Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sermon from SUnday, May 20

ON Acts 2:43-47:

Foolish pastors talk about money, or so goes the conventional wisdom. It is true that most pastors would rather go through a root canal without Novocaine than to talk about money, but I suppose I’m not like most pastors. I’m actually pretty comfortable with it. I often talk about money as part of a regular Sunday sermon–a line here and a line there–and usually in November I’ll talk about money, during that time of the year when we’re all trying to figure out how much money we can pledge to the church for the upcoming year.
But I thought it might be good to talk a little bit about money in May–you know why? Because right now, we’re not under the gun. You’re not facing any impending decisions about how much to pledge to the church–it’s another six months before we get to November and that decision rears its head again. I’m not facing any added pressure to make sure the budget gets met, etc. etc. Today, the pressure’s off and we can talk a little bit about money without fear, without pressure.
Let me tell you about a little game that the world plays with money. You know the game really well. One example of the game you see if you listen to public radio or watch public television. I love public radio, NPR, and even moreso WXPN; I also listen to some Christian radio that depends more on donations than on advertising. But you know that when you listen to public radio, part of what they do is the pledge drive. It actually seems to me like these are always going on, although I suppose that they’re not really–it just seems like it.
Now, I know this will sort of surprise you, but I actually kind of like the pledge drives. I very rarely pledge money to public broadcasting, but I’m always just kind of amazed at the hosts during the pledge drives. Because what they have to do–usually, anyway, is stand up there behind the microphone or in front of the camera and just sell it–talk and talk and talk–until the money is raised that they had set as a goal for the segment. And I have no idea how they manage to keep this stream of talking flowing. It’s just amazing to me! They manage to just keep this flow of words going and going and going and going until the last telephone has rung and you can go back to watching the Nutcracker or listening to Moxy Fruvous.
Now what happens during these pledge drives is also sort of interesting. There are many different tactics to try to get pledgers to donate. The most prominent tactic that I have seen is for the host to remind the listeners of all the value they receive from the radio or TV station. They say things like, “Public television broadcasts shows that are too deep for the networks to show. They have to broadcast whatever trash they can to make money. But we’re different. We provide a different kind of service. We give you something no one else does. We give you a product no one else will give you.” Therefore, because they are providing you with a unique, quality product, you should give them some money in return for the product. One of the radio hosts calls this “paying your radio bill.” When she says that, what she is trying to do is to turn the radio station into another product. You pay a grocery bill every month to eat, and as long as the grocery store you shop at is turning out a quality product, you pay the grocery bills. If it’s not a quality product, you go elsewhere. You buy a car and many people pay a car payment every month. If it’s not a quality car, or you don’t get you quality service, next time you buy a car, you go elsewhere. But as long as you’re getting a quality product, then you keep paying your car bill. And so the radio re-invents itself as the same sort of consumer product–we give you a quality product, you pay us in return. It’s a very interesting strategy.
It’s also a strategy employed by many American churches today–although it is in slightly different form. The basic assumption is that the average person is willing to spend a certain amount of their money on charitable purposes, and it is up to the individual church to convince you of why you should give those charitable dollars to us instead of some other worthy cause. So we try to point to those unique ministries that are sort of our church’s “niche;” we try to point to Sunday worship as something that is done uniquely here and uniquely well; we try to play up our good side so that you will see it and then decide that we are worthy of your charitable dollar.
Now, I don’t want to come down hard on that and say that we should never do it. It’s good for all of us to be reminded from time to time of what exactly we are supporting when we give our tithes and/or our offerings to the church. It’s good to say, “When you give to the church, you keep your pastor fed and save me from having to work another job so that I can concentrate fully on the ministry.” It’s good to be reminded that without gifts and contributions from people like you, we can’t do the ministry together that we believe God has called us to. We believe God has called us to be a certain people, living a certain way, for his glory, to demonstrate his love to the world around us; and we can only keep doing that ministry, we can only expand that ministry, inasmuch as people believe enough in it to contribute to it. And so I thank the financial stewardship team for keeping that vision before our eyes and helping us to realize that we have a lot of say in whether or not our goals in ministry get accomplished.
But it’s very important that we recognize that when leadership talks about money, we’re not just trying to talk about our “products” and trying to get you to buy them. Even though we strive to have a valuable ministry in Exton and around the world, it is not enough for us to hold up our ministry as a quality product and encourage you to buy the product, or to pay your church bill. In fact, it can be dangerous to think of our gift to the church in that way alone. We have to remember that the church is, well, different.
How is it different? If you buy a can of peas and you don’t like the way they taste, you buy another brand of peas next time. If you buy a loaf of bread and you don’t like its texture, you buy a different brand of bread next time. Increasingly, people have started to view church in the same way: if you are unhappy with decisions that are being made, or if you are having a difficult interpersonal conflict with another member, then we think you should just “buy” into another church. Peas, bread, church–our culture treats them all the same. You pick a brand you like, and if you get tired of it, if it starts to go stale, you go to another brand.
But here’s the thing–the church is not at its most effective when things are good. The church is given to us as a gift of God to change our hearts. And most of that heart-change happens not during the easy times, but during the difficult times. For example, suppose you were to meet a difficult person at church. (For those of you who are visiting today, that’s strictly hypothetical–there are no difficult people at our church.) But suppose, you know, some difficult people were to join our church, and you had a real conflict with one of them. Or suppose–heaven forbid–the pastor said something that offended you. Because you have been raised in our culture, everything inside of you says, “I’ve gotta go–I’ve gotta switch brands–I’ve gotta find another church, another place where I’m more comfortable.” But don’t you see? It is precisely in choosing to stay that God can change your heart and that difficult person’s heart. It is precisely in getting to know them, in investing in them, in loving them despite themselves that God can do a marvelous work in your life, and in theirs. And it would not be possible if we just run away–but running is what our culture teaches us to do.
So I don’t want to only say, “Our church has some compelling products. Buy into them.” If I say that, I know you will leave if you start to not like the products. I know that if you just view it as a church bill, you can find other churches to pay your church bill to. Instead, I want to say, “Our church is a compelling community, see if it’s worth committing to, see if it’s worth giving your life to, see if you want to be shaped by this community through your good times and your bad times.”
Churches are not meant to be like peas and bread that we change whenever we don’t like; they are meant to shape us and grow us and make us into new people. Churches are not in the business of putting out products and ministries that people like; churches are in the business of being a community, a community that has the power to shape and change us if we are willing to give it that sort of power in our lives. But if it is going to have that power, it’s because we are willing to keep it even when it’s difficult, even when it makes us think, even when it makes us re-evaluate.
Where did I get this idea? Well, I think it’s pretty clear in the passage that Dustin read for us from Acts this morning. “All who believed were together and had all things in common,” we read. By this the text means that the disciples of that day had a common purse; those who entered into the community sold their goods (at least most of them) and everybody’s money was all together. So when there was need for aid in the community, it was a need borne by everybody, all together.
Furthermore, we read, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke their bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” This also gives us a picture of what the early church was like. First, they spent much time together in the temple, that is to say in worship; in the Temple culture of the day, there was twice-daily worship that good Jews could attend. In those days, while Christianity was still very close with Judaism, many of the Christians attended worship twice each day. Over the course of time, making that a habit, making it a discipline, you can imagine how that changed and shaped their hearts.
But not only did they meet together for worship, but then they got together and went to their homes and there they ate together. You see, it was “safe” for them to be Jewish in public; it wasn’t always safe for them to go the next mile and say, “and I also believe in Jesus.” And so they had to create a community where they met together, a community where certain beliefs were shared, a community where a certain set of practices were embraced. And so they broke bread together, ate meals together; you know how the very act of eating together changes and shapes people. That’s why young lovers eat together often; that’s why it’s natural to get together for dinner with friends. They worshipped together; they ate together; they served together; and so they grew into not just people who gathered to worship together and paid dues to the community. They grew into a family, they grew into such a tight-knit group of people that it was just natural for their money to follow suit, and so they went “all in,” sharing all that they had because it was that community that gave shape to their lives. It was in that community where they found new life in Christ; it was that community that gave them a new lease on life, where they were given a second chance at a life that meant something.
I think that perhaps the greatest challenge for Exton Community Baptist Church in the next fifty years will be learning what to do with this passage of the Bible and applying it to our current context. Because we also are living in a time when being a community is central to the gospel. Telling the world about Jesus and his resurrection and his love is the greatest gift we can give the world. But maybe our second-greatest gift we can give the world is being this kind of community. Because right now, the world is so scattered. I rush over here in my little world; you rush and rush over here in your little world; we have tasks to accomplish, things to do, money to make, things to buy, a lifestyle to achieve and maintain. But in all of us, and especially in the romantics among us, there is a longing for community. Even though being part of a community means giving some of that independence up, even though being part of a community is not always easy, not always convenient, deep down, our culture wishes there was a community worth the difficulties. That’s what this early church was–even though there were many difficulties associated with being a Christian, they received so much more back from the community. And that is what we are called to be in some way for our day and our time–a community, a family. And communities and families are demanding, but oh, are they worth it. And so many people wish there was a community that was worth it.
For the early church, people demonstrated the importance of the community by selling their goods and donating the proceeds to the common purse. It was their way of saying that they were “all in.” From now on, it was the decision to follow Christ that would impact every other decision. From now on, their first name was “Christian” and all of their other identities–lawyer, doctor, accountant, athlete, even man and woman–all their identities were beneath Christian. Christianity was at the center of who they were and you knew it by looking at what they did with their possessions. It was their way of demonstrating that this community was now the focal point, now the center, because this community was established by Jesus to change the world and thus should be the focal point, the center.
I hope that you know that when I urge you to give regularly and generously to our church, it is not simply so Jill and I can put on food on the table; nor is it simply so we can grow and expand our ministries and get flashy new things to attract people to our church. When I urge you to give regularly and generously to the ministry of our church, it is because we have a way of following our money. People who cannot lose weight in any other way often join Weight Watchers and find they can lose weight. Why? Well, for many reasons, but one important one is now they have something on the line. Now that their finances are invested in it, their lives become invested in it. When I talk about money, it’s not so that I can get more money or fame or fortune; when I talk about money, it is because I know the power of the community and the value of being invested in it fully. It is when we commit and invest ourselves in it that the church has the power God wants it to have in our lives.
So I close with a challenge to you this morning. It is when we invest ourselves in the community that God uses that community to shape us. So I want to challenge you to consider how you might invest yourself in this community today. For some of you, that may take the form of a financial investment–you may realize that your financial support of the church doesn’t match the priority you feel it has in your life. For some of you, that may take the form of a time investment–you may realize that you are putting other things ahead of these deep things that can shape our lives. For some of you, that may take the form of an effort investment–you sit on the fringes and maybe now is the time to invest most fully in this community. Whatever it is for you, I pray you know the power that the church knew so long ago–because as that world needed a Christ-centered community, so does our world.