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Sermon for October 12, 2008

Our Core Values: Generosity
2 Corinthians 8:1-9

Whatever happened to the African killer bees? Remember during the mid-1990s, television news reported on the looming invasion of aggressive killer bees that would come from Central America and Mexico to take over the Southwestern United States. A few headlines from the Arizona Republic and The Arizona Daily Star told the story: “Africanized Bees Found at Interstate 8 Rest Stop.” “Killer Bees Blamed for 3 Attacks.” “Pit Bull Dies of Nearly 2,000 Stings; Killer Bees Blamed.” Hollywood produced a made-for-TV horror movie about the bees -- A small town sheriff grapples with a swarm of killer bees in an effort to protect his town and family. We don’t hear much about them anymore. After September 11, we all forgot about the killer bees. Instead, we heard about Al Qaeda terrorists, anthrax, dirty bombs, avian bird flu, global warming, Iraq, high gas prices and a sluggish economy. Some of these issues were legitimate concerns. Others began as legitimate concerns and grew into hyped-up media inventions. Fear gets great ratings.

I can understand why. Fear is hardwired deep inside our brain. We’re afraid of economic hardship, we’re afraid of debt, we’re afraid of diminishing resources and environmental destruction. We’re afraid of racial tensions and the growing gulf between the rich and the poor. We’re afraid of the hurt between men and women, between people of different nations. We’re afraid of a drift toward endless war. We fear for ourselves and our loved ones. Fear grips the institutions that contain our lives. Every one of them, from the family to the corporation, has a built-in hierarchy of fear. Students fear teachers, workers fear their bosses, children fear their parents, patients fear their doctors. When there is no equality in a marriage, wives fear their husbands (or husbands their wives). We are even told to fear God. It’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:30-31).

We are afraid today, aren’t we? We face the worst economic times since the Great Depression, so we are informed. A few of weeks ago, a somber president stood before the nation to beg for $700 Billion and told us, “The market is not functioning properly.” I’m no economist, but I tend to think that the market is doing what the market should be doing. We are not functioning properly. We are afraid. And fear hurts us.

People experience the bad economy in different ways. Some are so insulated that the state of the economy does not really touch them at all. Sure, their investments may be losing money and their home or homes may depreciate in value, but their personal connection to the economy is only seen on a computer screen that tells them this is the case. The rising cost of gasoline, utilities, travel, and food is not felt. A gallon of gas could cost $40 or $400 and there are people for whom that would not cause a dent.

There are people who live on a solid financial footing. They are positioned to face a job loss or a medical emergency. Bad luck won’t bankrupt them. The economy has caused people in this group to make some basic changes, but nothing drastic. The volatility of the stock market has inspired them to set aside extra savings. They might delay a major expenditure such as home remodeling or buying a new car. Vacations might be scaled back. They are cautious about how they dispose of disposable income.

On the opposite end of the economic spectrum, those who are hurting the most are those who were already not making it in America. If you were dependent on social services and charities, you face the dual reality of those services and charities being cut back while you face growing competition for those very resources and services that you depend on. More people seek a slice of limited resources. For the poor whose every cent goes to the basics of food, shelter, and transportation to and from a job, a dramatic increase in the price of food and the price of gasoline means that an already unsustainable budget is now impossible.

In the middle, between those who are making it in America and those who were never making it, lies a vast economic stratum impacted in all sorts of ways by the state of the economy – the famed middle class we’ve been hearing so much about lately. One hard-hit group is retirees whose savings are being drawn down more quickly because of an increase in prices and a flagging market. This generation is among the most vulnerable in a tight economy. The another vulnerable group is those in Generation X or Y. Those of us who are forty-ish and under may have the distinction of being the first generation in American history expected to enjoy a lower standard of living than their parents’ generation.

Ups and downs in the market, in the value of the dollar, in the rate of inflation, and in the price of consumer goods are things that always occur in capitalist systems. The ability to adjust, adapt, thrive and survive the valleys is linked to the pre-existing health of those in society and to the quality of the safety nets created by society. Think about the financial situations of millions of Americans before the price of gasoline skyrocketed and the stock market tanked. Rates of personal savings declined for years, to the point where there was a negative savings rate in our country. Levels of debt rose with more of this debt concentrated in high interest credit cards and other forms of bad debt. These financial practices are unsustainable, but on the surface they didn’t seem like a crisis when the economy was soaring. Combine the dangerous personal financial practices of millions of Americans with a moth-eaten security net and you are inviting disaster. All of this is in an economy where job changes are more frequent, health insurance is often not portable and people find themselves going through stretches of vulnerability and risk.

Biblical economics gets us to think about our responsibility to take care of one another. In today’s reading from 2 Corinthians, we hear about an economic bailout package. The Jerusalem church, the mother church, is in trouble. She has filed for Chapter 11. She can barely pay the light bill. The members of the church were well off to begin with. Boycotts and persecutions have accelerated their poverty. So Paul calls on the Corinthian church to step in and to help out. In verse one we learn that he has already hit up the churches in Galatia, and that they are starting to respond faithfully. In verses five and eight he says, “I am going to head over to Ephesus and Macedonia and I’m going to get them to be part of this ‘jump start Jerusalem’ campaign.” He says, “I want you Corinthians to come on board as well.” He wants them to see, with all Christians, that they have a responsibility to make an impact on the world for the realm of God that goes far beyond their immediate situation.

Some of our fears about the market and the changes in our country are not really fears about how will we survive. They are fears that we won’t have life exactly how we want. Well you know what? We won’t. We never will. Life doesn’t really work like that. In God’s economy, all are taken care of as long as all share what they have with others. It’s called generosity. We give, knowing that our ultimate allegiance is not to TCC, as important as the welfare of this church is. Our allegiance is not to the UCC, or even to the worldwide church of Jesus Christ. Our ultimate allegiance is to God, the author and giver of life. The church is called to do its work even at the risk of losing its own life. As we do, we point beyond ourselves to the new reality in Christ.

Some of you here have already lived through enormous financial and economic hardships. Some of you may remember a speech that FDR delivered as the United States financial ruin at home. Or, you’ve heard a line from it on David Letterman’s “Great moments in Presidential Speeches.” Facing the Great Depression, FDR began his first inaugural address with maverick words. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” Taking over a country with its economy in shambles, Roosevelt named the fear that gripped the hearts of Americans. That line -- “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself” -- is the most famous line of that speech, but Roosevelt hammered his message home in the seventh paragraph telling the citizens of the United States,
“Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men."
Reading his words, it strikes me how they disarm fear. They disarm fear by calling on people to act as a part of a larger, shared effort. Fear breeds and multiplies in the distances that separate us from one another. To the extent that we can come together, shoulder-to-shoulder, heart to heart, to the extent we can meet together and share some purpose together, we can unbind the grip of fear.

Last night, I heard financial guru Sue Ormond say that the economy will rebound in eight years. I don’t know if that’s true or not. What I do know is that at a time like this, the church matters in people’s lives. You will need the church. And in turn, the church will need you. Don’t be afraid. Let’s remember that the church never exists simply for itself. The difficult times ahead mean that homelessness, hunger, and despair will increase. We have something to say to that. We have something to offer that a bank can’t. Our ministries of outreach are crucial. There will be justice concerns and acts of charity in which we will all need to engage.

I want us to remember that an investment in the church is an investment in the community and in the future. Next week we will be collecting pledges for our 2009 budget. More than ever, your financial giving to the church is a faith commitment. Please consider how your giving will position our congregation to do the work of Christ. Bring your completed pledge cards to worship. If you don’t have one, blank cards are available as you leave today. Next week we will turn those in and celebrate God’s goodness to us and in us.

I know that there are some of you who can give more. Others can’t. Some of you may not be able to pledge at all. Those who can’t keep up on a pledge need to know they are still welcome! We still believe that no matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey, you are welcome here. We also believe that as we generously share our resources with one another, we more closely live out the mission and ministry to which we are called – and we do it fearlessly.

Sources:
  • http://revthom.blogspot.com/2008/08/sermon-making-it-and-faking-it-in.html
  • http://revthom.blogspot.com/2008/09/sermon-economy-of-fear-delivered-9-14.html
  • http://www.forrestchurch.com/writings/sermons/freedom-from-fear.html
  • Pronouncement—Christian Faith; Economic Life and Justice from Minutes of the 17th General Synod of the United Church of Christ.
  • http://www.congratstothewinners.com/2008/10/really-what-is-maverick.html
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maury_Maverick

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