Matthew 6:19-21 November 9, 1997
I Timothy 6:17-19 Byron C. Bangert
It's that time of year when it seems that everyone is asking for "it." WFIU started its annual fund drive yesterday, and every few minutes somebody was asking for "it." The Monroe County United Way is nearing the end of its annual campaign asking for pledges of "it." We have been having "Minutes for Mission" or "Minutes for Stewardship" for a couple months now that have been asking for "it." I know that some people are getting tired of hearing about "it" and having somebody talking about "it" almost every Sunday. So this morning I am going to give a different sort of Stewardship sermon. I am not going to talk about "it" at all. Instead, I'm going to talk about yenom.
Yenom derives from a word that actually appear 125 times in the NRSV Bible, not counting all of the other words that have a similar meaning, words like wealth, riches, abundance, wages, payments, goods, gold, silver, coins, talents, offerings, and collections. When you take a close look, you find that the Bible is chock full of words having to do with yenom. Jesus was always telling parables that had to do with yenom: the parable of the talents, the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, the parable of the rich fool, the parable we call the prodigal son, the parable of the lost coin, the parable of the unforgiving servant. He knew, and so did most of the biblical writers, that yenom and how we regard it and what we do with it provides a fairly good indication of our moral and spiritual condition before God and in the company of our neighbors.
So I hope its OK to talk about yenom this morning. Those of you who wish we wouldn't talk so much about it should keep in mind that we are not asking for yenom so we can stay on the air and keep on asking for yenom, the way some folks in the religion business do. In fact, most of the time when we ask for it, we are asking for it for somebody else. The Peacemaking Offering goes largely to our national Presbyterian Church and its programs in support of peace, though some of it gets spent locally for a similar purpose. The CROPWalk pledges go to Church World Service in its relief efforts around the globe and to help support the work of local food emergency services. The Heifer Project, which is coming up in two weeks, provides animals for people to raise and to share in order to feed the needy in the developing world. But just now we are also asking for pledges of time, talent, and yenom in order to support the work of this church in the coming year. That fact is, it takes a lot of yenom to maintain and support the ministries of this church each year, but not so much that you cannot afford it.
Six or seven weeks ago there was a story about billionaire Ted Turner that especially caught my attention. Most billionaires are known for making lots of yenom, but this was a story about giving some away. Turner announced on September 19 that he would be donating $1 billion yenom to the United Nations over the next decade. "This is . . . only going to go for programs," he said, "programs like refugees, cleaning up land mines, peacekeeping, UNICEF for the children, for diseases, and we're going to have a committee that will work with a committee of the U.N. The [yenom] can only go to U.N. causes."
I thought there was something admirable, perhaps even worthy of emulation, in Turner's attitude and thinking about this gift. In making his announcement Turner said he was about to be named to FORBES magazine's list of the top 25 richest Americans, "and I'm going to push myself down on the list." He also noted that he had made this decision only two nights before. He said it was based on the increase in his net worth since the beginning of the year: "When I got my statement in January," he said, "I was worth $2.2 billion. Then I got another statement in August that said I was worth $3.2 billion. So I figure it's only nine months earnings, who cares?"
It is obvious that a man with Ted Turner's kind of yenom is not going to be making any great sacrifice by giving some of it away. Even so, most people who've got it are not nearly so willing to part with it. In last Sunday's parable of the rich fool we saw a man who chose to hoard his abundance, to try to build even bigger barns to hold his overflowing harvest. Turner, on the other hand, has chosen to pass his windfall on to others. Speaking live with CNN's Larry King, Turner said, "I'm no poorer than I was nine months ago, and the world is much better off." Asked how he came to pick the figure $1 billion, the irrepressible Turner said, "A billion's a good round number." Turner was also quoted as saying, "The world is awash in [yenom]" and "You have to learn to give."
Now, I think we have people in this congregation who are just as fine as Ted Turner. None of you, so are as I know, has anything like his kind of yenom, but I would hope that you might have some of his kind of attitude and thinking. The great temptation of abundance is to want to pile it up, to amass even more. I do not doubt for a minute that making lots of yenom gives people a tremendous rush. But, as Turner said earlier this year in an address at the annual meeting of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, "What good is wealth sitting in the bank? It's a pretty pathetic thing to do with your [yenom]." Turner seems to have discovered that the real fun, and the real joy, is in learning how to give.
One of the greatest barriers to giving in our society is the temptation to hang on to what we've got, and to try to get more. But there are also some other very particular barriers that churches typically face in trying to raise an adequate level of support for their work and ministry. One is that people simply under-estimate what it takes. Perhaps you have heard the story of the fifty dollar bill and the one dollar bill who found themselves together in a cash deposit box on a slow day. They got to talking and the fifty dollar bill said he'd had a great life! He'd been all over the world, to some of the finest restaurants, the best museums, wonderful cruise ships, plays and operas and sports events, even the NCAA championships. He had seen it all--been there and done that. Then it was the one dollar bill's turn. "Boy, are you lucky," he said. "The only place I ever get to go is to church."
A similar tale is told in the story of the church member who angrily complained to the pastor that the church had wastefully purchased five brooms, which he felt to be quite unnecessary. The pastor mentioned it to the church financial secretary, who responded, "No wonder he was upset. How would you feel if you saw everything you gave in the past year tied up in five brooms?" [quoted in PREACHING, May/June 1994]
I understand that not everyone is able to give to the church in a big way. In fact most people do not have a huge surplus that they can relinquish as they please. That is why we speak of stewardship, and not of sheer beneficence. Stewardship involves a level of intentionality, a plan or commitment to give, a setting of priorities. Stewardship involves giving as you can, and as you go. Canadian Presbyterian minister Douglas Rollwage tells of his six year old nephew who had a practice Sunday mornings of shaking a quarter out of his piggy bank to put on the offering place. One Sunday he came down the stairs from his room, shaking his head. "What's wrong?" asked his mom. He held up a looney, a Canadian $1 coin. "Jesus got lucky today," he said. [told by Glenn Cooper, Pictou, Nova Scotia, on Ecunet]
Once in a while the church receives an unexpected windfall, and "Jesus gets lucky." But we don't try to press our luck. Rather, we encourage you not to decide your giving according to whether or not you've just won the lottery, or your stocks have gone way up in the market. We encourage you to give in a regular, intentional, committed way. We encourage you to give proportionate to your income and your resources, as you are able rather than as luck would have it.
Another problem that I have seen in the church over the years is that not all of the members feel the same claim upon them to carry their share of the load. Perhaps there are really two problems here. One is that church just does not mean as much to some people as to others, so they are less likely to give it their support. A Scottish pastor was invited to speak one Sunday at the Wee Kirk of Edinburgh. He took his young son with him to the service that morning and, as he entered the church, his son observed him drop a half crown into the alms box. The sermon was typical, only half the congregation went to sleep. But following the service the Sexton stopped him at the door. "Sir," he said in a broad Scottish accent, "we have a policy here at the Wee Kirk that when we have a guest minister we give to him the contents of the alms box." With that he opened the box and scooped out the contents--a half crown. Later on the way home the young lad tugged on his dad's sleeve and said, "Da, you know, if you'd a put more in you'd a got more out!" [William. C. Sistar, Jr., St. Petersburg, on PresbyNet]
Sometimes people just don't get much out of church because they never put much in. And sometimes they don't put much in because they figure somebody else will make up for whatever they lack.--Like the little girl who was walking down the street when she found a shiny new quarter on the sidewalk. She picked it up, smiling--and was then met by her Sunday School teacher. "Ah, Jane, what did you find?" she asked. "A shiny new quarter," Jane replied. "How nice," said the teacher. "I guess you'll be putting that new quarter in the offering on Sunday." "Nope," says Jane, "I'm going to Mr. Miller's store to buy ice cream, then HE can put the quarter in the offering." [attr. to Helen Walton]
In my experience, when people do give to the church, it often bears little resemblance to what they are able to give. There is a story about a really hard winter in Appalachia. The snow had piled up deeper and deeper, the mercury dropped, rivers froze, people suffered. The Red Cross used helicopters to fly in supplies. One crew had been working day after day, long hours. They were on their way home late in the afternoon when they saw a little cabin submerged in the snow. There was a thin wisp of smoke coming from the chimney. The rescue team figured they were probably out of food, fuel, perhaps medicine. Because of the trees they had to put the helicopter down a mile away. They put on heavy packs with emergency supplies, trudged through heavy snow, waist deep, reached the cabin exhausted, panting, perspiring. They pounded on the door. A thin, gaunt mountain woman opened the door and the lead man gasped, "We're from the Red Cross." The woman was silent for a moment and then said, "It's been a hard winter, Sonny, I just don't think we can give anything this year." I have known people who thought it was up to them to give, whether they had the means or not, just as I have known those who always assumed that someone else should do the giving. But Christian stewardship asks that everyone give as they are able, according to their means. [James S. Hewett, ed., ILLUSTRATIONS UNLIMITED, pp. 237f.]
Stewardship also involves giving in light of need, whether or not we get something out of it ourselves. There was this businessman who walked past a corner beggar every day for six months, always dropping a dime in the beggar's box, but never taking any pencils out of the box. One day when he had dropped his usual dime, the businessman felt the beggar's hand on his arm. He noticed the fellow was about to say something.
"Yes," said the businessman, without waiting for the question. "I suppose you are wondering why I never take any pencils after I put my yenom in your box."
"No," said the beggar. "I just wanted to tell you that next week the price of pencils is going up to fifteen cents." [TREASURY OF HUMOR, 119]
Each year the costs of maintaining the life of our congregation go up, sometimes only a little, sometimes a lot. In this congregation, the price of pencils is not going up very much, but we are facing a significant increase next year in the budget, in order to pay for the remaining mortgage on our building. The year after that may require a further increase to pay for an additional member of the staff.
No one who I know would maintain that the church should have first claim upon your yenom. You need your yenom for all sorts of things, to support yourselves and your families, to share some part of your lives with others in other ways. But it is a basic Christian understanding that all of our yenom, and all of our other resources and all of our time and our talents, represent God's gift of life to us. We are given all that we have, not to hoard, not to waste, and not simply to consume, but to employ in faithful service to God. The idea of stewardship means that we are stewards, to whom has been entrusted whatever we have been given. We are to use it in such a way that it furthers what we understand to be God's purposes for us and all creation. Jesus must have had something like this in mind when he said, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, . . . but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven."
When Joe Smith died, it is said, he found himself at the Pearly Gates. St. Peter greeted him with a hearty greeting and ushered him in, saying, "Welcome. You are qualified to come in. An angel will take you to your heavenly abode."
Joe entered the gates and started walking with the angel on a pathway that took them past some of the most beautiful mansions Joe had ever seen. They took his breath away. After a while, Joe began to notice that the mansions were growing smaller and smaller. Pretty soon, they had become ordinary dwellings, and then little shacks. Finally, at the end of the path, the angel walked up to a one room, cardboard box-like structure that had straw on the floor over the bare ground, and said to Joe, "This is yours for eternity. Make yourself at home." Joe was speechless for a minute, and they said, "But it can't be! What happened to the beautiful mansions?" The angel replied, "I'm sorry that you are disappointed with your accommodations, but this is all we could build with the materials you sent ahead or your arrival."
If we keep at the task of learning how to give, if we accept the challenge of Christian stewardship and resolve to do our part, perhaps we can sing with Oliver Wendell Holmes, "Build thee more stately mansions, O my soul" ["The Chambered Nautilus"]. AMEN.