University Congregational Church
Oct. 25, 2015
“Why Christian …. The Difference You Make”
Luke 18: 18-27
A young couple purchased an old, run-down, abandoned farm with plans to turn it into a thriving organic enterprise. The fields were grown over with weeds, the farmhouse was falling apart, and the fences were broken down.
The village vicar stopped by to bless the family’s work, saying, “May you and God work together to make this the farm of your dreams!”
A few months later, the preacher stops by again to call on the young farmers. He couldn’t believe his eyes. The farm house was completely rebuilt and in excellent condition, there were plenty of cattle and other livestock happily munching on feed in well-fenced pens, and the fields were filled with crops planted in neat rows.
“Amazing!” the preacher says. “Look what God and you have accomplished together!”
“Yes, Vicar,” said the farmer’s wife, “but remember what the farm was like when God was working it alone!”
It’s a great story. The story helps us to think about the importance of each person as we contemplate how to make things happen. We know that the critical work of our hygiene pantry that helps 400 + families with product every month would not happen without our co-coordinators, Debbi Green & Kim Carraway. But, if you ask Kim and Debbi, they will quickly tell you that the hygiene pantry wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for all the volunteers who work tirelessly behind the scenes.
I wish I could find words to express it. You are so fabulously important and central to this congregation. I don’t think you have any idea how your presence makes a difference. This is not about guilt. This is about love. This is about how much stronger we all feel when we are together. This is about how the congregational hymns sound when we are singing and look across the room and see another person singing or swaying to the music or breathing in the sound with their eyes closed. This is about the collective power of our prayers when someone is celebrating or someone is overcome with grief. This is about the electrical energy of sharing communion with one another.
You may not realize this, but on Monday morning, our church staff goes through the attendance register and takes note of who was here. Some churches just count heads. But I don’t want to know that 143 people were in worship. I want to know who the 143 people were. We don’t love numbers, we love you.
Seriously, you don’t owe it to anyone – possibly even God – to come to church. But your friends in this congregation feel girded, enlivened, strengthened, and challenged when you come. God knows we need each other. Annie Dillard, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, likens the worship at church to children playing with chemistry sets and brewing up a volatile mix. Do we know that we’re creating a powerful force when we come together? Do we realize that our actions have consequences, some of which are long lasting… even eternal?
We should not take our church community lightly, Annie Dillard says, “for the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.”
Today and for the near future, each of us will be reflecting on this question: “What is my part in supporting the work of this church?” Pledge cards are being sent out this week. There are people here who will answer in different ways. Some people will answer it by saying, ‘I feel God is calling me to give 10% of my income to UCC. I’ve been thinking about my own spiritual need to be more generous and I’m going to make that commitment this year.’
Another person responds to the question like this: ‘Eventually, I would like to give more to the church, but I am not ready to do that this year. I feel called to start somewhere – perhaps a $100 a month – and I will try to increase my gifts in following years.’
A third response to the question may be: ‘I’ve been giving at this level for several years. Perhaps I can take a step up in my giving because I’ve been so wonderfully blessed.’
What is God calling you to give… what level of gift you can give seems like a grateful response? The truth is that very few church members are at the “red line”, in danger of giving too much!
In a culture of anxiety (are we saving enough… for college… for retirement… for emergencies?) and a culture of consumerism (we want a bigger house… I want some new shoes…), we need to be asking some spiritual questions: “How can this gift change me, convert me, transform me?” “What am I being called to consider?”
There are always reasons (some of them sound) to hold back. There are many demands on our resources. If we just had a little more in the pot to pass around… but the spiritual truth is that if we are not generous now, winning the lottery will not make a difference in the state of our spiritual lives or our generosity later. In fact, surveys show that when asked if they have “enough” money, respondents, regardless of income level, respond by saying, “I need a little more”.
I witnessed an incredible event on Friday evening. I was asked to give the invocation at the gala event to raise funds for Envision. Envision is an organization that supports the blind and visually impaired. The evening was fun and festive. There were many items for silent auction and the live auction. After the auctions were over and people were about ready to go home, the auctioneer asked that every person there consider what else they might be willing to share. This time, he asked the bidders to raise their bid number if they were willing to give an additional 10,000.
“Yeah, right.” I thought. But 5 people raised their bid cards. He asked if anyone would give at the $5,000 level. Several more raised their cards. This continued for a time with each level going down in dollar amount and more people raising their cards with enthusiasm. There was a young, unmarried couple beside me. Eric and I had been talking with them during the meal and knew that they were both just out of school and had large student debt. Both were working at decent jobs, but their lives were just getting started. I was shocked and humbled when they cheerfully raised their bid cards as the $500 donation level was announced. By the end of the evening, an additional $250,000 had been raised!
Today, in Fellowship Hall, we’ll have you check in with your credit cards and hand you a card to bid. I think it will be great fun to fund our church budget with your bids! Mert Buckley, who is the head of our stewardship drive, is shaking his head “no”. What? He says just to invite everyone to Fellowship Hall for free cookies and conversation. No fundraising or bidding or twisting of the arms will happen.
From a Christian perspective, to have enough is to have what is needed to live what Jesus called an “abundant life”. One question with which Christians must wrestle is how money fits into a life where it is not the center of life, but instead is a tool to foster “abundant life”. It’s an important question. In fact, Jesus talked about money more than virtually any other topic. Do we place the same emphasis on Jesus’ teachings about money as we do the other teachings of Jesus? Here is our gospel story for today:
A certain ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother.’”
He replied, “I have kept all these since my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
But when he heard this, he became sad; for he was very rich. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” He replied, “What is impossible for mortals is possible for God.” Luke 18: 18-27
When Jesus was asked by the “rich young ruler” what he had to do to be saved, Jesus tells him to follow the law, and he lists those from the 10 commandments that have to do with human relationships. The young man says he has already done that, but what else? Then Jesus says that if he wants to be “perfect”, he should sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then come and follow Jesus. This young man refuses to do so.
It is important to see that Jesus first tells the young man to tend to his relationships with other people. The young man sense that what he has done is not enough because he asks Jesus what he still lacks. Jesus offers him a new community – with Jesus and his followers. Real salvation, it seems Jesus is saying, comes in restored relationships with God and neighbor. Jesus is in effect saying, “Follow me, join my community, and you will find security far beyond what your possessions can give you. Follow me, and you will be truly free.”
This is what we need to ask ourselves: “In grateful response to what Christ has done for us, how can our resources be used to foster ‘right relations’?” or said in another way, “How can I best use my resources to show what I believe in – my family, my community, my planet, and most of all, my relationship with God?”
Ethicist Sondra Ely Wheeler has said that there are two areas of life in which we find out how much we trust God – in how we give and in how we die. Practicing the first helps us get ready for the second.
Every person here today is vitally important; each of you is uniquely a part of this community. I wish I could find words to express it. You are so fabulously important and central to this congregation. I don’t think you have any idea how your gifts make a difference. This is not about guilt. This is about love. That’s why I won’t go through the offering to see if you wrote a check. Some churches just count money. But I don’t want to know how much we brought in on Sunday. I want to know how you see yourself as a part of this collective community of faith. It’s not about numbers, it’s about sharing your love.
Seriously, you don’t owe it to anyone – possibly even God – to give to the church. But your sisters and brothers at UCC feel girded, enlivened, strengthened, and challenged by your generosity. God knows we need each other.
Will you step up in your giving so that you can share in building our future together?