Sunday, March 20, 2016

March 20, 2016
Palm Sunday
(Sermon III of a series of IV)
A Colorado pastor tells of being in a grocery store one day and encountering a woman she hadn’t seen in a long time. “It was awkward for both of us,” the pastor said, “as she had suddenly stopped attending church and we never learned exactly why.” 

After the two exchanged pleasantries, the pastor said, “We miss you. Is there anything that our church can do for you?”

The woman replied, “Yes, there is. You could stop asking for money all the time.”

The pastor doesn’t indicate how she answered that woman. Perhaps the woman’s response caught her by surprise and the pastor didn’t have time to organize a reply. But she continued to think about it, and she eventually presented her response in the form of a sermon to her congregation. She started by acknowledging that the church is always asking for money, but she went on unapologetically to defend that practice by enumerating all the ministries and missions churches engage in. 

The pastor acknowledged that some people grow weary of being asked to give but said that perhaps they would prefer the sort of church she’d read about recently where the members aren’t asked for money. Instead, they take turns doing everything in the church, including cleaning the building, providing the music, preparing the bulletin, doing the preaching and teaching, and spending a year each on the mission field (because they have no money to give to missions). In winter, they dress very warmly for worship because they don’t run the furnace. They offer no child care, no children’s church and no youth ministry. The pastor concluded that example by saying, “A church that needs no money wouldn’t be much of a church at all. I’m glad to be part of a church that always needs money. It means we’re doing something, going somewhere, making a difference.”

The pastor made some additional worthy points in her sermon and then concluded by saying, “It’s a good thing the church is asking for money. What kind of church would the church be if it wasn’t always reaching out to help others in need? And the local church is unarguably the best place to open our pocketbooks.”

It was a good sermon and a good response to the complaint that the church is always asking for money. We should recognize, however, that it isn’t the whole response. The argument that the church should be asking for money because of all the good stuff it does has merit, but any worthy charity can make that case. The church isn’t simply a charity with a religious sheen on it. Christians aren’t simply do-gooders who also pray. 

In fact, doing good for others, often expressed biblically as “love your neighbor as yourself,” is the second of the two great summary commandments Jesus spoke. The first of them is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). For Christians, giving out of what we have has as much to do with the first great commandment as with the second one.

To say it another way, we should give not only to do good for others but also because it’s necessary for our own spiritual well-being. It’s part of the way we love God with all our heart, soul and mind.h

The apostle Paul gets at that in the first letter to Timothy, when he addresses the negative impact money can have on our souls. In our reading, Paul speaks of the gain that comes to us “in godliness combined with contentment” and goes on to mention the basics — food and clothing — as sufficient. But then he warns about the dangers that the desire to be rich can bring, stating, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains” (1 Timothy 6:10).

Paul next addresses Timothy specifically, calling him “man of God” (which is an ancient title for a prophet). Paul tells him to “shun all this.” In other words, some threats to our spiritual health — including the love of money — are so subtle and so powerful that the best way to deal with them is to stay away from them.

Obviously, we live in a world that runs on money. We cannot have a decent existence without money, and Paul is well aware of that. But he also recognizes that the lure of money and the acquisition of possessions it makes possible are so dangerous to our souls that we have to defang them. And one of the best ways to do that is by opening our hands and giving some of it away.

Thus, further on in the same chapter, Paul addresses Christians “who in the present age are rich.” He tells them not to allow their wealth to make them “haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches.” Rather, Paul says, they should set their hope “on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.” And lest they miss the point, he spells it out: “They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” 

Notice he doesn’t say they should be generous and ready to share because that’s good for others, though no doubt Paul would agree with that. No, he says they should be “rich in good works, generous, and ready to share” because by so doing they “take hold of the life that really is life.” They should be generous because it’s one of the things that makes them, the givers, spiritually healthy.

In 2001, popular author Stephen King gave the commencement address at Vassar College. Though King is known for horror fiction, many readers have noticed explicitly Christian themes in his novels, and he has even acknowledged that in interviews. In any case, in the Vassar speech, he made some statements that mirror something Paul said in this letter to Timothy: “[F]or we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.” 

While walking down the road one day in 1999, King was struck and severely injured by a minivan. In the speech, he referred to both his accident and to the earning potential of the graduates, saying: 

Well, I’ll tell you one thing you’re not going to do, and that’s take it with you. I’m worth I don’t exactly know how many millions of dollars ... and a couple of years ago I found out what “you can’t take it with you” means. I found out while I was lying in the ditch at the side of a country road, covered with mud and blood and with the tibia of my right leg poking out the side of my jeans .... I had a MasterCard in my wallet, but when you’re lying in the ditch with broken glass in your hair, no one accepts MasterCard. ... We all know that life is ephemeral, but on that particular day and in the months that followed, I got a painful but extremely valuable look at life’s simple backstage truths: We come in naked and broke. We may be dressed when we go out, but we’re just as broke. ... And how long in between? ... Just the blink of an eye.

King went on to discuss what the graduates could do with their earnings in the time they had in that eye-blink: 

... for a short period ... you and your contemporaries will wield enormous power: the power of the economy, the power of the hugest military-industrial complex in the history of the world, the power of the American society you will create in your own image. That’s your time, your moment. Don’t miss it. 

But then he added

Of all the power which will shortly come into your hands ... the greatest is undoubtedly the power of compassion, the ability to give. We have enormous resources in this country — resources you yourselves will soon command — but they are only yours on loan. ... I came here to talk about charity, and I want you to think about it on a large scale. Should you give away what you have? Of course you should. I want you to consider making your lives one long gift to others, and why not? ... All you want to get at the getting place ... none of that is real. All that lasts is what you pass on. The rest is smoke and mirrors.

Finally, King mentioned a specific local charity called Dutchess Outreach, which helps the hungry, the sick and the homeless. He said he was making a $20,000 contribution to it and challenged audience members to do the same. And here’s one more thing he said: 

Giving isn’t about the receiver or the gift but the giver. It’s for the giver. One doesn’t open one’s wallet to improve the world, although it’s nice when that happens; one does it to improve one’s self. I give because it’s the only concrete way I have of saying that I’m glad to be alive and that I can earn my daily bread doing what I love. ... Giving is a way of taking the focus off the money we make and putting it back where it belongs — on the lives we lead, the families we raise, the communities which nurture us.

I would say that was a good sermon

Devotional writer Evelyn Underhill would likely have agreed with King. I am currently reading a Lenten devotional that is a collage of some of her writings and she once said that the saints she knew personally were so generous that they were often unable to keep anything for themselves. Some Christians have taken this to the point of vows of poverty. Such vows clearly aren’t possible for most of us, but that increases our spiritual need not to hold onto wealth too tightly.

In the church, we often refer to certain practices as important for our growth in the Spirit. They include prayer, Bible study, confession of sins, worship, submission, service and others, and we sometimes refer to them as “spiritual disciplines.” The disciplines help us avoid superficiality in our faith, which Richard J. Foster, who has written a book on the disciplines, calls “the curse of our age,” adding “the doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem.” He explains that the spiritual disciplines “call us to move beyond surface living into the depths. They invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realm.”

Generosity is also a spiritual discipline, which means it’s one practice that helps us avoid superficiality in our faith. In fact, someone has said that when we present the offering plates at the altar after the collection has been taken, the gist of our offertory prayer should be, “No matter what else we say or do here this morning, O Lord, this tells you what we really think of you.”

So yes, the church is always asking for money. But it’s also always asking you to pray, read the Bible, confess your sins, do good deeds and attend worship. All those things are good for our souls and help us go deeper into our faith. 

Thus, one blessing of attending church is that it provides us with an opportunity to give generously, for our own good.
Sermon’s done, now for a tiny bit of catechism. You will notice a couple of statements made by the priest at the Mass in regard to offerings. Obviously, in the early part of my sermon you heard of the many things that your offerings go to. Cleaning, keeping the lights on, etc. However, as Catholics, it is a teensy weensy more than that. 
Immediately after the collection, you notice that prayer is said with the offerings at the altar: “for all things come of thee, and of thine own have we given thee.” This is from the Scriptures, I Chronicles 29:14. Does God need our money? No. He’s omnipotent and can do all things and has not need of it. But, God does call us to do His work on earth and spread the Good News. That said, we offer to Him a small portion as our participation in this, to continue His work on the earth in the form of the Church.
Later in Mass, you here the priest say to you: “Pray brothers and sisters, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father Almighty.” Once again we acknowledge the gifts and tithes, but this time in the form of bread and wine. This bread and wine we offer to God almighty sthat He may miraculously turn these elements into the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ. 
Because we, as Catholics, believe in this miracle and the necessity to partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, our offerings take on an additional meaning, for said offerings purchase the required items for the Eucharist each Sunday. And so, we offer our gifts up to God twice; once as general offerings and again later as His Son in the form He will take in appearance as that of bread and wine. Since the Eucharist is of extreme importance to Catholics, as it brings our Lord truly present each Sunday, our offerings become especially important.
Stay tuned next for our fourth, and final, installment of Why Church?: 

March 27 (Easter Sunday): Why Church? Reason 4: Mentors
Let us pray.
Father God, help us to always remember that when we give to the Church, we are giving to You in order to carry out Your continued ministry here on earth. Help each of us to consider and understand all the many aspects that go into the operation of Your  physical ministry.
Dear Lord, we ask You to help us to be grateful givers of our time and resources. As the adage goes, help us to not give until it hurts; but give until it feels good. Help us to see that often times we spend more on our hobbies and prideful things than we give back to You, so that we can see that what we give to the Church does not seem so large after all, but still helps in great ways. Through Christ our Lord. Amen 
God Love You +
The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.