Stewardship at the Crossroads
March 20, 2011
St. Andrew’s United Church, Halifax
During the time that I served churches in Newfoundland, I witnessed on a number of occasions the old Methodist practice of an ‘afterservice,’ which was still alive in some of the United Churches there. An afterservice takes place after a regular worship service has been completed, often on a Sunday evening. It has two elements: the singing of spiritual choruses; and the giving of testimonies. Choruses are simple songs of faith that often tell of born again experiences using the colourful images of old time religion like ‘I was washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.’ They were sung with a zeal rarely felt in the hymn-singing of ‘normal’ services. The testimonies could be even more passionate. Those testifying spoke with a vulnerability and an intimacy that was a somewhat shocking. These were not people generally disposed to speak publically about deeply personal feelings. After being to a few of these services, it became clear that folks were telling the same stories over and over again, often in a fixed sequence using exactly the same illustrations. Why would they do this? These were stories that took place twenty, thirty even fifty years before in most cases. These people had been telling the same stories time after time for decades! What was the point? What were they getting out of this?
Well, it’s somewhat precarious to talk about other people’s spiritual motivations, but, as best I could tell, they kept on telling their stories because the telling took them back to a moment of profound reframing, a moment in which they stopped seeing their lives as futile and empty to seeing them as precious and beautiful. No, I’ve got to put this differently. My language is not powerful enough here. These folks gave their testimonies to take them back to a moment in which they actually left one world and began to inhabit another. They had moved from a world filled with fear to a world filled with hope. They had moved from a world in which they were alone with their pain to a world in which they were held tightly by the love of Christ. These testimonies were about moments of change that were as dramatic as a physical birth from the world of the dark and fluid womb into the world of light and air. ‘I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.’
Most of us here have chosen a form of religion that is different than that old time, born again kind, but there is something in us that longs for a profound reframing, isn’t there, something in us that longs to inhabit a world with more peace and more meaning and more hope.
One of the choruses frequently sung in Newfoundland was ‘It’s Good to be Here,’ its refrain recalling a most strange and evocative passage of scripture: the story of the transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John, three of his closest disciples, up a mountain for some deep reframing: ‘And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.’ Suddenly the two greatest Old Testament prophets, Moses and Elijah, are there. Clearly, the disciples are having an abnormal experience. Some would call it a psychotic break, others a moment of mystical insight. In any case, they are transported to an extraordinary place in which time collapses and the veil that shades us from Divine light is lifted. Peter says ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ Then the voice of God booms, ‘This is my Son.’ The disciples fall to the ground trembling with fear.
What is going on here? Why has Peter’s beautiful, mystical experience turned terrifying? Why has the presence of God transformed from a beautiful light into a dreadful voice. It has to do with Peter’s impulse to build dwellings and to stay on the mountain. Just before taking this trip up the mountain for a peak experience, Jesus had been telling the disciples that he must travel the road to the cross, that his ministry of preaching, teaching, healing, and confronting the unjust powers would end in execution. Peter, perhaps sensing that his own ministry would end the same way if he were to follow Jesus’ example (and indeed we are taught that Peter was martyred in Rome), is tempting Jesus with an alternative: stay on the mountain; stay above the fray in this beautiful place of spiritual experience; retreat into religion that revels in the spirit but abandons the broken and leaves the powers to wreak their havoc. God responds with brutal simplicity: ‘This is my Son.’... My son is not interested in this kind of religion. My son lives for, and will die for those millions down there caught in the hard world of life under the thumb of empire.
This story ingeniously captures the power and the problem with born again experiences. They take us to a new and beautiful world, but in the gift lies the temptation: to revel in that world for our own comfort while ignoring all those who need our help, all those caught in a world of despair and brokenness.
Now here’s and interesting truth - material riches provide exactly the same temptation as spiritual riches: the temptation to make a mountain of one’s money, and to climb up, separating oneself from all those who have not been so blessed. This has always been true but in our time this temptation has reached a fever pitch never felt before. There is a simple reason for this. There world has never before seen the kind of wealth that we see today. The Forbes list of the world’s richest people includes 1,200 individuals who collectively are worth 4.5 trillion dollars. That is more than three times the GDP of Canada! Joan Baxter’s op ed piece in the Herald this week gives a fascinating glimpse into the way that many of the super rich are cutting themselves off from the rest of us by stashing their money in offshore tax havens. She estimates that one quarter of the world’s wealth, some 11.5 trillion, is contained in these sanctuaries, unavailable for taxation to improve health care, education, infrastructure maintenance or the provision of opportunity for those who have none. In her view, this is the single biggest reasons why the poor are still poor.
I don’t want to slide into a clichéd, ‘the rich are evil’ diatribe here. Most of these people became rich employing qualities that Jesus would have celebrated: creative genius, novel thinking, inventiveness, courageous entrepreneurship. Jesus would have celebrated much in the lives of people like Steve Jobs, for example. And Jesus did not hate wealth for its own sake. He just warned us against the idolatry of loving wealth for its own sake. Wealth is energy, divinely given. Wealth is opportunity. Like the bestowal of spiritual riches upon Peter on the mountain top, the bestowal of material wealth is a gift to be celebrated. But with the gift comes the inevitable temptation to stay on the mountain top away from the needy hoards. With the gift comes the temptation to develop a theology that says ‘I am special because I have been gifted.’ ‘I deserved this gift.’ ‘And those who have not been gifted do not deserve it – from me or from God.’ One tragic flaw in this theology, whether it flows from spiritual or material riches, is that it denies others opportunity. And of course this condemns the gifted as well as the gift-less, because it is impossible to hover forever up on the mountain. There will be a descent, and life in a world made mean by lack of opportunity.
The gospel cure for this theology is generosity, shown most clearly on the cross. Jesus death on the cross was ultimately an act of generosity – to us. Today we launch a stewardship campaign here at St. Andrew’s. The job of the money folks is to educate you on the needs of our church and our mission and to help you to understand how to give, how to be generous to our church. That’s the job of the money men and the money women, and thank God for them. But the preacher’s job is different, especially for the preacher to the privileged like us. The job of the preacher is to give a cure for the temptation to climb up on our mountain and to forget about the web of community. And that cure is generosity. The job of the preacher is to help us reframe, to draw us out of a world of scarcity into a world of abundance, to draw us out of the world of the zero sum game and into a world in which every act of generosity actually generates more wealth and spirit and leaves us all with more riches to share. To help us to be born again in a world in which our treasure actually grows by giving it away. It’s a hard job because the theology of this world in our time teaches the exact opposite.
To give you a little of the cure, I want to tell you about the most generous community I know. This community is called St. Andrew’s United Church. I have been moved by the generosity of the chorus-singing out-port-Newfoundlanders and other communities but none more than this one. You are remarkably generous with your time, your passion, and your money. Our city shows the marks of this generosity. Without your generosity Northwood would not be as vital as it is. Without your generosity the IWK would not be as vital as it is. Without your generosity Phoenix Youth would not be as vital as it is ... or Dalhousie chaplaincy, or Dalhousie Medical School, or Brunswick St. Mission, or the Alzheimer’s Society, or Citadel High, or ... or ... or...
Without your acts of reframing, this world would be darker than it is. The Gospel call to stewardship is simply a call to go deeper into this instinct you already have for generosity. Indeed, to go so deeply that you die of all fear of scarcity and are born into life of complete solidarity with your neighbours in this city and in this global village. ‘I once was blind, but now I see.’ The job of the preacher is tell us that a world exists in which giving does not deplete but enriches. That world does not lie up the mountain or offshore but thinly veiled behind our own. No, that’s not right. It lies within our own. It can only be seen with eyes of faith, but it is there calling, saying ‘do not be afraid; die to your fear and you will be born into a world of endless opportunity for you and for all that you touch with your giving heart.’