My sermon for the church in Westbrook this week comes from the lectionary text, Luke 12:13-21, where Jesus tells a parable about a person who keeps building bigger barns so they can amass greater wealth. (Consider the previous sentence as a clear example of a way to get people to decide not to read further—but please keep reading.)
The story was a response to a request from someone for Jesus to arbitrate a dispute over an inheritance. He declined, and then told a story to say, “Your financial abundance is not the point of existence.” It strikes me as a good perspective for institutions as well as individuals.
As best I can remember, it was a little over twenty years ago that Ginger and I were talking with my mother and she said, “‘Would you like an inheritance or would you and Ginger like to go to Africa?”
We were unflinching in our response. “Africa,” I said, “definitely Africa.”
As I have told you, I spent most of the first sixteen years of my life in Africa. We left the continent to move to Houston, Texas in 1972–on my sixteenth birthday. I had never had the chance to go back. I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity, even if it meant I didn’t get an inheritance.
it was a good choice, even though there are those who would point out that if I had invested the money spent on the trip it would have multiplied itself many times over in the last twenty-odd years. That’s true–and I would not have seen the herds of zebra and wildebeest, or listened to the hippo choir sing at night in the river below our camp, or listened to the young school children we met who were so proud to show us what they had learned, or had a chance to show Ginger the house where I lived in Nairobi, or gotten to take a hot air balloon ride over the Serengeti.
I am infinitely richer for those memories.
Maybe that is an odd way to start a sermon about what we do with our possessions, but that is the first thing that popped into my mind when I read Jesus’ admonition about storing up our treasures, I think because my father caught me by surprise. I didn’t expect him to value a memory with me over a savings account. My parents were savers and planners and they also knew they was not going to live forever, so they shared the wealth to deepen the bonds of family.
Though life doesn’t always play out as simple either-or decisions, we have many moments in our lives where we must choose between generosity and self-preservation, and those moments string themselves together into a way of living. Sometimes we become most possessive of the stuff we didn’t earn or collect but has been handed down; we act as if we deserve it.
That seemed to be the attitude of the man who came to Jesus and said, “Tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” We don’t get any indication of the issues at stake. Perhaps the parents were dead and the other sibling was the executor. Who knows. Whatever was going on, Jesus had no desire to weigh in.
“Who set me as the arbitrator?” he asked, making it clear he had no intention of doing any such thing. He did, however, see it as an opportunity to speak to the larger issue, so he turned to those gathered and said something that jumped out at me: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
That’s not one of the sayings of Jesus we quote with regularity.
I have a feeling, at this juncture in the sermon, that it probably feels like you know where this is going–that I am going to talk about how we have too much stuff and we need to learn to live on less and give away more—Marie Kondo style; that the point is not to see how much we can amass, but how much we can share.
Yes, to all of those things. But since that is the obvious sermon and you already saw it coming, I feel the tug to focus in a different direction and start with the sacred cow of many congregations: our endowments and our perceived need for bigger barns.
The word endow means “to provide an income for.” The basic idea is not a bad one. People leave an inheritance to provide some stability for congregations that meant a lot to them during their lives. Often, they leave quite specific instructions about how the money should be used, and often those instructions are trapped by history and, even though driven by passion, are short-sighted.
At the church in Guilford, there is a fund “to provide hats for the minister’s wife.” I don’t know who gave the money or when, but the designation is no longer useful or helpful–although I did make a case for using the money to buy me a new Red Sox cap every spring. Though the line item feels kind of silly, the problem is the designation makes it hard to spend the money because of all of the rules around endowments, which leads to a larger question: what are we saving for?
What I have seen more than once is churches saved the money, but then don’t spend it for fear they will use it up and then have none. Meanwhile, the day to day life of the church suffers because they don’t have the money they need to answer God’s call to ministry in their towns and neighborhoods.
Ginger served a church in Massachusetts that both had an endowment and struggled to raise the money to support the annual budget. One of the folks in the church came up with the idea of drawing “legacy pledges” from the endowment as a way to allow the church to thrive. “Those folks gave the money for the church to use, not to sit on,” he said. It was a life-giving suggestion to the congregation.
Maybe all of this is on my mind because you as a congregation are beginning a new chapter in a time when we are getting warnings about our economic situation. It also hits a recurring theme for me that the reason for a church’s existence runs deeper than self preservation. The reason we gather and minister as a congregation is not so the “church” will last forever, but so faith will endure through loving our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to meet the needs around us, to offer help and healing and hope. We are called to generosity and compassion, not frugality.
Theologian Carol Howard Merrit says,
Our future does not depend on our bank balance; it depends on whether we are making a difference in the world. Stewardship doesn’t mean we stockpile cash until we all die; it means that we look for ways to use our resources to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, welcome the stranger, and tell the good news. Faithful ministry is not watching over the bank balance to make sure it doesn’t dip below a certain point. It’s about being faithful in our work and witness.
The reason the man in the parable built bigger barns was so he could feel like he had enough to relax and live his best life. That formula for life doesn’t work. There is never enough to allay our fear if our fear is about never having enough. Whatever security we think we have in our endowments is not a reliable sense of security. Congregations don’t thrive because they are sitting on tons of money. They thrive because they are sharing what they have and they are sharing themselves. They share what is in their barns.
We have congregations all over New England who have wealthy endowments but only a few people in the pews. Many are closing and the big question is what to do with the money they saved as security and never shared.
This congregation is far from closing its doors. In fact, you have a new pastor coming and you are sharing new ideas and dreams. You have good days ahead of you, even as I know you have big questions to face about how you will minister to people in Westbrook and the surrounding towns. Remember no one ever chose to be a part of a congregation based on how they handled their investment portfolio. Remember Jesus didn’t say, “I am with you as long as you have a healthy endowment.” He said, “I am with you till the end of the age.”
We are not called to last forever. We are not called to build bigger barns. We are called to love one another, to care for one another, to share with one another for as long as we can. The legacy of love that we create with our compassion and faithfulness is what will endure. Amen.