Hi, everybody! I’ve missed you the last couple of weeks. Two Sundays ago, I was in Baltimore for the UCC’s national ONA gathering and then for Synod. Ugena and I will share some of our experiences with you next Sunday after the 10:00 service. Our interim Conference Minister, Marie Bacchiocchi, also will be with us next week. She is eager to meet you! I am grateful to Matthew and Rochelle for preaching the last two Sundays, to Trish Greeves for filling in on pastoral duties, and to the deacons for their consistent good work. My heart is full.
After Synod, Allen and I took some vacation. Guess where we went. Yes. The monastery.
Anybody else go to monasteries on your vacations? If not, you don’t know what you’re missing! Rooms at reasonable rates, three meals a day, surrounded by 60 people who have committed their lives to receiving everyone as if they are the Christ. If the point of vacation is rest and relaxation, our experience last week certainly filled the bill.
In addition to rest and relaxation, a stay in the monastery is a mini-immersion into the experience described in today’s Scripture lesson.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching…
to the breaking of bread…
All who believed were together and had all things in common… Day by day, they spent much time together in the temple…
and ate their food with glad and generous hearts,
and having the goodwill of all the people.
If you’ve been here awhile, this text probably sounds familiar. Many of our summer themes over the years have focused on what it means to be a community of Jesus’ followers. This year’s theme of “building a stronger community” continues in the same vein. Acts 2:42-47 describes the ideal Christian community.
Thus far this summer, we’ve reflected on our community’s spiritual and vocational lives. Through those reflections, we’ve discovered that, in addition to our individual spiritual lives, we also share a communal spiritual life. We often experience God’s Spirit when we’re together.
In a sermon I preached a couple weeks ago, I asked what you see as our community’s vocation, the one thing we have grasped so tightly that even death could not separate us from it. Reading your responses was a holy moment. Instead of the wide variety of answers I had expected, we heard near unanimity. In these days of deep division in our country, how heartening to realize that in this place, even in these times, we’re all on the same page about our calling as a community of Jesus’ followers: we are called to welcome all others in his name.
You’ve been very patient as we’ve explored our spiritual and vocational lives. Because I know what you’ve really wanted to hear about is the section we begin today: Our community’s financial life! Haven’t you eagerly anticipated these next three weeks of sermons? Did you tell all your friends about it? Man. I should have asked Trudy to do a Facebook ad! J
When my colleagues and I talk about preaching about finances, we almost always groan. Audibly. I’m not sure why we do that. Maybe it’s because we feel like we’re supposed to nag—I mean, inspire—people into doing what they really don’t want to do—give some of their hard-earned money to the church. I wonder, though, if giving to the church goes deeper than that. I wonder if, like praying and worshiping and serving others, financial stewardship also might be a spiritual practice. That is, might reflecting on what we do with our financial resources bring us closer to God?
To help us explore this intriguing—okay, perplexing—question, each of the next three weeks, we’re going to look at Acts 2:42-47 through a different lens. This week, we’ll look through the lens of individual finances; next week, at issues of economic justice; and the last week, at our Pilgrimage community’s finances. In all our considerations, we’ll ask: How might our relationship with money draw us closer to God?
So, how might our relationship with money as individuals draw us closer to God?
Initially, what I found most puzzling about monastery life was the vow of poverty. I didn’t get it. Everything in our culture is about acquiring, isn’t it? More money. Bigger houses. Fancier vacations. The more money we have, society tells us, the more successful we are.
But the sisters at the monastery don’t have much of anything that’s their own. They get $100 a month for personal spending. Other than that, they share everything—food, cars, accommodations. While I was there last week, Sr. Luke was preparing a talk on wills to present to a national Benedictine Development gathering. “What do I know about wills?” she asked. Nuns don’t need wills because they own so little. (I will say that Sr. Luke likes pretty clothes. She frequents thrift stores. Frequently. Do you know that at Goodwill Outlets you can buy clothes by the pound?) (Sr. Luke is on the right in the picture below. She stands with Sr. Mary Ann.)
Sr. Luke with Sr. Betty Jean…
Here’s the thing about most monks I know: They possess very little AND they seem to be very happy. They “have all things in common, sell their possessions and goods (They do that when they enter the community) and distribute the proceeds to all, as any has need. Day by day, as they spend much time together in the chapel, they break bread and eat their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” (Hmm. Maybe that’s where Sr. Luke gets her inspiration for shopping. J)
So, what is this connection between taking a vow of poverty—remember, this is poverty that is chosen. Poverty that is not chosen is a whole different animal. What is the connection between taking a vow of poverty and the generosity and joy I experience among the nuns?
Let’s look again at that first day of Pentecost. Have you ever imagined what it was like? To have been through the trauma of Jesus’ death, the unexpected joy of his resurrection, then the puzzlement over his departure again after 40 days? To have spent ten days after his second departure wondering what was next? Then, at a gathering with other followers just as much at sea as you, to have experienced another wonderful-puzzling thing? Wind! Fire! God’s Spirit! Understanding everything that’s said, even when spoken in languages you don’t know! Thousands of people joining the community after hearing Peter preach!
What a whirlwind (literally)! From the crucifixion to the day of Pentecost, 50+ days of riding an emotional roller coaster. You might not be able to explain much of what has happened, but you know what’s happened is significant…significant enough that you want it to continue. But how do you do that? How do you keep the powerful experience of Pentecost going?
You begin by spending time with people who’ve had the same experiences as you. That’s what you want to do when someone dies or moves on, isn’t it? You feel drawn to sit around and talk about the loved one, remembering things they said, and figuring out—together—how to begin living into the new reality.
So that’s what you do after Pentecost. You spend time with others who also knew Jesus. You talk about all the things Jesus did while he was there, you pray together, study together, and eat together. All of that makes sense. But why do you sell everything and “distribute the proceeds to all as any had need?” And why did sharing everything lead to living with glad and generous hearts? Maybe it’s because when you own a lot of things, if you’re not careful, they can start to own you. Sometimes not having feels freer than having.
That’s exactly what Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, figured out in the mid-1960s. From an early age, Millard had wanted to make $1 million. In 1964, four years after graduating from law school, Millard made his million. Just as he was readjusting his goal to $10 million, his wife Linda announced that she was leaving the kids with him for a few days. She needed some time to think about whether or not she wanted to continue in the marriage.
That was the moment Millard began looking at what earning that $1 million had cost him. It had cost him time with his family, connection with his faith, and it was about to cost him his marriage. He found someone to stay with the kids, then flew to New York, where Linda had gone. They talked. They wept. They realized that the only way for them to find their way back to happiness and joy was to get rid of most of what they owned.
They flew back to Montgomery where they lived, began selling off houses, horses, farms, boats, cars, and their half-interest in Millard’s law firm, then headed to Florida for a badly-needed vacation. On the way home, they stopped by Koinonia Farm in south Georgia to see an old friend, Al Henry, who at one time had pastored Pilgrim Congregational Church in Birmingham. While there, they met Clarence Jordan, founder of Koinonia…and their planned two-hour visit turned into a month-long stay. Millard and Linda soon moved to Sumter County and Millard found his new purpose in life—serving others. He felt freer than he’d ever felt.
(Millard Fuller and Clarence Jordan)
Is having a lot of money and owning a lot of nice things bad? Absolutely not. Does wealth inherently drive a wedge between us and God? Of course not. The problem comes when what we own begins to own us. When our commitment to wealth or possessions–or debt– becomes the most consuming thing in our lives, we are not able to worship God or follow Jesus with our whole selves. And worshiping God and following Jesus with our whole selves— this is what the sisters have taught me—that is the deepest sort of joy we can experience.
So, as we begin this consideration of our community’s financial life, maybe the most important question to ask isn’t, How much do we have? Maybe the more important question to ask is, In light of our financial resources, how happy are we? How joyful? How free?
How happy are you? How free are you? In silence, we reflect. (Silence)
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2017