A treasure in clay jars. Let’s just get the elephant in the room out of the way. I am going to talk about money today. We have talked about money a lot this year. Between our Capital Campaign and whittling down our projected deficit, it has been a frequent topic this year. Now in both cases, we have a lot to celebrate. We have checked a number of items off of our campaign “to do” list, and after starting the year expecting to close out $54,000 in the red, we are now projecting a balanced budget.
That’s good news, right? Even so, let’s be honest: we have talked about money a lot this year. And as we kick off our stewardship campaign for 2014, we are going to do it again today.
I’m not an economics geek; it’s history where I live and breathe. And so the next few months are particularly exciting to me, as we are taking some time to look at our congregational history at Oglethorpe Presbyterian. And in that light, I wanted to throw a couple of money numbers at you from our early years. The church budget for 1949-1950 was $5,600 – of which $3,000 was to come from the fledgling congregation. The balance was from Presbytery (who was flush back then) and from other congregations (who also had healthy balance sheets at the time).
The average weekly offering total was $70. The goal of the first building fund, to construct the chapel, was $5,000. The other 80% of building costs were to come from the Presbytery, other churches, and from a couple of individuals within the congregation. And here is my favorite little factoid from those early days. There was a string of session meetings where the hotly debated topic was the $6 a week to cover janitorial costs. The elders were eventually able to get that down to $3 a week, which seemed to put the matter to rest for a while.
The truth is that money is a reality in life, even in the supposedly purer world of church affairs. And while it might be amusing to look back at how much things cost sixty plus years ago, realizing that we pay more now for a cup of coffee than it cost to clean up the church in 1949, money has been a very real issue for Oglethorpe Presbyterian through the ages. There are the anecdotal remembrances of when times were extremely tight. Some of you remember 1966, when we took out a $360,000 mortgage to build the sanctuary and office wing. In the mid-eighties, we were still paying on it. And that’s when session decided to kick off a mortgage retirement plan. We paid off the mortgage two years early, which kicked off a weekend celebration where members symbolically burned copies of the mortgage in an urn.
I have been spending a lot of time each week poring over old session minutes in planning this series. And doing so has been a sobering reminder of the role that money plays in the life of the church. Alongside conversations about mission support and Sunday School programs and fellowship gatherings are conversations about budget and fundraising and financial stewardship. And little has changed in my seven and a half years here. We have had generous gifts from those who remembered the church in their will. We have had years where we have overspent our income in order to keep programs running, hoping possibly to get ahead. And with some trepidation, we came together over our capital campaign, which allowed us to finally retire the boiler that predates this building!
So here’s the question: what is it about money? Why do we, and I very much include myself in this, consider it such a distasteful topic of conversation? I have my own thoughts. I think some of it stems from the fact that money is a distasteful topic in the culture around us. We are surrounded by conspicuous consumption. Our media is obsessed with it. We craft storylines in movies and TV about the richest of the rich. And apparently, it’s not enough for that to exist in the world of fantasy. We have decided that we want to keep up with Kardashians, Duck Dynasties, fashion runways, and various talents as gateways to success.
And don’t get me started on our nation’s economy, where the gap between rich and poor is wider than it was in the 1920s, or where banks created legal but fraudulent products that crippled not only our own economy, but the world’s, turned around and got bailed out, and then paid handsome rewards to their CEOs for their good work and healthy balance sheets!
I wish we could say that the church does a better job with all of this than the rest of the world, but let’s face it: our Christian brethren can be pretty tasteless in their own right. There are the charlatans out there, those who shill for the prosperity gospel, literally selling the idea that giving to God (or at least to their version of God) promises wealth upon wealth in return. Perhaps most disturbing in that regard is the news that we have exported the prosperity gospel to Africa, where the poorest of the poor are being ripped off for promises of riches beyond their wildest dreams. If there is a better definition of taking God’s name in vain, I don’t know what it is.
In short, the conversation about money in our culture seems to lack any kind of moral compass. And instead of trying to provide that moral compass, the church has left the conversation altogether so as not to get sucked down by filthy lucre. So we see money as a necessary evil that we deal with only because we have to, and hopefully, when we do, we can dispense with it as quickly as possible. Even if the preacher says he’s going to talk about it, it probably means we will get out of worship early, because there won’t be that much to say, right?
Can I be so naïve as to suggest a question that might help us focus, something to help lend a moral vision to this conversation? What does Jesus say about money?
One thing he says is that money is an obstacle. That’s the message in our lesson from Matthew. A wealthy young man approaches Jesus, wanting to know how to make it to heaven. It sounds like he’s a pretty faithful individual, keeping up with the laws of Moses and the like. But when Jesus tells him to sell everything, give it to the poor, and follow him, he goes home saddened because he had so much. Ultimately, his wealth keeps him from following Jesus. And then there’s the moment where Jesus says that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into heaven. In short, money can easily get in the way of our relationship with God.
While he names this reality, Jesus also wants to take the power out of money. Think of the people who made a big show of their giving to the Temple, and how Jesus singles out the poor widow who gave all that she had. Or how the Pharisees think they have trapped him into a question of whether it is faithful to pay taxes, but he says instead, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Or how he uses the parable of the workers, some of whom work all day, and some of whom work only a short while, but all are paid the same wage, much to their surprise. Jesus works hard to chip away at that stumbling block, trying to take the power, emotional and otherwise, out of money so that we might see it for what it actually is: a resource.
And that’s what Paul is getting at in our lesson from his second letter to the church at Corinth. He writes to them, speaking about the gospel itself, that ridiculous notion we have the foolish audacity to believe in, that the God who created this mind-bogglingly large universe is the same God who loves us enough to experience the joys and heartbreak of human life right there with us. And that, Paul says choosing his words very carefully is a treasure.
And yet, notice what else he says: that treasure is not ours. Preaching doesn’t belong to the preacher. Light doesn’t belong to those who shine. Money doesn’t belong to the wealthy. Ministry doesn’t belong to the church. They are all treasures we hold in fragile clay jars, a power that ultimately belongs to God and not to us. In short, my friends, it is all about stewardship: being faithful caretakers of the resources and even of the very gospel itself that God has given us. And though that might tempt us to think that we hold some awesome power in our hands, the truth is that it isn’t ours at all!
I was reminded of that this past week. I was taking part in an evangelism conference down in Florida, where I met a man who pastors a church very much like ours. One of his members used to work for Apple. His church was struggling financially, and the dark reality that the doors might close came up in conversation. As the session debated the point, he spoke up and said, “You know, at Apple, we constantly worked under the threat of closing our doors. Every time we had a new project launch, the gamble was so big that we were risking it all. And yet, we did it, time and time again.” And here’s the kicker: “If we at Apple had that kind of faith in our products, shouldn’t the church be able to lean into their faith in the God of it all?” Ouch.
With that harsh truth in mind, let me reflect back on our own history. In 1950, we were contemplating a loan of $25,000. In today’s money, that would be the equivalent of a quarter of a million dollars. And that was with a membership that was half of what ours is now! Listen to what Harry Wilson, Clerk of Session at the time, said: “This loan of $25,000 looked very big for our church; but if we would have faith and back it up with works we would be able to meet the obligation.” The congregation voted for the loan, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Friends, when I look back over those decades, there are two words that come to mind in how this church has approached money. Harry Wilson’s words about that loan illustrate both of them, and we would do well to keep them both in mind. The first is honesty. We don’t sugarcoat our challenges. We are thoroughly transparent with our finances. We tackle problems head on, and we do so with prayerful and thoughtful work. And we admit that it will take work.
And the second word is just as important: faith. We know that all of this treasure belongs not to the pastor, or the staff, or the session, or the members, or the Presbytery. Instead, it is God’s treasure. And there’s no hunting for it needed, because it is right there in our hands already! When we are faithful, when we are plugged into God’s desires rather than our own, then nothing can stop us!
Money? It’s a powerless stumbling a stumbling block. And yet to see it faithfully is to open our eyes to the power that God wields far beyond what’s in our wallet.