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The Economics of Church

posted Nov 27, 2018, 3:44 PM by Cameron Hubanks

When you ask non-churchgoers why they don’t go to church there will always be one response high on the list of reasons – “They’re always asking for money.”

Have you ever noticed how troubling are the words “always” and “never?”  Have you ever heard a loved one begin a complaint, “You never….” or “You always….”?  Have you ever begun a complaint by saying, “You never….” or “You always….”?  Sadly, most of us have.

There’s an obvious problem with “always” and “never” – hardly anything is “always” or “never” true.  When we begin a complaint with one of those words, our conversation partner can almost always (smiley face!) imagine a time when she or he didn’t…. or did!!  Instead of initiating a helpful conversation, the charge of always or never mostly conjures up an objection.  “Why just a month ago, I remembered to put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher!”

Good, honest, interesting conversations rarely use the words “always” and “never.”  Almost and never aren’t good conversation starters…. They are mostly conversation enders.

Here’s a fact that’s “almost always” true:  Most churches aren’t “always” asking for money.  In fact, I’d suggest that most churches don’t talk about money enough.  After all, we live in a culture that is saturated in messages about wealth.  Some of it is straightforward (like advertisements for investment firms) and some of it is oblique (like the famous person who wears clothing you or I could never afford.  The kind of car you drive, the house you live in, the nature of your job – all of these things convey messages on multiple levels – and one of those levels is always about money and wealth.  

It doesn’t matter if we wish it weren’t this way – try as we might, there is a money element to almost everything we do.

And if church is the one place where we do our level best to avoid money talk – we send an inadvertent message that I think is very dangerous.  When in church we fail to talk about money, we leave the impression that God is not interested in money.  And nothing could be further from the truth.  In fact, God is very interested in money – or to put it more precisely, God is very interested in how each one of us uses our money.  

Of course, it is true that God doesn’t “need” my money.  God is spirit and exists in a realm apart from material need.  In a genuinely true sense, God already owns everything that exists – from the Milky Way to the coins in my grandson’s piggy bank – God already owns it all.  

That being so, what causes God to be interested in money?  If God is beyond envy, what motivates God to care?  

I think there are at least two reasons why God cares:

  • God cares because God is worried that we’ll love the things God has made more than the God who made them.  God isn’t worried about this because God is petty and insecure – God worries about this because having made us and loved us, God knows what is best for us.  God wants you to be joyful and fulfilled and God knows that too narrow a focus on money will not bring you joy – it will mainly bring you fret and anxiety and lust and depression.  God wants you to be free from fret and anxiety and lust and depression.  What God wants for you is joy, and God seems to know that less preoccupation with money serves to raise the odds that we’ll experience joy.
  • There is a second reason why God cares about how we think about and how we use money:  God aches for those who hurt.  God aches for those who are poor and who live in danger of violence and who are ill and who don’t know opportunity and privilege in the ways that most of us do.  Sharing with these folk for whom God especially cares is one way to get better lined us with the mind of Christ.  Though it may not seem intuitive, It seems that sharing is another way to find joy!

The text we heard this morning might be just a bit perplexing.  It’s actually a part – a relatively small part – of a much larger conversation between the Apostle Paul and the believers in Corinth.  In a nutshell, that larger conversation goes like this:  In a prior letter Paul had laid out a crisis that the followers of Jesus who lived in Jerusalem were facing – a life-threatening crisis of famine and persecution.  He asked if the Corinthians would share from their abundance for the welfare of folk they’d never met and would never meet – and they said they would.  But time went by, and they didn’t.  Paul had made this same request of others – and some of those were less wealthy than the Corinthians and those others had already come through with generous offerings.  But there was nothing from Corinth.  Finally (in frustration, I think) Paul has it out with these folk – folk who owed their very faith to the sacrifices he had made on their behalf.  

It matters to know that the church in Corinth was blessed in many ways.  The members possessed a variety of talents and spiritual gifts.  They were – many of them – materially wealthy.  But it’s also clear that they were a contentious group.  They fought among themselves and divided themselves into factions and sects.  In many ways it seems they were smug and self-satisfied.  But it’s not clear that this was a church marked by joy.  

Earlier I made the assertion that God cares a lot about how you and I use money.  I draw the conclusion mostly from the frequency with which Jesus and the prophets talk about wealth and wealth-related questions.  But even though money and its use gets talked about a lot in the Gospels, there isn’t a highly developed, coherent theology of money to be found in the Bible.  We are, it seems, asked to study these questions diligently and draw conclusions together about how to use money in faithful ways.  

That being so, you can expect that I will talk about money regularly – not all the time – but more than just rarely.  And even though there isn’t a ready-made Biblical theology of money, there are strong hints here and there that point us toward joy.  Here’s one of them – it’s from Jesus and his so-called Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s Gospel – “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore tried to quote this during one of the debates.  He didn’t quite get it right – saying, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.”  That might be true (I think it probably is), but that’s not what Jesus was saying.  Jesus was saying, whatever you choose to make your economic priority – that’s what you’ll come to love.    If you make your house your priority – that’s what you’ll love.  If you make low taxes your priority – that’s what you’ll love.  If you make your family your priority – that’s what you’ll love (which is a tricky one – but we won’t unpack it today).  And…. if you make God your priority…. that’s what…. that’s who you’ll come to love.  And in loving God with passion and conviction and steadfastness…. comes joy.  

In a few minutes we’ll make a short time of silence to give you opportunity to mark down your intention for financial support of Zwingli Church during 2019.  Since God rarely (if ever) shows up on our doorsteps to ask for support, giving to one’s church becomes a proxy for giving to God.  It’s not exactly the same thing, but it’s close.  

(An aside – a better proxy, perhaps, per the text we heard from Matthew 25 last week, in the context of Native American Sunday is this: when we give to the poor, we give to Christ the King!)

My appeal to you today is not mostly that Zwingli Church needs your money so badly – my appeal is that we all need to give.  We need to give enough so that it’s noticeable.  When I calculate my yearly budget, the amount that Ruby and I designate for “charity” is one of the bigger categories.  It’s the not the biggest, but it’s close.  And over our 27 years of marriage, the money we’ve given away adds up to a stunningly large number.  

And even though I can’t prove it, I think that giving has mostly resulted in joy, and gratefulness, and greater dependence on God.  

I don’t believe in the so-called “health and wealth” Gospel.  I don’t believe you will make more money just because you give to God, and I don’t believe you will necessarily be healthier because you give to God.  Here’s what I believe – that giving generously to God has turned my heart more toward God and more toward that which God loves than what it otherwise would have been.  I think that’s been good for me, and so I share that with you with the strong suspicion that it might also do the same for you.  

Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”