November 9, 2014
Church of Peace, United Church of Christ
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
More Than Enough Money
After college I spent a year living and working in a transitional home for women recovering from homelessness and addiction. One of my coworkers was from Louisiana, so for Mardi Gras she threw a party for the women in our house. The downstairs kitchen was covered in purple, gold, and green decorations. She got us a king cake where you want to get the piece with the plastic baby inside, and of course there was music and dancing. Here she was sharing part of her culture and proving you don’t have to be drunk to celebrate Mardi Gras.
As we were cleaning up afterwards, there was some question over how we would turn in the receipts for the food and decorations. I think we forgot to get the expenses pre-approved or something like that. Then my coworker said something which just floored me. She said, “I set aside a little bit of money every month to give to a good cause, so I can just cover the cost of the party. It’s no problem.” I was shocked.
We made the same amount of money, and it wasn’t much. Now we lived rent-free in a gorgeous brownstone, and every month we received a small living stipend. Stretching every dollar was a constant challenge. There was a coffee shop down the block that gave us fifty percent off, because they knew we were just getting by. I went grocery shopping with this girl and watched her pass by the red peppers, because those are a luxury item. Yet, every month she takes part of her living stipend to give money to a cause she believes in? Okay, I want in on this!
As you understand well, when I began setting aside money to give each month, my perspective toward this living stipend changed. Instead of the question, can this check stretch far enough? Now I got to ask, what good work can I help support this month? How can this money go to what I believe in? Giving money is an act of conscience.
It’s how we get set free, which seems funny, I know. Our world teaches that freedom comes from having money. But you know that’s a lie. We’re set free by what we give, not what we cling to, and when giving is the work, you can be sure, there is more than enough money.
A truth so easy to say, so hard to believe. Who among us does not know the sickening worry that goes, What if there’s not enough money? Because seriously, what if there’s not enough money. Not having enough money is not just a matter of our attitude or our outlook, it can be an actual problem.
These days, we’re feeling this concern at our church council meetings. Doing the good work of the church costs money. And right now, we have come to a critical moment when we see our expenses rising much faster than our income.
At the first council meeting of this year, Aaron listed the numbers on the white board and showed that this trend cannot continue. We will go broke in a few years. Then Aaron read the scripture about the birds of the air and the lilies in the field and Jesus’ instruction: Do not worry. There is more to the church than our shortfall and more to our faith than just praying for enough to pay the bills…
As a church, our situation is not uncommon. These days, many mainline churches face financial challenge. Some churches are dying and closing their doors. If someone from the outside were to come and look at our cold hard numbers, they would see that our membership is declining, our building is costing more money, our ministry is costing more money, and our shortfall is growing. Someone could look at these numbers that don’t lie and arrive at the conclusion that Church of Peace is dying. And let me tell you, that person would be woefully mistaken.
It is a problem to mistake our bank account balance for our life.
If our church is dying, I would tell you. Death is part of our faith. I am not afraid to lead a dying church. But the thing is, we just aren’t.
In the last months, two new groups have formed to reach out to young people and to members who have drifted away. We keep serving meals to children at sites all over the community; over forty families a week come to our church to receive food. The ESL teachers say Church of Peace is like a second home for students who know what it is to be without a home, who carry in their bodies the marks of being displaced again and again.
Look at the cookbook and all the hands that helped create it. It is an extraordinary expression of collaboration uniting our history with our future, at the table. Listen to our choir and our bell choir. Go to the Adult Forum, or to a Circle meeting, or a social committee event. Check out our website. Join us in the Labor Day parade. At Church of Peace, we aren’t dying, we don’t have time. We have too much to give.
Today our Gospel reading drives us directly to these words of assurance spoken by our savior. Do not worry about your life… Life is more than food and the body more than clothing. Consider the ravens. They don’t sow or reap, or store their stuff, and God gives them food. Consider the lilies, clothed in more glory than Solomon. So don’t worry. God knows what we need, and God gives.
A truth so easy to say, so hard to believe. If only it were so easy! In Jesus’ world and in ours, there are people who aren’t just worried about the possibility of being hungry, they’re actually hungry. There are people who need actual clothes and quarters for the laundromat, people who need repair work done on their roof, and tires so they can drive their car to work, and a safe place to sleep. How can we look at actual need and say, “Do not worry, God will provide!” when that seems like such a flippant, dismissive lie.
Unless it’s not a lie after all. What if the promise is not flippant and out of touch, but more abundant than it seems? What if our lives need food and clothes, but so much more, and what God gives is so much more…
This Gospel teaching begins when someone in the crowd asks Jesus to arbitrate a dispute with his brother over the family inheritance. Right away Jesus detects that their problem is about money, and as with most money problems, their problem is so much more than money. Jesus declines the request to get involved and instead picks a ripe, juicy parable to tell.
There was a rich man whose land produced abundantly, so abundantly that he didn’t know where to store all the harvest. (Don’t you just hate when this happens?!) The man said, “I know, I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones to store all this wealth… I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods; relax, eat, drink…’ But God said, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures but are not rich toward God… Therefore, do not worry about your life.”
See, it is a problem to mistake our bank account balance for our life.
Our lives could be demanded of us this very night. So do not worry, life is more than enough money. Our lives come from the generosity of God; the universe moves and breathes toward the generosity of God. Here Jesus calls us to get in on this giving —not because it is a nice and decent thing to do —but because generosity is the power that snuffs out worry.
When we share in the generosity of God, then we can do something about the actual needs people face. We can say “Do not worry, God will provide” and it’s not a lie, because we are the ones who will prove this true. We’ll follow through on this promise. Through giving, we care for the birds, and the flowers, and the people who have to sleep in their cars if they have cars to sleep in. Through giving, it is very hard to stay worried.
Consider the vitality of Church of Peace. The reason we are a living church is not because we have nice things, even though we do. It’s not because we’ve won awards, even though we have. Our living comes from our giving, from responding to the grace of the Holy Spirit with generosity that keeps going and growing.
I’ve come to learn this from you. You provide meals when someone is recovering from surgery, you serve on committees and share your expertise and talent. When a need arises, I don’t get messages complaining about things not getting done. Instead, I get message upon message from people saying, “I’ve heard of this need in the church, how can I help?” Or “I see this need in our neighborhood, what can we do to help?” This is amazing! And this is how we live.
One privilege of being a pastor is the opportunity to meet with families when a loved one dies. In preparation for the funeral, I often ask, What is one of the most important things that should be said about your grandma? or What did your brother love? This is the holy work of making meaning.
I have had these conversations with families on sixteen occasions. Not once has anyone said to me, “Well, she always paid her bills on time.” Or, “It’s too bad he could never get his credit card debt under control.” No one has ever said, “I’m so glad he saved enough for retirement,” which popular culture would like you to think is the biggest worry in the world. Now maybe I’ll get proven wrong and conversation number seventeen will go differently. But when the question is, “How is your father’s life meaningful?” the answer is never money.
Tell me, what matters most about their life? One hundred percent of the time I hear about what they loved and what they gave. She made pies for Thanksgiving every year. He taught me how to fish in the lake behind our house. She loved reading books with children just learning how to read. He loved playing the guitar in a band.
So do not worry. Together we share in the generosity of God. When it comes to our giving there is more than enough money. When it comes to our living, there is so much more, than enough money. There is new life in God’s great growing love. Amen.