Church of the Transfiguration
Proper 8 - Year B
On Monday night, the Stewardship Committee met to discuss plans for the annual Stewardship campaign. The next morning – Tuesday - I began my review of the texts for this morning and thought, “stewardship.” From Deuteronomy we heard, “open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land” and from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, we heard Paul extolling the virtues of the church in Macedonia who, despite “a severe ordeal of affliction” and “their extreme poverty,” was, in fact, overflowing with generosity. Paul writes, “they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means.” On Tuesday evening, I picked up my copy of TIME magazine and read a brief interview with Imelda Marcos in which, when asked how rich she is, she replied, “If you know how rich you are, my dear, then you’re not really rich.”
By Wednesday morning, I’d been hearing about, talking about, and dreaming about stewardship and money so I went into Lane’s office and said, “what the heck! It’s barely July and all I have are stewardship texts. That’s for October. . .” And, Lane’s response was, “well, preach stewardship.” You might think I’m a little slow in the head, but I went back to my office and thought, I’ve got to be able to find something in those texts to preach about other than stewardship!
There’s an old joke that goes like this, A man is stranded on the roof of his home after heavy rains flooded his hometown. A stranger swims up with a life jacket and said, “Put this on, I’ll take you to safety.” The stranded man replies, “no, God will save me.” A few minutes later, a woman in a boat comes by and says, “Get in, I’ll take you to safety.” Again, the stranded man refuses saying, “God will save me.” Hours pass and the man waits faithfully on his roof. Finally, a helicopter flies overhead and a voice from a loudspeaker says, “Grab the rope, we’ll take you to safety.” The stranded man waves them off shouting, “God will save me!” Meanwhile, the rain continues to fall and covers the house, drowning the stranded man. Arriving at the pearly gates, he demands to see God. After gaining an audience with God, he says, “Why didn’t you save me?” and God answers, “I sent a swimmer, a boat, and a helicopter . . . what more did you want?”
So, this week, I got stewardship meeting, texts about being generous, an interview with Imelda Marcos, and Lane telling me “preach stewardship” and I still want to ask God, “so what should I preach about on Sunday?!” Why am I so uncomfortable talking about money? Why are most of us so uncomfortable about talking about money? As I thought about these questions this week, here’s what I came up with:
- First, when people ask me for money, I feel obligated and duty-bound. If I DO give money, I get angry that I was manipulated by the telemarketer and if I DON’T give money, I feel guilty. Dare I say it, “damned if I do, damned if I don’t.” That’s not exactly the stuff of spiritual enlightenment. Even this morning’s reading from Deuteronomy warned us about this sort of giving saying, “do not entertain a mean thought . . . and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing.”
- But, the second reason I become uncomfortable about money – and, I think the more powerful of the two - is that I am a product of the American culture of excess. If some is good, more is better and better still if it is mine! Quite frankly, like the first reason, this one also boils down to feeling guilty. I have more than I need, I know I have more than I need, and I can’t seem to divest myself of enough stuff to ever satisfy myself that I am living a life of moderation.
So, maybe it is not money that makes us uncomfortable but rather the feelings that we associate with discussions of money and excess. Walter Brueggemann writes, “We have a love affair with ‘more’ -- and we will never have enough. Consumerism . . . has become a demonic spiritual force among us." Most of us don’t take part in this societal web of excess because we are selfish and greedy. On the contrary, I think we look to material things for solace – we find solace in the hope that surrounding our selves with beautiful things, the latest technological gadgets, and other stuff will mask a deep-seated feeling of emptiness. A longing deep within us – a longing for fulfillment - a longing for community - a longing for wholeness. And, things will, temporarily fill that empty place. But then our new car gets its first dent or the designer clothes aren’t the date-magnet that the marketers promised and we are left once again with our disillusionment. Knowing no other way, we repeat the cycle – we buy more, we desire more, and on and on and on. Brueggemann’s statement is right on the mark: “Consumerism has become a demonic spiritual force among us.”
If that seems a bit strong to you, consider these numbers (Hames).
- Children aged six to twelve spent more than two and a half hours a week shopping. They spend as much time shopping as they spend reading or going to church; and five times as much time as they spend playing outside.
- Consumer product companies spend over $230 billion annually on marketing(that’s more than $2000 per household) and much of this is directed at children and teens.
- In fact, children and youth aged 8-21 spend $172 billion dollars a year. They spend approximately 17 hours a week online and spend $22 billion online.
In the spirit of our upcoming 4th of July holiday, George Tarusuk sent me an essay from The Economist in which the writer criticized our country for not living up to one of the unalienable rights listed in the Declaration of Independence: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” According to the author, “Americans have confused happiness with material possessions.” Isn’t it ironic that the very phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was borrowed from Adam Smith, noted for his political economic writings at the time of the Industrial Revolution. Smith’s original phrasing was “life, liberty, and the pursuit of property.” So, from our very beginnings as a nation, we had a confused understanding of happiness and wealth.
Consumerism has become a demonic force among us tempting us to believe that material possessions can fulfill our deepest longings and we are all vulnerable to this powerful trap! But, my friends, our longing is not a longing for stuff. It is a longing for fulfillment, for community and for wholeness – it is, at its core, a spiritual longing. And no spiritual need has ever been filled by material stuff – no matter what the television, radio, and magazine ads tell us to the contrary. Consumerism is indeed a powerful demon and the way of this demon is death.
But the good news lies in the power of God and our vision of God’s reign on earth – a new reign that has already broken into our world in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Remember the church at Macedonia that Paul wrote about in his second letter to the Corinthians? He writes, “We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints.” The privilege of sharing in this ministry of generous giving.
Here is what I think the Macedonian churches understood. They understood that God is a generous and grace-filled God. And, they understood that they were created in the image of that God (Callahan, 111). And they were so grateful for their God and their creation – even amidst the severe ordeal of affliction, even amidst their extreme poverty – they were so grateful that they could do nothing else but act out their gratefulness through generosity. Paul tells the church in Corinth, it is great that you “excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in love” but “we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” He wants them to give generously not because they are duty-bound and obligated, not because there is a village half way across the world that has been washed away by a tsunami or an area of their own country devastated by a season of hurricanes. No, he wants them to give generously because it is a privilege to be able to give generously out of love and thanksgiving for a loving and generous God. Stewardship is not giving money because you ought to. Kennon Callahan writes, “Stewardship is growing the gifts of life, generosity, mission and hope” out of the “confidence that
- the love of God is renewing,
- the power of God is astonishing,
- the grace of God is amazing,
- the purpose of God is moving,
- [and] the hope of God overcomes all” (117).
Let us not invest our hopes in material things. Let us not allow the demonic power of consumerism to mask our deep longing for spiritual wholeness. Let us look instead for hope and power in the God who transforms our very lives and who is transforming our world. Let us open our hands willingly to meet the needs, whatever they may be. Let us give liberally and be ungrudging when we do so, for on this account the LORD our God will bless us in all our work and in all that we undertake.
Walter Brueggemann. “The Liturgy of Abundance, The Myth of Scarcity.” Christian Century. March 24-31, 1999 accessed online on June 27, 2006.
Kennon L. Callahan. Giving and Stewardship in an Effective Church: A Guide for Every Member. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.
Charles L. Campbell. The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002.
Jerry Hames. “Will Our Children Be Stewards? A Report on the Conference.” The Office of Stewardship of The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. 2005.
“Pursuing Happiness.” From The Economist Print Edition, June 29, 2006. Viewed online on June 29, 2006.