“Great Need and Great Abundance”

March 13, 2016


Ruth 1:6-18

II Corinthians 9:1-15


I want to talk with you this morning about next Sunday’s One Great Hour of Sharing offering. And my text is from Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians: “You glorify God… by the generosity of your sharing.”

The classic Protestant sermon has three points.

Not all of mine do. But this one does.

I have a complaint, a concern, and a challenge.

So let’s get started.

First my complaint: Within the United Church of Christ there is a growing effort to turn stewardship—our wise and faithful use of money—into fundraising. And this presents the danger that encouraging both weekly giving and generous responses to special needs will become simply fundraising efforts rather than invitations to faithful living.

For decades the emphasis in liberal, mainline Protestant churches such as ours has been on the wise use of our resources as one component of faithful Christian living. Earning money, saving money, investing money, and giving money are all important.

We give, not because we have to, not because we seek some reward. We give as one way of putting our money in perspective. We give as one way of setting our priorities right. In this sense, giving is a spiritual discipline. And, yes, we also give to support the life of this congregation and the work that we value, such as feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. In this sense our giving is an expression of our faith and our commitment.

That’s what I preach about when I preach about stewardship. My guess is that’s what my predecessors did from this pulpit. And this congregation has been nurtured and challenged by sch preaching and such an approach to stewardship. The consistent generous giving of this congregation shows that.

We care about stewardship—the wise and faithful use of our money.

But something has changed in the United Church of Christ beyond local congregations.

About ten years ago I was at a meeting on stewardship led by some of our national denominational staff. The leaders expressed a sense of dismay that at the national offices in Cleveland there was a growing emphasis on “fundraising”—simply raising some cash. Money had been tight in the national church for years and “stewardship” just wasn’t doing it anymore.  Conferences and the national denominational offices have historically depended on the giving of local congregations to what we call “Our Church’s Wider Mission” to fund their programs and projects and to pay for staff. But with funding coming up short, there was the sense that new tactics needed to be taken. Conferences were being encouraged to make direct appeals to individual  members of local congregations rather than depend on gifts from churches.

For several years now, when the Iowa Conference sends out its weekly email newsletter, they include one of those little fund raising thermometers that display the amount of money the Conference has received because, well, because fundraising studies have shown that just including such a thermometer tends to increase giving. I don’t know why—but it does. And that’s fundraising, not stewardship.

Churches such as ours were sent certificates and posters from the national offices stating that we were “Five for Five”—that is, we had received all five “special” offerings of the United Church of Christ each year. We posted them in Rockwood Hall.

And then late last year, I received a letter informing me that our congregation was one of the top 100 UCC congregations in giving to One Great Hour of Sharing. I felt great!

OGHS has been important to me since I was a kid. I loved getting those banks. I’ve long known that this offering provides significant funds for significant programs. I’ve always encouraged you to give generously to this offering—and you do!

And there we were—here we are—on the list of the “Top 100 Churches” for everyone to see. Right up there with Ames and Grinnell. Oh, but who’s missing? Where’s Cedar Rapids, or Davenport, or Dubuque? Where could they be? Not on the Top 100 List—that’s where!

I put this in the newsletter. I put this in our Sunday bulletins. I started to think about how much better we could do this year than last to stay on the list.

I became a fundraiser.

We’re only human. And fundraising techniques are used because the work well on humans. Paul knew this. He told the Christians in Corinth, “Hey, look how generous the Macedoians are. They’re breaking the thermometer. They’re a “Top Giver.”

So, yes, sometime such techniques might be needed.

But we are called to do more than raise funds. We are called to stewardship. We are called to wisely use the resources God has given to us—and that includes giving generously.

Many, however, want to do an end run around our calling.

That’s my complaint.

Here’s my concern: the need for money to fund medical care, disaster relief, and especially this year, relief for refugees has never been greater. Not all of the One Great Hour of Sharing money goes to support refugees, but I want to make special mention of that need this year.

The situation for refugees around the world is nothing less than a crisis. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, one in every 122 people in the world today is forcibly displaced from their home, seeking refuge either within their national borders or beyond. You have seen the news coming out of places such as Syria, Iraq, Burundi, and Guatemala. Violent political actions all over the world have created waves of refugees and displaced people, unable to return home for fear of their lives. Some have made their way to Iowa.

Natural disasters have disrupted communities as well, displacing people from their homes and livelihoods and exposing the human injustice that is the new normal in many places. Life in a refugee camp or as a refugee in an urban setting is a kind of “permanent temporariness” that defies the wholeness of individuals and communities.

One story: In the Nyarugusu Refugee Camp in Northwestern Tanzania, Martin, a five year old boy in a dusty green T-shirt, takes the hand of Davide Prata to lead him to his home. Davide is a Church World Service worker who is in the camp to help improve it.

Every day Martin goes to a makeshift school made of plastic sheeting and poles, similar to the mass shelter where he and his family live. The refugee camp was designed to host 50,000 people, but the camp is now three times over capacity. There is limited movement, few opportunities for work, and little access to water in some parts. The United Church of Christ, through Church World Service and other partner agencies is working to build new latrines, provide storage capacity for clean water, and bring others services to make the camp safe.

Martin needs us to take his hand as well and walk with him on the journey to improve the refugee camp where he lives, providing more hope, and alleviating despair.

The need has never been greater.

And what do we hear from the news reports in this election year? Calls to build a wall. Promises to deport thousands. Or maybe even worse—silence.

And there has been too much silence from this church, this pulpit as well.

This again is my concern: the need has never been greater.

And so here is my challenge: Give.

One Great Hour of Sharing began as a challenge. In 1946 members of the Episcopal Church were challenged to raise “one million dollars in one hour” for relief efforts—at a time when a million dollars was a lot of money! Since 1949 this offering has united Christians of many denominations, including the UCC, in a common cause.

Give generously to the One Great Hour of Sharing offering that we will receive during worship next Sunday.

If you have already decided how much you are going to give, double that amount.

If you haven’t yet decided, surprise yourself—shock yourself, even—with how generous you can be. When you write that check you should be asking, “What am I thinking, giving this much?”

Parents, help your children to give using those banks that we handed out. It’s hard to talk with children about other children who are suffering, but many of your children are aware of this already. Gently help them to see how they can help others.

I’m not asking you to give so that we will continue to be on that Top 100 list. We might be. We might not. But either way, refugees will have water to drink because of your giving.

I’m not asking you to give so that you will burst our fundraising thermometer. We don’t even have one. But people who lost their homes in natural disasters will find shelter because of your giving.

I’m not asking you to give because we will get a nice certificate to put up on the bulletin board in Rockwood Hall. I don’t know if anyone even sees such items. But around the world women and men, boys and girls will get the health care they need and would otherwise miss because of your giving.

I’m asking you to give because Jesus calls those who would follow him to love God and love our neighbors. Paul is clear in this morning’s scripture lesson that those two great commandments of love are inseparable. Giving to meet human need, Paul tells us, is a ministry, a form of religious service open to all people.

I’m asking you to give because it is as true today as it was when Paul wrote to the early church in Corinth that you glorify God by the generosity of your sharing. By letting your light shine, a little of the darkness is scattered and in that light people might find new life.

I’m asking you to give because you are stewards of all that you have received from God. You know that. Take some time this coming week to remember all the doors that have been opened for you, all the help that you have received to get to where you are today. Great need now meets your great abundance. How do you want to respond?

I’m asking you to give. That’s my challenge. You can do that.

So those are my three points—a complaint, a concern, and a challenge. A good sermon all round.

Actually, the classic description of a sermon is that it is not just three points, but three points and a poem. So let me make this complete with part of a poem by Warsan Shire. She is a Somali poet, born in Kenya, who lives in London. The poem is called “Home.”  [The full poem can be found on the internet.]

The challenges of our time are great.

We are called to be the church of Jesus Christ, using all our heart and mind and strength.

You glorify God by the generosity of your sharing.