Sermon: Religious Mumbo-Jumbo

04.10.2016     Preaching Text: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life…” (John 6:27)

In the first church I served we had a member who never attended worship. Except, that is, on the Sunday of the annual meeting.

Every year, like clockwork, there he’d sit, about 2/3 of the way back on the left side, armed with his dog-eared copy of the annual report.

Loaded for bear, he’d patiently sit through the service in anticipation of the main event, where he’d raise his hand repeatedly and pepper the finance people with exacting questions. His questions were mostly of the doomsday variety. The sky was always falling, the future invariably bleak.

His whole focus was on money, never on faith or faith’s promise. His sense of the church’s future was one of inexorable decline fueled in no small part by the church’s profligate ways. The fact that he was absent the rest of the year was never hinted at much less discussed!

His was perhaps an extreme example of a mindset many churches betray far more subtly, specifically, viewing finances as the means of insuring the church’s future. Hard-boiled experience has taught us, after all, that financial prudence is the way to go.

Behind this is a barely concealed fear that the future involves inevitable decline. If we fail to preserve what we have, in other words, we’ll be left with nothing. We may even have to sell our buildings just to survive.

Every year around stewardship time I hear this sort of thing. Look at our annual budget! It sure look like we’re going to have to tap our invested funds! And once that’s gone…

Then again, in the roughly 10 years I’ve been pastor here, the budget has always worked out, not always perfectly but pretty well. And in that time our invested funds have actually grown.

How many of us a year ago could have predicted Libby Stevens generous bequest? And what about all the other gifts we’ve received over those same 10 years, gifts we likewise never anticipated?

As a result of what we didn’t predict, our invested funds over the last few years have increased significantly, by over 50%! And after many a dire prediction, we have been running ahead in pledged income for this fiscal year while future pledges are also up…unexpectedly.

Then there was the capital campaign we embarked upon a few years ago to repair the steeple. At the time, with great apprehension, we set the seemingly impossible goal of $200,000, fully expecting to receive less due to the state of the economy. Not only did we meet that goal, but we exceeded it, and in a mere few weeks! Chicken Little indeed!

This is not to say we should be sanguine about our financial resources, or that we shouldn’t exercise prudence in stewarding the monies you have so graciously given in support of First Church’s various ministries. The fact is we have had good people who unfailingly have shown great care in managing the funds necessary to serve Christ here in Harwich Center.

Nonetheless, I can’t help being reminded of the chapter in Tony Robinson’s Transforming Congregational Culture entitled, “The Budget: From Ends to Means.”

Here he points to how easy it is for churches to think that “meeting the budget” is the church’s main task. Such thinking, he says, is “the surest sign that the church has ceased to be anything resembling a movement,” but has become a “settled institution” with limited goals.

If we’re not careful, “making the budget” can become our “battle cry,” which, he assures, does little to “capture” our imaginations. The budget thus becomes the end rather than the means.

By focusing our energies on meeting the budget, we act as if perpetuating the institution is our main purpose. What gets lost is the institution’s reason for being.

“Rather than ask the important questions,” Robinson offers, tongue-in-cheek, “we micromanage the budget!”

But what are the important questions?

“What is God calling us to be and to do? What is our purpose as a church? What are we trying to accomplish? What is our business?”

Meeting the budget, to put it bluntly, is not the real business of the church. The budget in fact is only a “planning and administrative tool – and nothing more.”

To state the obvious, the main purpose of the church is…ministry. Its main task is to discern what Christ would have us do. The budget only serves as but the mechanism by which we fund that ministry.

“There is a deep spiritual issue here,” Robinson points out. “When we allow the congregation’s budget to become an end in itself, we have often succeeded in creating a system that acts as if God did not exist!”

“What I mean by this,” he continues, “is this: we do not ask the central questions nor practice discernment about what we are called to do. We simply maintain – with adjustments for cost-of-living and repairs.”

“But if, on the other hand, your first questions are about what God is calling you to do, and your second questions are about seeking the funding to do it, both questions can draw you deep into a process of faith formation.”

Our main business thus is faith formation. The budget is simply the means by which this purpose is funded.

Stewardship, in the end, is but one of many instruments by which we measure faith, and the effectiveness of the church’s mission. But because it’s natural to import secular ways of thinking into our church life (such as focusing our energies on meeting the budget) we may conclude that this sort of faith-talk is merely mumbo-jumbo reflecting a pie-in-the-sky view of reality.

The church, however, is nothing if not premised on God’s power to lead, to bring life out of death, hope out of despair, joy out of sorrow. Repeatedly in the Bible we are told to trust in God, not in ourselves, and not in human systems or logic.

Time and again the Bible recounts situations where God’s promises made to Abraham are in jeopardy. Without fail these situations recommend no human solution. Consider, for example, the news that Abraham and Sarah shall give birth. Such, we know, is humanly impossible, yet with God all things are possible. That’s the message of the Gospel.

This is not, in other words, fanciful feel-good hooey. It is, rather, foundational to Christian faith. It is this that is, without question, the “business” of the church. It is in God we trust, God who sets our course, and God who provides. Amen.