Sunday, May 26
Sunday, August 30, 2009|
Rev. Craig Shirley
Apples, Lions and Birds -The Business of Giving
“When the Greeks got the gospel, they turned it into a philosophy; when the Romans got the gospel, they turned it into a government; when the Europeans got the gospel, they turned it into a culture; and when the Americans got the gospel, they turned in into a business.” (Richard Halvorson) I really appreciate this statement because there is great truth in its simplicity.
“When the Americans got the gospel, they turned it into a business”. We see it and hear it all the time – we have to be better about marketing our church – good signage. Our mission statement should be eye-catching – something that people will remember and relate to – almost like a bumper sticker. We need job descriptions and employee guidelines and office procedures and on and on. We have records to keep and financial sheets and record books to be audited. We have a regular, yearly business meeting of the congregation to vote on subjects important to the institution. And no where does this business model show up more than in the area of Stewardship and giving. We even call the annual pledge drive a “stewardship campaign”. It takes money to run the church and without it we can accomplish very little – at least that is what our business model of church maintains.
Didn’t you love that “living puppet show”? That one, quiet little bird who was willing to stay true to her word when others did not? That was a great way to illustrate the lesson from the Epistle of James and that famous line “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.” That phrase is the essence of the “business model” of the gospel. It is the essence of the protestant work ethic “those who do not work do not eat”. It is the essence of capitalism – the ultimate business model that even the communist Chinese have embraced (it isn’t just we religious people who use a business model). “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”
There is certainly nothing wrong with the sentiment – just as there is nothing wrong with the Epistle of James itself. We know that story of how Martin Luther called it “the straw gospel” because it only names Jesus twice and makes no mention of the his death and resurrection. But the letter is full of little “helpful hints” for how to live a faithful life, and being doers of the word is one of them.
So does that mean that the business model of ministry is a bad thing, or a good thing? When it comes to stewardship, for instance; talking about money makes people nervous. Even within the family unit – would you ever think of asking your mother or father how much money they make? Would you want your salary to be public knowledge – or how much you give to charity? So – should we not talk about money and hope that things will just “work out?” Or do we admit that there needs to be good, sound, business practices in any institution – even a church? And that good, sound business practices in turn make people comfortable, knowing that what they give in offerings will go to support the things they value. People won’t give their money if they think it is not being used or managed wisely. So sound business practices are certainly an important part of any church’s work.
But asking and being asked for money is still uncomfortable to most people. In a committee I chair on behalf of Lutheran Campus Ministry of Minnesota, we have been using an article by the famous spiritualist and writer Henri Nouwen. It is a good article and doubly surprising because it is so “practical” from the man who has been a leader in guiding people through “God/human” relationships. (Spirituality of Fund Raising – Henri Houwen).
Nouwen says that “fund raising is first of all, a form of ministry. It is a way of announcing a vision, and inviting other people into that vision with the resources that are available to them. Fund raising is proclaiming what you believe in and proclaiming it in such a way that you offer the other person an opportunity to participate in your vision.” That is a wonderful way, dare I say, “better” way to talk about our Christian work than being “doers of the word”. Nouwen taps into that important part of being human called passion!
What are you passionate about? Why did all those women walk 60 miles last week in the “Three Day Breast Cancer Walk for a Cure” - after finding sponsors at the minimum rate of $2300 each? Because they are passionate about fighting this disease that has affected a mother, a daughter, a friend, a neighbor. The Late Ted Kennedy was passionate about health care reform, but he was also passionate about public service and the U.S. Senate. He could have spent his life in carefree living or making millions more dollars but instead he devoted himself to his passion for people and so has left this nation richer. We understand passion and we understand that when a person is passionate about something, they can’t do enough for the cause. I hope that you are passionate about the work of the church, because that is one of my passions.
But since fund raising is “ministry, it is always a call to conversion”. That is, it is a way to say to people “I invite you to a new way of relating to your resources.” And this is the conversion part “I invite you to make your resource available to us, because it is good for you”. “Fund raising from the point of view of the gospel, is saying to people: “I will take your money only if it is good for your spiritual journey – if it is good for your health.” Gospel giving means that you don’t become poorer by giving, but instead you become richer by giving.” In a very simple way, the lion and the bird together enjoyed the pie that was made from the apples they picked together – but also by the relationship they forged. Their shared giving made them richer, while the other animals were left to look on.
“Certainly, fund raising, from a spiritual point of view, is a very concrete way to help the kingdom come about. What is the kingdom?” Nouwen says. “It is the creation of a community of love in this world, and beyond this world – because wherever love is created, it is stronger than death. So when you build the kingdom here on earth, it is a kingdom that will reach out beyond your own existence, and if you raise funds for the creation of a community of love, you are building the kingdom. You’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to do as Christians.”
“Every generous act of giving is from above” says James. There are people in our congregation who are taking on the job of fund raising on behalf of our stewardship campaign planned for the fall. They are people with a passion for ministry. Perhaps you are one of them. Perhaps you would like to be one of them – if so – talk with me. But all of us as members and friends of this congregation, should know that our resources are not our own in the first place, and so when you are invited to give to University Lutheran Church of Hope, or to any institution, be aware that you are being invited into the vision of other people’s passion. This is a privileged place to be. You are being invited to share your resources and join in that vision. This is a privileged place to be. We will not beg you to give. Neither should you feel “guilted” into giving – that too is begging. But instead know that by giving, you will grow. We have something important we are doing here in this community of faith, and we invite you to participate, to join in the vision, and to grow in the gospel. It is the way that you become doers, rather than simply hearers, of the word. Amen.