The Economics of Jesus

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Rev. Douglas Long, Umstead Park UCC
Raleigh, North Carolina
August 29, 1999
Texts: Luke 12:13-34

Maybe you heard the story concerning the old rural minister, not formally educated, but who enjoyed remarkable success and who was particularly known for the clarity of his sermons.

“Tell us” inquired one neophyte, “what is the secret of your preaching?”

“Well, replied the pastor, “First I tell ’em what I’m going to say. Then I say it. …and then I tell them what I said.”

For those of you who haven’t been here the last couple of weeks, and for those who have but haven’t yet made the connection, I say, yet one more time, today’s sermon falls in a series that are specifically designed to help stir dialogue and discussion regarding the writing of our covenant. …And, as I’ve said each Sunday, these topics are far too broad for me to cover in any given Sunday… so realize my intent is to raise issues that I think are critical. The last two Sundays: Biblical interpretation, and inclusivity. Today, the economics of Jesus. And then next Sunday, ‘Is Christianity the only way to God?’ …All important issues as we think toward defining our center.

Today’s topic may be the most controversial of all. Why is it that we get very nervous in the Church when we talk about money publicly?  Why is it that we sometimes approach the subject of money somewhat tenuously?

I heard a story about a church with a small but vocal congregation. They had an amen corner… you know what I’m talking about? Somebody say Amen (Thank-you… I know you’re listening…) Anyway.. in this particular church one day the minister had one of the deacons right with him. The minister said… Let the Church walk… and the Deacon said…. “Amen. Let the church walk…”

And the minister said… “Let the church run…” and the Deacon said “Let the church run.”

“Let the Church fly…” said the minister and the responsive Deacon echoed… “Let the Church fly…”

Continued the minister, “And if the Church is going to fly it’s going to take money…”

To which the Deacon rejoined… “Let the church walk!”

Money. Not one of us is immune to its influence in our lives. Except maybe ministers. (!?! ..right!!!)  There was this devout fellow serving a small church when a large and wealthy congregation extended a call to him to be their pastor at three times his present salary. He was happy where he was…but… So he slipped into the sanctuary of his present parish and began praying for direction.

One of the central elders walked by an open window of the church and happened to over hear the prayer and was greatly impressed at the pastor’s struggle. The Elder then saw the 10 year old son of the minister riding his bike and stopped him saying… “What do you think is going to happen?” To which the 10 year replied… “Well, Daddy’s praying, but Moma’s packin’.

None of us are completely immune to the raw power and influence of money. It is as powerful a factor in our culture as any. It is no wonder that Jesus said… You cannot serve two masters…. Not God and money. One of them will take center stage and the other fall beneath its influence.

Jesus said a lot about money. If you take one of the Gospels and read it only looking for topics that deal with our use of our possessions you might be amazed at the number of times it is mentioned.

…I want to draw our attention to some of these teachings of Jesus, but before I do I want to make one point as clearly as I can….

The Gospel of Jesus, the message of God through the Christ, including all these and many other sayings dealing with money, the message of Christ is a freeing message. The teachings of Jesus are not burdensome rules that weigh heavily upon us, rather Christ frees us to live. Part of what we are often bound to is what we possess. Possessions can and often do possess us. Jesus knew that was true in his day and it’s certainly true now. A great deal of his ministry therefore was devoted to helping persons redirect their resources (their possessions and their lives…) redirect their resources to the source of life… God… and subsequently, to share their resources with person’s in need.

Jesus talked about money all the time… openly and often. And, what’s more, he spoke about how people regarded their money as a spiritual issue. Where your treasure is, there is your heart.  So I’m going to recap a few of Jesus’ more famous teachings on this issue.

-A wealthy man, the rich young ruler, came up to Jesus and said “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus replied, “Follow the law of God and give up your money.”

Why? Why did Jesus say instruct the man in this way. Others came to him and asked the same question and that is not what he said. Why this message to this man? Precisely because the rich young ruler couldn’t let his money go… It blocked his way to the realm of God. He worshipped his wealth. Where your treasure is, there is your heart.

-Another word of Jesus… “Give and there will be gifts for you, a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.”

-And there was the teaching about the widow’s mite. The poor woman who gave not very much, but it was all she had. Her gift stood out above those who gave more, but a pittance in comparison to their ability.

Want to hear more of Jesus’ words?

-Lk. 14:33… ‘None of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions’ (that is, not if you are possessed by your possessions.)

-Lk. 16:13 as I’ve already alluded to… ‘You cannot serve both God and Money.’

-There’s the rich man and Lazarus. Remember that parable about a wealthy man who ‘had it all’ on earth and was tormented in the afterlife and poor Lazarus who had nothing on earth but all in the afterlife?

-and everyone has wrestled with Jesus’ words about it being easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich person to get into heaven.

-How ’bout the parable of the talents. Remember it? ‘To whom much is given much is required.’

-Jesus said in more than one place directly to his disciples… ‘Sell your possessions and give alms.’

Good grief. The Gospels are literally full of teaching about money.

-And how about Jesus’ parable we just heard read, of the rich fool who stored his grains in bigger and bigger barns. Got more grain? Build a bigger barn. And then, of course, he died… but with very big barns.

No subtleties here!  Tired of hearing me give examples?  OK. Let me give you an impromptu Bible quiz. Pop quiz, true or false. Ready?

The Bible says money is the root of all evil. T or F? Answer- F.

The Bible says the lack of money is the root of all evil. T or F? Answer -F That was Mark Twain.

The Bible says the love of money is the root of all evil. True…. the love of money. It’s not having money that’s the problem… it’s how we use it that can cause us to stumble.

Hey, this isn’t the half of it. I’m not trying to make anyone feel guilty. I’m just pointing out that there are verses upon verses in the Gospels dealing with money…. And there are good reasons for this.

Let’s take Jesus off the hook here. He wasn’t trying to collect money from the people. Oh sure, there was a treasury that he and the disciples kept for the poor, but what I’m saying is that Jesus wasn’t a tele-evangelist preaching that if you’ll give him money then God will bless you. No, as far as I can tell, the Gospels never record Jesus passing the plate.

Jesus recognized that there was something fundamentally wrong with people’s relationship to money… two things actually. .. and that was what he was concerned about. Two reasons:

  1. Money can block our relationship to God. It can lead, not always, but can and often does lead to spiritual sickness. Money becomes our God. (It is a strange thing indeed that our currency states plainly on it “In God We Trust.” …but that’s another sermon.) So the first reason that Jesus said so much about money… the love of money usurps the place of God. Pneumaeconomicitis. (Classically it’s called greed.)
  2. There were people in need. …and there were people building bigger barns when they had more than they could store. Simple solution here… right? The ones with enough and more give to the ones in need. Sounds simple anyway.

Jesus addressed the issue of money repeatedly not because he was trying to raise the annual budget of his church, but because the improper use of money was destroying people’s relationship to God, and destroying themselves in the process.

This is not just a phenomenon of 2000 years ago. It can happen today. Let me give you an extreme example.

Do you know the story of John Rockefeller?

John D. Rockefeller was a millionaire by the age of 23. He was the richest man in the world by age 50. In his 53rd year, he became sick with an illness that no physician could identify. His hair and eyelashes fell out. The only thing he could eat was milk and crackers. He couldn’t sleep. His body dried up. He shrank until he looked like a mummy. And, at the beginning of his 54th year, three of the best physicians in the world told him he had less than a year to live.

But very early one morning, as the richest man in the world tossed and turned through another sleepless night, Jesus’ words about laying up treasures on earth came to him with a power and message he’d never felt before… the economics of Jesus dawned upon him. Five hours later, John D. Rockefeller climbed out of bed with a new direction for his life. He was now determined, over whatever time might remain, to work as hard at giving his money away as he’d previously worked at making it.

Someone has estimated that 500 million people are alive today because of the cures for malaria, diptheria, and tuberculosis, as well as the discovery of penicillin, which Rockefeller research grants made possible. You know that that is only a fraction of the philanthropy accomplished by Rockefeller.

And what of Rockefeller himself? Six months after his declaration to change his life, he reported to his amazed physicians that he had never felt better., and all of the terrible symptoms which led them to conclude he was dying had disappeared. He lived another 44 years, mostly in excellent health, and died in 1937 at the age of 98.

Does anyone doubt that his sickness was indeed spiritual… and that it was related to his use of money?

“Yeah Doug,” you say, “but we’re not Rockefellers”.. and that’s true enough (dog gone it), but we may still be like the farmer… the farmer looking across the beauty of his farm and pasture land and up into the skies… ‘O God, you are a great God! Why I wish I had $1,000,000. I’d give it all to you Lord.”

A voice from the sky booms… “How ’bout a cow?”…

To which the farmer retorts, “Now, hold on there a minute Lord… you know I have a cow.”

We don’t have to be a millionaire to be spiritually sickened by the misuse of our wealth.

Now here’s where this all really comes into focus for the purposes of our upcoming covenant thinking.

Just as individuals can be economically/spiritually ill, so can the Church.

Let me put it this way. There are many churches, many communities of faith, that receive the money that people give to the realm of God on Sunday mornings, and the churches spend it almost completely on themselves. This is another strain of pneumaeconomicitis.

But when it comes to certain aspects of our mission as the church, Jesus was pretty clear.

In Matthew 25 he tells a parable with the criterion about acceptable behavior for entrance into the final realm of God.

“For I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was a stranger and you made me welcome, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.”

Jesus adds this as the clincher,

“As you have done these things to the least of those in your midst, you have done them to me.”

The mission of the church has to include ministry to the least of these.

Emil Brunner says ‘The Church exists by mission as fire exists by burning.’  No burning – no fire… No mission – no church!!

When the Church, or when we individually, stop our active Christ-like mission… ministering to the least of these in our midst, …we lose what it is we are meant to be. It is in serving as Christ modeled that we ARE the church and not just another spiritual social club.

Some final words for the covenant thoughts…

From the first Sunday we met as a community of faith-in-formation, we have pledged 51% of our regular offerings to ministries beyond us. Why?

  • Because Jesus bids us reach out to the least of those among us and therefore we cannot separate following Jesus from doing justice.
  • Because on the spectrum of world wealth, we are all undeniably rich, and therefore spending the great majority of our offerings to God on ourselves would be sinful.
  • Because God loves us lavishly and calls us to be liberal in our love to our brothers and sisters, siblings all.
  • Because, as St. Francis said, we are to proclaim the Gospel always, and, if necessary, use words.

Will the 51% pledge continue after we organize as a congregation October 3?

I cannot say. That will be something for the newly formed congregation to decide… but, as risky and radical as it is, I do hope that some expression of it will continue. I know that we have not yet faced many of the financial responsibilities that will make this pledge more difficult.

But I believe there are ways we could continue to designate half of our efforts, half of our resources, half of our professional staff’s time, half of any building we might eventually own , half of all that we do… to ministries beyond us.

In fact, when you think about it, a mission that profound is a little selfish… after all a ‘church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.’ It’s in our self-interest.

Let me tell you something that I find exciting. Almost exactly 5 months ago, on March 28 the first gathering of people as North Raleigh United came together. There hadn’t been more than three or four people together as North Raleigh United before that day. We didn’t know if we’d be able to afford our rent beyond the first month. We didn’t know if we could pay for publicity and other needs. And we made this ridiculous pledge to give 51% away.

Here’s an update. Collectively through the community of North Raleigh, in the first 5 months, coming together from scratch, not knowing each other before, but called by God, let me give you an inkling of our future by giving the briefest report on our short past… as of the latter part of this week when we will make another allocation, the community of North Raleigh United has given approximately $8,500 to ministries beyond itself.

Some say we can’t do all these things.

I’m with Brunner “The church exists by mission as a fire exists by burning.

And I’m with Elton Trueblood “The person who never goes out on a limb will never, it is true, have the limb cut off while on it, but neither will the best fruit be reached.”

And I hope I’m with Jesus…. “To whom much is given, much is required.” Amen.

This sermon is part of a new series compiled by the NC Council of Churches in conjunction with our lectionary-based worship resource Acts of Faith.  We believe that issues of peace and justice can be expressed in the worship life of congregations, and we remain committed to providing accessible and relevant resources to make this a reality.  This sermon was used with the permission of the author, and the views expressed in it are solely the author’s. Please contact us if you are interested in submitting one of your sermons for consideration.

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