The Pass It On Economy

“The Pass It on Economy” – text for the sermon delivered at Feeding Hills Congregational Church United Church of Christ by the Rev. Rob Donaldson for the sixth Sunday after Pentecost, July 1, 2018 – based on 2 Corinthians 8:1-15 CEV (a written sermon is the starting point, never exactly as delivered – but this is the working text)

I have a two working assumptions when I write a sermon.  This week, it crossed my mind that I should check those assumptions.  After all, I may be wrong.  It’s happened.  Ask my wife.  So here’s what I assume going into this each week:  #1:  you want to know what the Bible has to say about a given topic; #2: you’re willing to be guided by what you learn.  So what you’re getting in exchange for your time is the issue the Scripture addresses applied to situations we face now filtered by my own research and understanding.  The Bible, in popular thinking, tends to be associated with heaven.  But it deals with the issues people face every day – how to treat each other within a marriage, how to raise children, how to treat refugees – quite a bit on that – and how to deal with money.  That comes up a LOT.  

The Bible selection we read and hear each Sunday is not some arbitrary choice.  There’s a systematic attempt to do a cycle of New Testament and Old Testament lessons over the course of three years.  A large part of my job is to explain to you what happened then and connect it to what’s happening now with the working assumption that you will modify your thinking and behavior in response.  You would do this – change your behavior - not because of what I say, but ultimately, because you believe God speaks to you through the words of the Bible.

    If you’d rather hear something OTHER than biblical guidance, tell me where YOU’D rather I started, and we can figure it out from there.  We could just as easily do readings from Barbara Kingsolver or Maya Angelou or Stephen King and I could tell you what lessons from their writings we might  apply to our lives.  Or we could dispense with readings altogether.  Get a little technology in here and we could show TED Talks and discuss them.  

But – for now – and since I started writing sermons in 1985 - I’ve always started with Scripture – dug into it, thought about it, struggled with it, and, week after week for all these years, tried to tell you how it seems to me it applies to us in our time, our lives, our country, our everyday experiences.  To some of my colleagues, this makes me a conservative.  I’d laugh, too, if I didn’t understand that an awful lot of the stuff the Bible says is pretty radical in a capitalist empire like the one where we live.  So – I assume what the Bible says applies – with some reservations for expansion, which is no more than what Jesus did routinely.  If the Bible doesn’t apply to us, maybe I should have stuck to guitar playing.

 So – where are you on this?  DO you care what the Bible has to say? ARE you willing to be guided by what it says?

       Why did this come up now?  I ask, in part, because this is Independence Day weekend.  Some of you know I’ve been poking around in the records of our colonial and revolutionary war ancestors.  Well, I’m not alone on this little quest.  There’s a professor at Yale, John Stout, who’s been doing the same.  There were some interesting little tidbits.  In colonial New England, church attendance was mandatory.  You would face fines and civil penalties for doing anything other than worship on the Sabbath.  The average New Englander – which is to say 80% of them - went to church every Sunday, and heard roughly 15000 hours of sermons over the course of 7000 services.  Do the math.  Typical sermons lasted about 2 hours and 15 minutes.  Seven thousand services meant morning worship, lunch, then afternoon worship.  There was no CNN or Fox News – even newspapers were a new idea and not widely distributed.  It was pastors who provided the vast majority of the guidance New Englanders received.

If you were a Church of England pastor, - today’s Episcopalians – in those days you swore allegiance to both God and the king.  Congregational ministers, of course, were independent.  And their sermons – well, they didn’t have to worry about their tax exempt status.  If you thought the Revolution was mainly about politics and economics, you’d have missed something even more important.  They were often heavily political.  They were also highly influential.  Students have been taught for several generations that the Revolution was a struggle for freedom, equality, and ways to make lots of money.  According to Professor Stout’s research, colonists themselves thought of it primarily in religious terms like sin, virtue, and redemption.  As Congregationalists, they were accustomed to thinking of themselves in Puritan leader William Bradford’s terms: “We are the Lord’s people,” Bradford wrote.  New England ministers reinforced that idea with a lifetime of sermons – Congregationalism, by its very nature, grants sovereign power to no one.  Patriots argued that their fight was ordained by God.  Benjamin Franklin depicted God’s role in the Revolution in his design for the Great Seal of the United States.  Where can you see that Great Seal every day?  Franklin’s version included the inscription, “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”  The 1782 version seen on our dollar bills states in Latin that “Providence approves of our undertaking.”  And the Liberty Bell?  It is inscribed with the words of Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all inhabitants thereof.”  That separation of church and state that we prize so greatly would have been abhorrent news to our Revolutionary ancestors.  As far as they were concerned, it was God who guided them into, through, and beyond that rebellion.  God was their guide, aided by Congregational ministers.  Our churches had an awful lot to do with the very fact that there is an Independence Day to celebrate.  The idea that we should be a free country is what Congregational ministers got out of Scripture in their time and in their situation.  Scripture was their guide and the people followed that guidance.

    Today?  I don’t know.  That’s the reason I ask – do you want to know and will you let it guide you?  The fact is, SOMETHING guides us in making all of our decisions.  There’s some basic set of beliefs we all develop that shows up whenever we have to make up our minds.  Jiminy Cricket said we should let our conscience be our guide.  I suppose that’s not so bad, if, of course, you HAVE a conscience.  Other people go with whatever is good for #1 – if it’s profitable, if it’s fun, if it makes them feel important or helps them get ahead – whatever – that’s what guides them.

    So what about for people of faith?  When it comes right down to it, what’s your go to source of guidance?

    I tell you things every week.  Before I say any more, I want to hear what YOU have to say.      
    So here’s a question – if you follow your conscience, A) are you always right?  B) Where DOES God fit in?

        Which gets us to Paul’s words to the Corinthians.  Clearly, this little congregation in Corinth in south central Greece had started out with a serious commitment to generosity and kindness.  They gave eagerly, above and beyond what Paul had asked for or expected.  But by the time he had come to write what we call his second letter to this church, things had apparently changed.  Now, Paul was urging them to finish what they started.  Remember I told you the Bible deals heavily with money issues.  Here’s just one example.  Paul says, “It doesn’t matter how much you have.  What matters is how much you are willing to give from what you have.”

    Summer is short and goes quickly by.  Soon will come fall, and with fall comes the traditional time for putting together a church budget and trying to raise the funds to meet it.  We as a church haven’t lived within current income in many years.  On the other hand, I wonder how well Paul’s message would be received.  What do you think?  Quote heavily from his letter, sign it, and send it out along with the proposed budget?  

    What did Paul say about money?  “I am not trying to make life easier for others by making life harder for you.  But it IS only fair for you to share with them when you have so much and they have so little.  Later, when they have more than enough, and you are in need, they can share with you.  Then everyone will have a fair share, just as the Scripture says, “Those who gathered too much had nothing left.  Those who gathered only a little had all they needed.”  In practical terms, I think this is what I’m hearing:  Take only what you need.  If there’s any left over beyond that, it is to pass on to those whose needs are not being met.  Paul believed in a sort of “pass it on economy.”  To want beyond what we need – there’s a word for that, isn’t there?  Greed?  Sounds good, but no.  The real issue is idolatry.  What we put above God is in fact, what we really worship.  Paul is warning the church in Corinth not to put their love of money above their love of God – and – by extension – others who are in need.  The prophet Jeremiah (9:22) said this:  “Let not the rich man glory in his riches . . . but only in his earnest devotion to me.  For I the Lord act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; For in these I delight.”

    The founding principles of this nation?  A solidly biblical understanding of kindness, justice, and equity.  Biblical principles.  Are those the principles that guide our current leadership?  When a member of Congress can say that the kids who were taken from their parents and put in detention centers aren’t our kids, so they’re not our problem, that’s pretty bad.  When a large percentage of Americans agree with him, that tells me we have lost our soul.  And that, folks, is when we can get worried about losing our independence.  When we stoop to taking nursing babies from their mothers’ breasts – and we tolerate that kind of behavior – we have lost anything worth fighting for.  Our Revolutionary ancestors would have been firing up the tar and feathers for politicians like that.   IS our problem immigrants?  Or our attitude toward them?  I can tell you what my Revolutionary War predecessors in this pulpit would have believed.  Independence Day.  Founding principles.  Should we put them back together?  Or is that not who we are as a country any more?