Money, money, money…
On Sunday morning, we heard from Pontypridd’s Christians Against Poverty team and reflected upon how our faith is witnessed in how we earn, save and spend money.
Readings: Psalm 146; Luke 21:1-4
So last week we were abundantly blessed by having the incredible Ny Ako group with us from Madagascar as they shared with us their gifts, infected us with their joy and charmed us with their statement that [due to the first missionaries to Madagascar being Welsh] coming to Wales felt for them like coming home. How touching was that?! It was a real delight to have them worship with us and then share a time of food and friendship as we tucked into the fantastic feast that was laid on. All in all, it was a great day. There was, however, one brief moment that made me feel a little awkward during the service if I’m honest, and that was taking the offertory. Our ever-reliable collectors were sensitive in not expecting our guests to put in the collection but I could see that some of our guests felt they should, some didn’t know what to do, so as I sat at the side there, I berated myself for not explaining things to them more clearly.
That said, I think it’s true that perhaps no other subject causes such shoe-staring, seat-squirming embarrassment in Church than the subject of money – how much we give, how much we earn, how much we spend. Even though Jesus frequently, almost obsessively, talks about wealth and poverty during his ministry, today, talking openly about how much money we have, how we spend it, what we give to the church and other causes is something that’s likely to bring most of us out in a sweat! Why do you think is? Might it be because our bank statements could reveal the truth about what’s really important to us, not just what we say is? “Don’t tell me what you value,” former American Vice President Joe Biden once said, “show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
This aversion to talking about money isn’t confined to the Church, of course. In a poll taken in January of this year, 68% of respondents said they would rather talk about their weight or even their sex lives than talk about their finances…and I’ve found this to be true. Certainly, amongst my friends, there is more of an ease talking about religion, health, death, sex, even politics…but get to the thorny issue of money and suddenly the barriers fly up. Within this environment, it’s hard to imagine the days when the amount that each member gave to the Church would be published for all to see. Do any of you here remember that? Wow! I’m not sure how that gave God any glory.
On the flipside, it is true that the Church needs money to function…as we evidenced again with the Ny Ako group last week. They blessed us with their time, gifts, hard work and passion, and in return they were very grateful for the food we provided and the crafts that we purchased from them which in turn goes towards financing their ministry. Nothing wrong with that. Money makes a bad master but a great servant, as the painter Francis Bacon said.
So…how do we finance Church activities? How much should you and I be giving to the Church? Do we, like some Christian communities, tithe by giving 10% of what we earn to the Church…do we give more or less…and what do we do with the example of the early church who shared everything they had?
Well, some within the Church would advise us to look to the example of the widow in today’s reading – she who gave all that she had to live on to the Temple’s coffers. There’s your example of how to be a faithful giver.
What do you think? Was Jesus really suggesting that a widow – someone whose life and well-being were extremely precarious in first century Palestine; someone who might well have mouths to feed in a world with no benefits system and little compassion for women in need – was he suggesting that she did a good and holy thing in giving all she had to the Temple and that we all should follow her example? Well, no. I think it’s fair to say quite frankly that he wasn’t! For one thing, he never actually praises the woman for this act, nor does he tell the disciples to ‘go and do likewise’; then there’s the fact that such a lesson would contradict his previous criticism of those who abandon obligations to their family by giving money to the Temple instead. So if Jesus wasn’t encouraging such action as seen in the woman, what are we to take from his comments here?
Well, whenever we come across a verse or passage in the Bible that seems counter to our understanding of God, the very first thing we need to do is look at the context of the passage. In this case, Jesus’ words about the widow come sandwiched between two passages which criticize the Temple system and its abuse of people’s money.
“Beware of the scribes,” Jesus tells us in the verses preceding today’s reading, “for they like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets yet they devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
Jesus doesn’t pull any punches as he points to the hypocrisy of the religious leaders who say long prayers, walk in long robes and delight in public praise whilst eating up the property of the poor. Then, in the very next scene, Jesus illustrates his point as a widow gives all she has to the Temple system which thus devours her house.
As they leave the Temple, the disciples, spectacularly slow as ever, point out the ostentatious beauty of the place which Jesus ominously declares, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.”
Far from a passage which praises the generosity of a poor widow, this morning we read a damning passage in which Jesus condemns any religious institution that cares more about pretty buildings and special clothing than it does about caring for the most vulnerable in our society. Beware those ministers, Jesus is saying, who drive expensive cars and wear designer suits whilst the homeless go hungry on their doorstep. Beware the Christian leaders who raise their own salaries and advocate spending billions of pounds on weapons of mass destruction whilst squeezing healthcare budgets and cutting benefits for the most in need. Beware the churches that spend money on ornate ceilings and gold adornments whilst slashing the budget for the junior church, the refugee class, the overseas aid.
It’s oh so easy to see where other Christians are getting this wrong, of course!
Like when New Orleans televangelist Jesse Duplantis solicited donations for his fourth private jet last week with the reasoning that Jesus wouldn’t be riding a donkey today but flying in his own aeroplane! It’s harder for us when the criticism comes closer to home, like in this month’s Reform magazine in which one subscriber expresses her outrage at the great cost of the renovation of URC Church House in London.
We’ll leave debate on that for another day but we do need to think about how our giving and spending money as a church says something about who we are.
Our friend, Kim Fabricius, puts it this way;
“People like me, “ he says, “are always banging on about what you should be doing for the church. Of course! But perhaps we all need to stop and ask, “Just what kind of church are we being told to be doing it for?” More precisely, just what kind of church are we?
That’s the key question that Jesus was asking. What kind of an institution is this? What kind of system encourages the male leaders to bathe in indulgence whilst the poor are ignored and forgotten? What kind of a religion dare talk about God’s justice and love whilst acting in ways contrary to them? One that will be judged by God, Jesus tell us, one which will be destroyed.
Such a harsh declaration should encourage us, both as individuals and the church, to consider what does the way we earn and spend our money say about us? And what kind of church, after all, are we?
We must frequently ask these questions within this community and, a fortnight today we will have a chance to consider what kind of church have been this year as we hold our annual Celebration service, providing an opportunity to once again thank God and one another for the many inspiring people and groups, activities and priorities, mission and ministry of this church. The following evening is our AGM which again gives us an opportunity to reflect and make decisions together through the guidance of the Spirit as we continue our journey with God. I encourage you to try to make be present and participate in both those worshipful events as they help us to discover, dream and discern who God calls us to be.
And finally, in case all this talk of money has sent you into a defensive den and you’ve drifted off…allow me to finish by pointing out that whilst the story of the widow’s offering might not paint the widow as an example to follow, it’s true that her giving, however small, did not go unnoticed by Jesus. In the busy, bustling Temple courts that day, as the rich and important made grand displays of their wealth and power, it was the giving of a widow – of a forgotten woman doing a barely noticeable action – that Jesus saw and pointed out to his friends. When the scribes and Pharisees might have overlooked this woman, Jesus saw her. When her peers might well have crossed the road so not to notice her, Jesus paid attention to her. When her society might well have forgotten her, Jesus pointed to her and challenged those who abused her.
Perhaps today then we need to be asking, who are the outcast and overlooked in our society, that we might see and spend time with? Who are the widows of Pontypridd, of Wales, the UK and beyond, whom we might notice and value and support? Or perhaps, for some here today, we need to be reminded that when we feel unimportant or of little use to others, God says I see you, I value you. When some here might feel forgotten about or lost in grief, loneliness or despair, God says, I remember you, I am with you. When some here might feel their contribution to the world or to the church is equivalent to two small coins in the offertory, God says to us, you have inherent worth and dignity as my creation, my child, my beloved.
Today then, we once again declare that rich or poor, our true wealth is in God. The God who created and called us to be light to the world. The God who took on our flesh, who died and was raised back to life so to immerse us in grace and hope. The God whose Spirit anoints us afresh once more that we might bring good news to the poor, proclaim justice for the oppressed and live out the reckless, radical love of God in this time and place. To God be the glory. Amen.