A Sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Senior Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Pentecost 20, October 19, 2003, dedicated to the 12 adults and 4 children who join our fellowship today and always to the glory of God!
Isaiah 53:4-12; Mark 10:35-45
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our salvation. Amen.
Tertullian was an early African convert to Christianity. In the second Century AD, he wrote these words about the new movement into which he had just been baptized: "There is no buying and selling of any kind in what belongs to God. On a certain day, each one, if he likes, puts in a small gift, but only if he wants to do so, and only if he able, for there is no compulsion, everything is voluntary." (Tertullian, Apology 39). He goes on to note that Christians were known as the most generous people on earth. They cared for orphans in garbage dumps and widows left to die by roadsides. Their giving knew no bounds. Such generosity, which ordinarily could be expected only from one's own family, attracted crowds of newcomers to Christian groups, despite the risks.
Sharing money was not the only thing that set Christians apart. In the early days of the second century, a plague struck the Roman empire ravaging cities and towns from Asia Minor through Italy and Gaul. Some epidemiologists estimate that this plague killed one third to half of the imperial population. While most people, even doctors, fled from people infected with the deadly virus, Christians were convinced that God's power was with them to heal or alleviate suffering. They shocked their pagan neighbors by staying to care for the sick and dying, believing that, if they themselves should die, they had the power to overcome death. The Emperor Marcus Aurelius' physician, Galen, who himself had run to the hills surrounding Rome in the face of the plague, wrote: "For the people called Christians . . . contempt for death is obvious to us every day. They include people who, in self-discipline in matters of food and drink, and in their keen pursuit of justice, have attained a level not inferior to that of genuine philosophers." (From Galen on Jews and Christians, translated by R. Walzer, London, 1949, p. 15).
Why did Christians act in such extraordinary ways? Why were they so generous with money and care for the poor, the widow, the orphan? While pagan worshipers contributed money out of self-interest, in other words, what the gods Jupiter, Diana, Isis, and Mithras could do for them in return for a gift, Christians gave, and gave, and gave, because they believed what Jesus said. Building upon the teachings of Judaism, Jesus said that their God, who created humankind, actually LOVED the human race, and this evoked love in return! Jesus, as a great and good rabbi, succinctly summarized Jewish teachings when he said, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul; and you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Mark 12:29-31). God required human beings to love one another and offer help - even, and especially help for the neediest.
Tertullian said, that while the members of what he called "the peculiar Christian society" didn't practice this immense generosity universally, enough of the Christians offered tremendous acts of compassion often enough that they attracted public notice. He wrote: "What marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our practice of loving kindness. They say, `only look, look how they love one another.'" (Apology 39).
1900 years have passed since Tertullian and Galen wrote. 2000 years have flown by since Jesus taught and embodied an ethic of bountiful love and immense generosity. Where are we today? How have we evolved as those who call ourselves "Little Christs" (the meaning of the word "Christian"), as those who love the Lord our God? I'd like to believe we continue the vision of loving kindness, compassion, justice and generosity. But, then, I come across material that seems to point another direction.
Going through a file marked "Stewardship," left behind by one of my predecessors, I found a curious paper drawn from the work of Jay Hudson, author of the book, "How Will We Pay for the Church?" I am not sure if the author of this paper, while presenting it to an earlier incarnation of our Stewards Committee, was serious or joking. But, in a one page document entitled, "A PAY FOR SERVICE APPROACH," we find these words, "A pay-for-service church is appearing in its infancy. This concept is consistent with the market mentality . . . A pay-for-services model suggests a price tag for each service, or a bundling price for a complete package of church services based on actual costs . . . In exchange for weekly contact through visits, classes, electronic media, participating households agree to a monthly fee of $50. A discount of $100 is available by paying for $500 annually in advance. An ala carte price list might look like this (these prices need to be adjusted to 2003 actual costs): $10/per class for Religious Education; $25/per visit to the hospital; $50/hour for private theological counseling; $100/surgery waiting with a family, etc. Each family in this model is charged $10/worship service; with automatic checking withdrawal to address the problem of sporadic giving or the summer slump."
I hope and pray this is a tongue-in-cheek document. But, I wonder if this is the place we are coming to as a 21st Century Church. I know your current Stewards Committee is pulling its collective hair out trying to generate enthusiasm, energy, vision, and dollars for the 2004 budget. I am sure that they could see some benefit of such a pay-for-service approach. But, they, along with the rest of us, would need to admit that this model is at least 500 years old. It is similar to the model of church giving in vogue in the early 16th Century. Back then, Christians - from the elite to the simplest peasants bought indulgences, relics, and other tickets to heaven from the Roman Catholic Church. This model is what ultimately caused the Revolution we know as the Protestant Reformation. The Church of the 16th Century had moved so far away from the written word of God and the presence of Jesus Christ as its reason for being that Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin - among others - revolted and called for changing the corrupt papal system which the Roman Church had forced Christians to embrace. Today, over 584 million Christians, who call themselves Protestants, follow a path - on which we walk- that places the word of God first before all else - including pay-for-service approaches to stewardship!
Next Sunday, you and I are being called to "Give for the love of the church." We need to generate about $75,000 above this year's giving level. We are absolutely capable of doing this. I am embarrassed to say this, but every household in this church, including my own, is capable of giving at higher levels than we currently are giving. In fact, the giving levels of this church per capita are the lowest of any church I have served in my 18 years of ministry.
Last year, when we were $60,000 short of our goal, I sent out a letter encouraging 59 households who were capable, but not pledging a penny, to give something toward that goal. I truly believed all folks needed was personal letter from me. I was so hopeful when I wrote. I thought for sure people would step forward and make a contribution. I was wrong. In 18 years of ministry I have never felt lower than in those weeks that followed. I wondered how we had reached the point where you and I cannot carry the budget, vision, mission, and ministry of this magnificent church forward in faith. This past June, we had to hold a second mile campaign to cover the difference of this lost revenue. Amazingly, people who were giving already stepped forward and gave more! We added $45,000 more to the budget through the generosity of many of you! Thanks be to you! Thanks be to God!
I must tell you, as we approach next Sunday, I don't want anyone in this room to look at someone else in this room or on the roster of membership and proclaim what they should be giving for the love of the church. I want each one of us to look ourselves in the mirror. (I am serious! Do this!) I want you to look inward. I want you to ask if you are doing all you are capable of doing for Christ and his church. I want you to reflect on your generosity. I want you to ask, "Can I commit a higher percentage of my giving for the love of the church?" I want you to invest in the future of First Church. I want you to pray for and seek the spirit of the Lord. I want you to plan your giving based on the word of God, the Spirit of Christ, and the same generous heart which empowered the early church to change the world - generous hearts of compassion, justice, and loving kindness. I want you to be filled by the Holy Spirit and step forward as great givers, as generous lovers of the church. A "Pay-for-service Approach" is for materialists and spiritually vacant people. A "Give for the Love of the Church Approach" is the way we will grow!
Before we leave today, I want you to know that each day this week at 9:00am I will be in this sanctuary praying for you and your loved ones. I will be naming you, your children, and all the members of our church in my prayers. I will lift you in holy love into the heart of God. I will pray that God will guide your way in the deliberations, decisions, and directions of your life.
It is my hope and prayer that you spend time this week praying for yourself and what God is calling you to be and do through First Church. Pray that God will guide your giving to be generous, your acts to be compassionate and just and your way to be loving kindness. Amen.
Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church
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