. Some of us need to give $28 per week; some of us need to give $23,122 per year. Most of us are probably somewhere in between. The point is not the size of the gift, but the difference it makes in the life of the giver.
Paul developed this theme more fully in the second letter to Corinth. I hope you’ll read the 8th and 9th chapters this week. It’s great stuff. In addition to giving regularly and giving proportionate, he tells us to give as an expression of our love. Here’s what Paul says:
I am not laying down rules. But by showing how eager others are to help, I am trying to find out how real your own love is.
Here’s what George Bush said when he accepted the nomination for President:
Prosperity has a purpose … [It] means taking your idealism and making it concrete by certain acts of goodness.
Now, that’s worth hearing and remembering. In fact, it’s biblical. Jesus asked, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord …’ but do not do the things I say?” It’s not what we say about love that matters, but what we do, the certain acts of goodness by which we make love real. That’s what stewardship is about. It’s a way of using our wealth as a concrete expression of our love for Christ and for the people around us.
I really didn’t want to go to a church meeting yesterday. I’m developing an allergy to Saturday morning church meetings. I confess that I really resented being there. I’m sure it was just me, but I thought the organist was awful, the musical group sang flat, the prayer was too long, and the pews were uncomfortable. Have you ever felt that way?
But then Bishop Richard Wilke got up to speak. He is so real, so genuine, that he almost sounds like he just stepped in off the street and is telling you the truth about what’s going on out there. Out of his travels to churches across the nation, he described the kind of churches which are really making a difference in this world today.
First, he said, they are churches where people intentionally study the Bible.
He reminded us that we live in a biblically illiterate society. Try to find someone this week who can name five of the Ten Commandments. I dare you to find someone here this morning who can remember four of the eight Beatitudes. He told about a man who was asked what he thought of Lot’s wife. The man answered, “She was a pillar of salt by day and a ball of fire at night.”
If you got that joke, your biblical knowledge is way above the average. Most of the people around us would have no idea where to find the Christmas story.
Then I thought about the two hundred and some folks in this congregation who have been through the Disciple Bible study program. And I thought about the children, youth and adults who will be in Sunday School today. And I said, “Lord, that’s why we are here! To help people discover the vitality, the power of God’s Word.”
The Bishop said that the second mark of churches where people are being born anew is that they care about lonely, forgotten, marginalized people.
And I thought about our thirty Stephen Ministers, about the way they listen and care for people in crisis: the cancer patient who was nearing death, his wife and their children; the single parent who is trying to be mother and father, provider and caregiver for several small children; the teenager who watched a family member die. And I thought about the members of this congregation who spent last night at the Homeless Shelter, the ones serving meals at Daily Bread, the ones building a home for Habitat for Humanity.
I pictured the four hundred kids in our county who went back to school after Christmas with shoes that fit or a pair of blue jeans that had never been worn by someone else because you gave to the Christmas gift tree.
And I said, “Yes, Lord, that’s why we are here! To listen, to support, to love the lonely, the marginalized.”
The third one surprised me. Bishop Wilke said the churches where people are being born of the Spirit are places where the whole congregation cares about kids. Not just the youth director, the counselors, or the kids’ parents, but the whole congregation feels a sense of responsibility for the youth of our community.
Looking at our denomination as a whole, he asked: When did the United Methodist Church decide to give up on youth ministry? Was it the late sixties, when they started growing their hair long? Was it the seventies when their music got so loud? When did we decide that they just weren’t worth the trouble any more? When did we decide that it was no longer worth the effort to gather a bunch of kids around a campfire and ask them to give their lives to Jesus?
I realized that I’m one of those kids! I am who I am because of a church that thought I was worth saving when I felt like I wasn’t worth anything at all. I’m here today because of adults who helped me believe that there might be some way God could use my life. I thought about the children who are a part of this church family. And I said, “Yes, Lord, that’s why we are here! To make the love of Christ real in their lives.”
Now, concerning the collection …. no gimmicks, no tricks, no manipulation. Just the opportunity for each of us to decide just how much of ourselves we are willing to give to make real, to make concrete and tangible the love of Jesus Christ.