Monday, September 17, 2012

Sermon for September 16, 2012

Generosity in an Age of Fear

Now I want you to know, dear brothers and sisters, what God in his kindness has done through the churches in Macedonia. They are being tested by many troubles, and they are very poor. But they are also filled with abundant joy, which has overflowed in rich generosity. For I can testify that they gave not only what they could afford, but far more. And they did it of their own free will. They begged us again and again for the privilege of sharing in the gift for the believers in Jerusalem. They even did more than we had hoped, for their first action was to give themselves to the Lord and to us, just as God wanted them to do. So we have urged Titus, who encouraged your giving in the first place, to return to you and encourage you to finish this ministry of giving. Since you excel in so many ways—in your faith, your gifted speakers, your knowledge, your enthusiasm, and your love from us—I want you to excel also in this gracious act of giving. I am not commanding you to do this. But I am testing how genuine your love is by comparing it with the eagerness of the other churches. You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich. 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. Somehow after September 11, a few wars, an economic collapse, global warming, new pandemic warnings, and high gas prices, we all forgot about the killer bees. We have other issues to be afraid of. And frankly, FEAR gets brings in great media 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. There is even fear in the church. We are even told to fear God. Our Scriptures proclaim, “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 are slowly emerging from the worse economic period since the Great Depression, so we are informed. 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 who would not be affected.

There are people who live on a solid financial footing. The sub-prime mortgage crisis did not bankrupt them. The economy has caused people in this group to make some basic changes, but nothing drastic. The volatility of the stock market inspired them to set aside extra savings. They delayed some major expenditures such as home remodeling or buying a new car. Vacations were scaled back. They were cautious about how they dispose of disposable income. And they survived.

On the opposite end of the economic scale, 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 still face the dual reality of those services and charities being cut back while you face growing competition for those very resources and services on which you depend. More people seek a share of limited resources. For those whose every cent goes to the basics of food, shelter, and transportation, a dramatic increase in the prices of food and 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. It’s the famed middle class we’ve been hearing so much about lately. One hard-hit group is retirees whose savings were 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 other 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 that of their parents’.

We live in a capitalist system, so there are certain things we should expect. There will always be ups and downs in the market. The value of the dollar will fluctuate. The Fed will fiddle with the  rate of inflation, and in the price of consumer goods will adjust. The ability to change, to adapt, to 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 collapse of Lehman Brothers. 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 were unsustainable, but on the surface they didn’t seem so bad 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 in an economy where job changes are more frequent, health insurance was not portable and people found 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. It has filed for Chapter 11. The church can barely pay the light bill. The members of the church used to be well off, but now boycotts and persecutions have used up their resources. The Apostle Paul calls on the Corinthian church to step in and to help out. He already hit up the churches in Galatia, and that they are starting to respond faithfully. In Now, Paul 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.” Now he wants the Corinthians to come on board as well.” He wants them to see, their 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. Not in god’s realm. The point is not to garner individual wealth at the expense of others. In God’s economy, all are taken care of as long as when all can share what they have with others. Not equal giving, but equal sacrifice. It’s called generosity. Our ultimate allegiance is to God, the author and giver of life. Our faith has always affirmed that 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 Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered as the United States faced financial ruin at home. Facing the Great Depression, FDR began his first inaugural address with unconventional 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."
Roosevelt’s words disarm fear. He called 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.

So, today we have an inauguration of sorts. We begin a capital campaign at a time when there is some unease in our economy. We are relying on the generosity of our members and friends to help CCC fulfill the God-sized tasks we feel called to do. We, as a congregation, decided that our financial resources can either go to pay interest and make profits for a bank, or they can be released to do good in the lives of our families and communities.

I really believe in this campaign because I believe that church still matters in people’s lives. Don’t be afraid. Let’s remember that the church never exists simply for itself. We are not raising money so that we can survive. We are raising money so that we can have a greater impact. You know what I see? Homelessness, hunger, and despair are on the rise. People are still suffering. The staff here at the church notices it every week. And we think that our congregation’s ministries of outreach and inclusion are crucial in meeting the deep needs of our communities. There are justice concerns and mission, education and acts of charity in which we all need to engage.

To be clear, the congregation decided that some of the money we raise will also go to complete some badly needed repairs to our Retreat House property in West Virginia. For many here, the Retreat House has been a sacred space, a place for fellowship, for learning, for learning the art of relaxation and finding some peace. I also know there is some division about the decision to fix it up. Some people love the place. Others wonder why we are keeping it. Remember, we run the church like a democracy, and the voice of the congregation has clearly spoken in favor of repairing the Retreat House. Here’s what I think. I really trust the wisdom in the congregation. All of you who serve on Boards and Committees know that we talk. A lot! We call it processing. It may seem like overkill. Even when we think an issue is decided, we still keep analyzing it. I think it’s a good thing. We take our time. We try our best to listen to everyone and make decisions that make good sense. The Retreat House conversation has been going on for a long time. We will keep talking, and we will decide how that property best supports our mission and ministry. In the meantime, because we know it is important to enough people in our church, and because we support those people, and because we want others to support us, we can give in a spirit of emotional generosity to support the building of community. To me, that’s what it means to live in covenant.

I believe in CCC, in us, and I think financial generosity, and emotional generosity is an investment in the community and in a healthy future. I know that there are some of you who can give more. Some of you may not be able or may not to give at all. Some have already pledged major gifts. No matter what, you need to know you are welcome here! We still believe that no matter who you are or where you are in life’s journey, this can be a place of nurture and belonging for you. We also believe that as we generously share our with one another, we more closely live out the mission and ministry to which we are called – and we do it fearlessly.

•    Pronouncement—Christian Faith; Economic Life and Justice from Minutes of the 17th General Synod of the United Church of Christ.

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