Matthew 6:19-21/Luke 12:32-34
by Daniel Harrell
You may remember a story from a few years ago I told about this beautiful stone congregational church near Boston where Frank and Peggy Johnson’s daughter, Katie, and her family attend. I used to bike past it all the time. The congregation wanted to raise $100,000 to renovate their rundown Sunday School space for kids and organized a stewardship committee to do it. As they licked their last stewardship campaign envelope for the mail, a Hollywood movie scout approached with an offer of $10K to film a wedding scene for an upcoming Adam Sandler movie (Massachusetts used to give big tax breaks for movie-makers). The movie plot involved a teenager who gets his schoolteacher pregnant. The wedding scene takes place several years later, when the offspring of this illicit union is a grown man getting married himself. The scene had something to do with the guy punching a guest who wouldn’t shut off his cell phone. Or maybe the minister punched him, I don’t remember.
Adam Sandler movies notwithstanding, $10K would be a great start to the stewardship campaign. But then the committee got to thinking through the details of accommodating a movie crew. The whole thing was out of their league. The pastor at the time described his church as a classic mainline, main-street, tall-steeple, in-bed-with-the-larger-culture kind of place, not at all a Hollywood kind of place. Nervously, the church declined the $10K, only to have the scout counter with an offer of $60K. Turning down this much money would require a Congregational Meeting. So everybody got together after worship one Sunday to pray and discern the right thing to do. Most members turned out to be pragmatic types—along a few Adam Sandler fans—all of whom thought it fine to take the money. Congregationalists don’t believe their buildings are the church. The church is the people. Besides, times were tight. This unexpected windfall would be a huge help to the kids. They’d get a brand new Sunday School wing. There really wasn’t much to pray about.
Except that a small number of the members, five to be exact, very much opposed their church building being as a backdrop for a movie that gets its laughs from adolescent sexual exploitation. The Congregational Meeting went round and round about this for several hours, seeking a consensus we Congregationalists assume signals confirmation from the Holy Spirit. But with no consensus coming, they resorted to a show of hands. The majority ruled it best to take the money and try to patch things up with the people who were offended later.
Just then one of the deacons, who voted for taking the money, stood up and said how saying yes to this offer was going to hurt some members of the congregation whom everybody loved. “So I guess the question isn’t about a movie,” he said, “It’s about us. Is $60,000 worth causing a rift in our relationships?” Five minutes later the congregation reached a consensus: they turned down the Hollywood money even though most of them thought it was OK to accept it. They went from polarized to selfless in a matter of seconds. The pastor remarked, “I have mouthed unanswered prayers inviting the Holy Spirit to join our meetings dozens of times. I have interrupted agendas to speak confidently about his presence when he is nowhere to be found. This time I kept my mouth shut, and Jesus walked right in.”
Our own story has nothing to do with the ethical appropriateness of accepting a Hollywood windfall, but it does have to do with a lot of money, 4.5 million dollars, more or less—not much for Adam Sandler, or Tom Brady or our new President and most of his cabinet—but it’s a lot for a church. Our windfall isn’t unexpected manna from heaven either, but the fruit of astute stewardship and shrewd leadership—it came from the unexpected sale of the asset next door; money we already had but just couldn’t access in full. Still, given the way a lot of money can ruin your life—the love of money being the root of all evil—I can’t help but think of these millions as a challenge from God for our church—not unlike Jesus’ parable of the talents where a master gave each of three stewards a rather large allotment of money. Two stewards doubled their talents, putting the money to good work and earning accolades from their master, while the third, due to laziness and disregard, buried his talent in the ground and was fiercely berated. Like that Boston congregation, we want to heed the Spirit and discern what is right, which shouldn’t be so hard. Jesus had a lot to say about money and what to do with it. So much so that our challenge may have more to do with obedience than with discernment.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,” he cautioned here in Matthew’s gospel, “where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal.” The word treasures can also be translated treasury or storehouse or even storage unit, to use modern parlance, where if yours is like mine, things I never use pile up because surely I still need them. The self-storage industry is a $32 billion a year operation. That’s a lot of stuff. I watched a documentary while recuperating this week about reducing clutter and material dependence. Its closing admonition: Love people, use things, not the other way around. Jesus’ admonishes us similarly to “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” In Luke’s gospel Jesus says this means love people and not things. indeed: “Sell your things and give to the needy and you’ll store for yourself an unfailing treasury.” While this sounds lovely and irrefutably Christian, we know it’s totally unrealistic. Selling all our stuff to give to the poor would only make us the poor and what good would that do?
The good, I think, is Jesus’ punchline in both Matthew and Luke: “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We will care about what costs us. The more we’re invested the more it matters. Real generosity entails sacrifice. The cross is the supreme example of this—the high bar toward which we are continually called as congregations and individuals. Jesus places a high priority on losing our life to follow him. This is hard to do in America—unless Jesus could have also meant losing your lifestyle.
This thought invariably leads to the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus point blank what he must do to be saved, and after a bit of back and forth, Jesus replied, “Go, sell however much you own, give the money to the poor, and then come, follow me and you will have treasure in heaven.” Nobody likes this passage. Adding to the un-likability, Jesus goes on to describe how hard it is for rich people to get into heaven—harder than to thread a needle with a camel. Believers have always been bothered by this, beginning with Jesus’ disciples who would have considered wealth to be a sign of God’s favor. The rich man kept all Ten Commandments. That’s why he was rich. If a pious rich guy can’t squeeze in, what chance do poor sinners have?
This thought invariably leads to another story about a poor widow who gave everything she had to her church. Unlike the pompous rich folks who sauntered up to the offering box and dumped over gratuitous sums of cash out of their surplus, this poor widow gave her last two pennies. Jesus called attention to her sacrifice presumably because that’s how we should all act when it comes to our own money. The poor widow put her treasure where her heart was and trusted God to provide for her needs. It’s not that her two cents were really going to help the church make budget, but if everybody followed her example, church finances would be in spectacular shape. This is why she shows up so often in stewardship sermons.
But a closer read doesn’t reveal Jesus approving of the poor widow’s sacrificial gift. All he says is that she “put in more than all those who contributed out of their abundance” because “she put in all she had to live on.” The children’s version of the widow’s story we used to read to Violet went so far as to have the now destitute woman holding her dependent child by the hand—a child who now went hungry because her mother gave their last dime to the church. Jesus would never approve.
I know this because when you look at the story’s whole context, you have Jesus lambasting the religious leaders for bilking poor women out of whatever dower they inherit upon their husband’s deaths. “Beware of these ministers!” Jesus warned, “For they love to parade around in flowing robes and receive respectful greetings and take seats of honor in church and the head table at banquets. Yet they shamelessly devour widows’ houses, cheating them out of their property, and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will receive the greater condemnation.” Jesus condemns the ministers and then points out the widow, a severely disadvantaged and vulnerable person in every society. All she has left to her name is two cents which she gives entirely to the Temple—doing what she thought she was supposed to do because that’s what the ministers told her to do. Her house has now been completely devoured. It’s like the elderly grandmother I knew who got conned into handing over most of her social security check each month to some huckster TV preacher who said God would bless her for doing so.
Jesus condemned the ill-advised values that motivated the poor widow’s act and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it. Read on and Jesus condemns the entire Temple system, labeling it corrupt and doomed to destruction. “Look at these magnificent buildings,” he said. ‘They will all be completely demolished. Not one stone will be left on top of another!” Not only was the widow’s contribution totally foolish, thanks to her being manipulated by the ministers, but given the future of the Temple itself, her entire sacrifice was a total waste. One last parable in Luke has a farmer piling up surplus grain in his storage unit. He was set for life. But God shows up and calls him a fool. For years my office in downtown Boston looked out over the Back Bay where numerous magnificent church buildings dotted the skyline, all deeply endowed but each with a weekly worship attendance of less than a hundred people. Once their small memberships died off, most of these churches simply converted to condos in the endowments dissolved.
Obviously the anesthesia from my surgery on Friday has not fully worn off. This sermon is turning into a train wreck. My intent was to turn to the Bible for some certain direction on how to think about these 4.5 million talents now accessible to our church—but Jesus doesn’t always make sense like we’d like. To take up our cross requires a deliberate submission to a God who’s ways are not our ways and whose spirit blows where it will and not always with the speed or direction we prefer.
The apostle Peter, worried, perhaps, that his own salvation was at stake, piped up to remind Jesus, “Lord, you know we have left everything to follow you!” Jesus assured Peter that “there is no one who has left houses or families or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times as much treasure now—along with persecutions—and in the age to come, eternal life.” It’s not puzzling that persecutions get included as a return on our investment in Jesus. We all know we would suffer more for our faith if ever we really behaved in line with what we say we believe. We are talking crosses here. No, what puzzles most people is the hundredfold return Jesus promises now. He comes off sounding just like the TV preacher.
Peter and the rest of the disciples gave up everything, but nowhere do we ever see them raking it in. This reason, of course, is because Biblical prosperity is not about the money. There is a contentedness and confidence in Christ that money cannot buy. Moreover, there is a community too. Jesus promises not only a hundredfold return in homes and land (code words for contentment—think “a house and a yard”), but a hundredfold return in family and friends, the very people sitting this morning to your right and to your left, people who love you and watch over you, who lead your meetings and do your funerals for you because you just had surgery, who pray for you and deliver soup and cookies and digital flowers. I consider this being rich.
As to the 4.5 million dollars in money, we are all indebted to the foresight and wisdom, selfless energy and expertise on the part of those who have guided our church through the recent sale. Submissive to the Spirit and will of the Lord, we will pray and discern and determine ways to be that faithful steward who took his five talents and made five talents more—putting what we believe to be God’s money to work for the good of the gospel and our meaningful part of God’s mission of redemption in the world.
As to our own generosity as church members, because our heart follows our treasure, ministry and acts of love and service only happen with heart when our personal investment is involved. We cannot rely on endowments for our life support. Your church is not a charity but a community where everyone contributes everyone benefits. We gather together not as donors, but as members of one body, brothers and sisters in the family of the God whom we worship with offerings of tribute—all that we have belongs to the Lord. We give back out of gratitude and with the joy that comes with our participation in God’s work. Giving frees us from the spiritual dangers of greed and consumption and makes us happy. God loves a cheerful giver and not one under compulsion or guilt.
“Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We will care about what costs us the most. The more we’re invested, the more it matters. Real generosity entails sacrifice. “There is no one who has left houses or families or fields for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, who will not receive a hundred times as much treasure now—along with persecutions.” Jesus’ words are not some idealistic declaration, but an actual invitation, a provocation to us to be each other’s hundredfold treasure on earth, each other’s true home and family. The inclusion of persecution is a further provocation to step into the harder, more difficult aspects of love and community, sharing one another’s troubles and caring for the poor and needy in ways that cost us something—if not a loss of life, at least a loss of lifestyle or convenience and comfort. This kind of investment makes us truly rich—with purses and wallets that never wear out, unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys, where God’s will is noticeably done on earth as it is in heaven.