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The Roots of Our Giving

Rev. Karen McArthur and Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Nov 17

Stewardship Sunday

Text: Luke 19: 1-7 and Isaiah 65: 17-24

DAN:   Before we dig into a brief reflection about these texts, I want to first take us back to last week.  We spoke about our theme for this Stewardship season of Life and Legacy, and of the image of a tree, a tree of life, with roots dug deep in spiritual practices and branches ever growing, branches of ministry in our community and in our world.  What can we do to support, nourish and sustain this community of faith, all the ways that we are rooted here and in all the ways we can and do branch out?   

Last week, we saw Jesus calling Zaccheus down from the tree, down from his perch above the crowd.  With both feet on the ground, and standing in the face of God’s love of Jesus, that rich taxman Zaccheus experienced a moment of spontaneous and surprising generosity.  “I’ll give half of what I own”...he said, perhaps even to his disbelief.  And today, just two chapters later, we find Jesus again observing people giving, this time both rich and poor.  We shouldn’t be surprised. After all, a full quarter of Jesus teachings are about money. A third of the parables are about money.  And here, people are giving money to the temple.  Without dissing the wealthy  (not really….for what else could they do but give out of their abundance), Jesus celebrates the poor widow’s generosity, the fact that she gives out of her poverty and presumably that she’s giving her money to the temple.  Ok.  But then the text takes an odd shift.   The conversation quickly turns to the temple itself.  People were admiring its gorgeous stones and other adornments and gifts.  Sounds familiar, does it not?  But Jesus enters in and drops a serious buzz-kill on this otherwise lovely discussion, and says in essence “yeah, you see this temple….its gonna be thrown down!  As in, this building, this temple, these stones will not last!   

So, which is it Jesus?  Do we give our money to the temple?  Do we invest in its walls and roof and furnishings that provide a space for our worship and a gathering place for our mission?  As a congregation, we have bills to pay: a building to maintain so that it may continue to be a literally 24-7 resource for our church and the wider Cambridge community.  We have salaries to cover, a new ministerial colleague soon to join us, ministries to grow, 14 men to shelter and feed 365 days a year, children to teach, an organ to tune, and a full 10 percent plus of our income to give away to make for peace and healing and justice in the world.  All this from the coffers of our own temple treasury!

Do we give money to our temple?  Or do we despair, and feel anxious, and wring hands over what it means that the temple may not last?  I wonder if any of us can relate as we consider our own giving to this institution, even though this 377-year-old congregation, now in our sixth building, shows no signs of stopping.  You see, I wonder if these two conversations in Luke are juxtaposed because Jesus was trying to introduce a new idea of what temple giving is all about.

KAREN: We might first consider this:  what makes “temple giving” different from secular giving? I don’t know about you, but as we approach the end of 2013, I’m suddenly being inundated by requests for charitable donations. Email boxes and mail boxes filling up with requests – 3 and 4 and 10 a day: community service opportunities, global disaster relief needs, church stewardship campaigns, political campaigns. All good causes … but way more than I can afford

Anne Frank wrote in her diary, “No one has ever become poor by giving.” So true, but that was before e-mail solicitations made it so easy for a charity to instantaneously send out multiple requests to hundreds of thousands of people. If we responded to them all, we might not become poor, but we may well have no money left! How do we decide how much to give and where to give it?  Yesterday, at our Life and Legacy retreat, Dan pointed out that most of these solicitors have huge donor bases, in the hundreds of thousands or even millions, whereas our stewardship mailing went out to just 300 households! It’s one of the reasons why Dan and I, and perhaps you as well, give most of our charitable giving to the church, because we know that each dollar we give for First Church really matters, and we know there are plenty of other people who can give to the other good causes. 

Second, how much do we give?  I’m currently putting together a display for a booth for our high school’s Reality Day at the end of the month. It’s a three-hour workshop for our high school juniors, in which they imagine their life as a 25-year-old. They choose a job, and with that, get assigned a monthly salary and a credit rating. They then have to visit a dozen booths staffed by local businesses and decide where to live, sign up for utilities, transportation, insurance, health insurance, and budget for food, clothing, personal expenses, savings, and charitable contributions.

I hope to get the students thinking about how they decide how much to give. On my list are buying Girl Scout cookies, or wreaths and poinsettias to support the local music association, donations to the Appalachian Mountain Club, Relay for Life, or the American Red Cross, a goat or chickens for a family in Africa, gifts to their college or university and their faith community, or saving up for travel to volunteer to teach math or English in Ghana or Peru. So many possibilities!  I think they’ll be generous.

But I’m not sure. I’m trying to be very careful in the public school setting, not to have my clergy hat on – and I realize that I don’t really know how people make these kinds of decisions if they’re not a part of a faith community. I understand Christian tithing, and a bit about Jewish tzedakah and can imagine zakat, the third pillar of Islam.  For centuries and for generations, practicing generosity to and through religious community has been one of the roots: showing people’s love of God and neighbor.  But without a faith basis, what’s the reason for giving? During the Reality Day exercise, most students find out that things cost more than they thought, and they don’t have as much money as they’d like. Will they choose to reduce their own spending in order to give for others?

Which brings me to my third question: will the students’ giving -- and our giving -- make one bit of difference in the world?  The enormity of the world’s needs can be paralyzing at times: children sick and starving, the constant threat of violence, cities reduced to rubble. “Donor fatigue” sets in quickly, sometimes even before the winds of the latest storm stop howling. Isn’t it easier just to turn off the news and move away from the pain, the suffering, the sadness?  Where is that new Jerusalem that God promised? 

In the aftermath of the typhoon in the Philippines, and in today’s destructive political climate, it is so easy to be discouraged.  A hometown friend of mine, who is a UCC minister in Madison, Wisconsin, posted a passage from a book by Meg Wheatley, So Far From Home: Lost and Found in Our Brave New World.  She writes:

"As we let our hearts be tenderized by this sorrow-filled world, we discover that joy and sadness are one, that we can't always distinguish between the two. Perhaps you have had this experience, of feeling tender and overwhelmed, heart wide-open, vulnerable, overcome by tears of joy that also felt like sadness. In these moments of deep emotion, it doesn't matter that we can't define this feeling with simple words. We are inside the heart of a profound human experience very different from everyday emotions...opening to the world as it is, not flinching from what we see, keeping our eyes and heart open... And what we see will always break our heart."

DAN: Maybe the new Jerusalem (literally translated jeru - foundation, city or dwelling and shalem peace, so dwelling or foundation of peace) is somewhere within us, within our hearts and within our community. Maybe this was the new idea of temple giving Jesus was after.  We give to the temple treasury to sustain the temple and all its practices, but it’s not for the sake of the temple, it’s for the sake of our participation in that everlasting and unflinching community of faith, hope and love that abides through the centuries and that spans time and eternity!  It is this dedication that holds our community through the generations, and that gives us a way to lean into and participate in those twin experiences of joy and sorrow, to manifest that new Jerusalem.  Our temple is a vessel of our ministry, a symbol of the foundation of our faith, and the highest reach and scope of our love!  It is here, in this place, that First Church is rooted, even though it’s out there in the world that we are constantly being invited to branch out!  

Yes, we need the financial support of each member of our community.  Yes, we have our bills to pay and our ministry to grow.  But that’s not the main reason why Karen and I give, and I bet that’s not why that widow gave, or why you will give.  Ultimately, I think, we give for ourselves, because there is a great joy in the spiritual practice of generosity, because there is a great freedom in knowing we are giving as much as we possibly can, because there is trust that together we can best discern how to use our collective gifts -- better than if we were to decide individually.  We give because it’s a very tangible way to participate fully and lean into this, our community of everlasting love.  We give because it lets us live our values of love of God and neighbor. 

Friends, as we take a time for silent reflection before we invite you to bring forth your pledges, your life and legacy commitments for 2014, take a moment and remember the roots of your giving and branches of ministry it allows.  Remember Zacchaeus from last week, as he came down from the tree, and came down to the ground. Remember those rich people and that poor widow giving to the temple treasury, and count your selves as standing in that long line.  Feel the floor beneath your feet, the pew at your back. Take in the stones of this temple, this sixth meetinghouse, knowing that this is just the vessel that holds this cherished age-old community of faith and love and justice. Feel the power of the relationships in the room, and the relationship that each of us has with God -- more together than we could be alone.  Take the long view, and let your spirit sink its roots into the soil of that love and feel its branches reaching toward the light, as you prayerfully consider your participation in this temple, your pledge, your participation in the creation of God’s new Jerusalem.  

KAREN:  Let us gather our hearts for a time of quiet and grateful meditation.

Our prayers, our intentions, our roots and our branches, our hearts and our lives, these we lift up to you, O God.  Amen.  

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