June 2, 2019 – Acts 16.16-24

            You may have seen or read the story that Mackenzie Bezos, the former wife of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has pledged to give away half of her money to charity.  That made the news because she is said to have something like thirty-seven billion dollars.  So half of that is…a lot of money.  It was said that she was inspired to do so at least in part by Warren Buffett and others with lots and lots of money who have decided to do the same thing.  I’d like to think that all these folks have been inspired by their faith in Jesus, but I’ve never seen or heard that anywhere. 

            Whatever inspired them, for us, being followers of Jesus does have economic implications.  Jesus talks about money a lot, and if he’s not shy about doing so, we shouldn’t be either.  He rejoices when Zacchaeus says he’s going to give half of his possessions to the poor and will pay back anyone he has defrauded four times as much.  When Zacchaeus says that Jesus responds, “Today salvation has come to this house.”  One day Jesus is watching people make their offerings.  Notice that doing so was a public act in that day.  He sees rich people putting in their gifts.  Then he sees “a poor widow put in two small copper coins.”  He says, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”

            Then there’s the story of “a certain ruler” coming to Jesus and asking, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus replies, you know the commandments, don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, and so on.  The man says he’s been a good boy, that he’s always kept the commandments.  Jesus responds, “There is still one thing lacking.  Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  The man is sad to hear this, whereupon Jesus pronounces, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!  Indeed it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

            Jesus is not shy when it comes to talking about money.  And his message is very clear, is it not.  He claims that money can stand in the way of our relationship with God.  The problem is that money can be our god.  Whatever is most important in our lives is our god, and we know all too well that money is the most important thing in some people’s lives.  That’s probably what Jesus sensed in the man who came to him asking about inheriting eternal life.  Jesus probably understood that it was the man’s money getting in the way of his relationship with God.  We’ve heard that money is the root of all evil.  But that’s not what First Timothy 6.10 says.  It says, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

            That’s why it’s important for us to be generous in our giving.  We may not have billions to give away.  We may be tempted to say, that’s easy for those folks to do that.  They still have more than I’ll ever have.  And that is probably the case.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t get overly attached to what we have.  Whether we’re giving away thousands or hundreds or tens or ones, what is important is that we are using what we have to enhance our relationship with God through Christ, and not to try and make ourselves feel like we have all we need without God.

            I don’t often do promotions for special offerings during sermons, but I want to say a word about the Pentecost offering.  We have six special offerings a year in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), each going for a particular cause.  The Week of Compassion offering supports our denomination’s efforts in disaster relief and development for people in need, in our country and around the world.  We can only imagine how busy they have been lately, trying to respond to the tornadoes and floods and other disasters which seem to happen every day.  The Reconciliation offering undergirds our denomination’s work in the ongoing fight against racism.

            The Pentecost offering, which we take today and next Sunday, supports the establishment of new congregations in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  About twenty years ago, our then General Minister and President, Dick Hamm, was dreaming dreams of the future of our denomination.  He thought we should set some long term, ambitious goals.  He called it the 2020 vision.  He had in mind that by the year 2020 we should establish something like two or three hundred new congregations. 

            He was working with a consultant, and the consultant said, you’re thinking too small.  The goal should be a thousand new congregations by that time.  Twenty years ago, we Disciples weren’t doing so well establishing new congregations.  A thousand over the coming twenty years seemed like an audacious goal.  But Dick bought into it.  He also proposed a goal of transforming a thousand existing congregations over that time. 

            I haven’t seen the figure in a while, but I’m confident that at this summer’s General Assembly of the Christian Church, an announcement will be made that we have either met the goal of a thousand new congregations, or we are knocking on the door and will hit that mark by next year.  It’s really an amazing achievement for a denomination our size.

            And we know the importance of establishing new congregations.  Sadly, we know all too well, that we are closing congregations every year.  We know that if are to continue to be able to share the good news with communities and a world in need of good news, we must make new congregations a priority.

            That’s the work of the Pentecost offering.  That’s why at this time every year we as a church say, let us give generously, so that we may go wherever people need a place to worship God and serve others in Jesus’ name.  That’s why we take these two Sundays to say, let us continue the work of starting congregations, in Virginia and beyond.

            I can testify to the importance of this effort.  In the summer of 1986 I moved to Cary, North Carolina, right beside Raleigh, to become the pastor developer of what became Covenant Christian Church.  It was only because of the generosity of many, many people in Disciples congregations that Covenant Christian was able to come into being.  Thirty-three years later, Covenant continues to be about its ministry in Cary and beyond.

            So one of the economic implications of the gospel is the claim it has on our finances.  But there are other implications.  The story we will hear from Acts is one of those – say what? – sort of stories.  We are told that Paul and Silas are in the city of  Philippi.  They meet a slave girl who is a fortune teller.  Doing so she makes a lot of money for her owners.  She starts following Paul and Silas and saying, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation,” all of which is true.  But after many days of this, Paul gets annoyed and casts the fortune telling spirit out of her.  As we might imagine, this doesn’t sit well with her owners, who drag Paul and Silas before the authorities and have them beaten and thrown into prison.

            How’s that for an economic implication of the gospel?  And maybe that seems far fetched to us today.  When are we ever going to want to cast a spirit out of someone?  Well, maybe we’d like to cast out some spirits like thinking too much of oneself and being hard to get along with and such, but they may not have aneconomic impact.

            Freeing people from human trafficking, however, will have an economic impact on whoever controls people who are essentially living in slavery.  Helping people overcoming substance abuse and drug addiction will have economic implications for those who make, sell and distribute those things which keep some people from living full, healthy lives.  On a larger scale, working to overcome injustice in what and how people are paid for their work, working to end exploitation of those who are often the most vulnerable, will definitely have economic implications.

            But such efforts are part of our work in Jesus’ name.  Jesus was not afraid to overturn the tables of the temple moneychangers.  He was not afraid to tell a parable about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus, and how their conditions in the next life are a reversal of what they experienced in their earthly life.  If we think our faith is simply a matter of what we believe plus some prayer and worship and Bible reading, we’re skipping some passages in the Bible. 

            The good news in all this is that the economic implications of the gospel give us opportunities to share and live out God’s love and forgiveness, for ourselves and for others.  So it’s a good thing that the gospel has economic implications.  Amen.What is the time?