Home » Sermons » New Testament » Mark » Four Questions


Four Questions


Mark 12:41-44

I really like Jim Houston, the handsome man who chairs our finance committee. He’s very able — and there’s no substitute for competence. He’s also personable — and I much prefer the company of the personable to the company of the prickly. He’s funny — in fact his sense of humour is the best I’ve ever come across.

Because I like Jim so very much and enjoy being around him I felt bad when I told him not to lay his “trip” on me at the last executive meeting. The executive of the Official Board had been talking about today, Stewardship Sunday. Jim had said to me, “Victor, I won’t be writing your sermon for that day, but no doubt you’ll have a scorcher!” I had replied with a weariness that went all the way to my bone-marrow, “Jim, I don’t have another Stewardship Sunday sermon in me. In the 17 years that I’ve been here I’ve preached a dozen stewardship sermons. Plainly they haven’t worked — or why should I be asked for yet another? Besides (by now brother Jim didn’t know what he had uncorked in me); besides even if I wanted to preach a stewardship sermon on 29th October, I couldn’t: I simply don’t have another one in me.”

Poor Jim (I really felt bad laying my “heavy” on him) — for the first time in my acquaintance he didn’t have anything funny to say. He mumbled something to the effect that regardless of what I had or didn’t have in me he’d be ready with his “Rock’em, sock’em” depiction of “The Year’s Biggest Hits” — the hits being not bonecrushing bodychecks but the “hits” we’ve taken in getting the building put in order, the leaky roof repaired, and so on.

I know I disappointed Jim. I know he wanted me to bring forward a tear-jerker. But everyone’s heard my tear-jerkers.

Speaking of tears. What would you think if you came upon a 35-year old woman sitting at the kitchen table, weeping, while she tried to glue together the broken pieces of the lens from her eyeglasses? Can you imagine anyone so benighted as to try to glue together a broken lens? In the first place the glue available at that time didn’t glue glass; in the second place, even if the pieces could be glued there would still be cracks where they had broken; in the third place there would be glue-smears all over the patched-up lens and you wouldn’t be able to see through it in any case.

Then why did my mother sit at the kitchen table trying to glue together her broken lens while we three children looked on? Because the family didn’t have enough money to replace the lens. Why was she weeping? Because (she told me years later) she felt that the family’s financial position was hopeless.

Still, it was at this time that my father — you know the story about my dear old dad, how a broken-down stranger (intoxicated to boot) approached him as we Shepherds were on our way into church one Sunday, how my dad gave the man all the money he had with him.

Two weeks ago I told Jim Houston I didn’t have any more such stories in me; no fresh stories. But that was all right. Not even fresh stories would be effective. After all, my old stories were fresh the first time, weren’t they? — and even when they were fresh they were singularly ineffective. There is no point in my telling such stories when they don’t work!

I’m going to do something different today. Since I don’t have any drum-beating, tear-jerking, conscience-tormenting stories to put before you, I’m going to tell you simply why Christians give money, and give it sacrificially.

I: — Believers give money to the church for four reasons. The first should be obvious. The church has been entrusted with the gospel. There is no more important event amidst all the events of world-occurrence than a ringing declaration of the gospel. There is nothing more important — there can be nothing more important — than a non-fuzzy, non-fumbling announcement of Jesus Christ.

Doesn’t your heart resonate with the apostle Paul when he says so very simply yet so very movingly to the congregation in Philippi, “For me to live is Christ”? “Life means `Christ’ for me”, is what he has in mind. The One who had overtaken Paul when Paul had been looking in the wrong direction and moving down the wrong path; this One ever after loomed so big in the apostle’s mind and heart that he couldn’t contain himself and could only let his ever so rich experience pour out of him. What is the money we give compared to that?

Let’s not fool ourselves. The church has been entrusted with the gospel of Christ not because our Lord is an “add-on” for suburbanite yuppies who already “have it all” and now want a little decoration on top of the “all”. Neither is our Lord the fixer-upper of those who have made it most of the way themselves and who now need a little boost to achieve whatever it is they regard as worth achieving. Our Lord is first and last Saviour from a peril so perilous it is finally indescribable.

Indescribable? Of course it is. For what other reason would our Lord paint incompatible pictures in trying to speak of it? The most fiery fire, he says repeatedly, along with the darkest outer darkness. But fire isn’t dark! In painting incompatible pictures (the brightest fire and darkest darkness) our Lord is telling us that ultimate loss, before God, is something we cannot adequately comprehend, even as it is something we ought resolutely to avoid.

The gospel is life just because it is the effectual self-declaration and self-bestowal of Him who is resurrection and life. You must have noticed that every funeral service repeats the words of Jesus, “Whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.” Our Lord means exactly what he says. To live in the Son is to be reconciled to the Father; to be reconciled to the Father is to be bound to him in a bond whose truth, intimacy, intensity must finally remain a wordless wonder. And to live here is to be fixed so firmly in the heart of God that our coming physical death and biological dissolution are but a momentary irritant and inconvenience.

Humankind needs saving and Jesus Christ is its sole saviour. Let us not pretend anything else or settle for anything less. Humankind needs saving from the judgement of God and from the consequences of its own sin. Let us not waste our time saying that we need “saving” (as it were) from such matters as meaninglessness. I have never yet found someone whose life was meaningless. I have met many for whom life’s meaning wasn’t worthy of any human being (e.g., lining up to drool over the big lottery-draw, or looking at 7 NFL football games on a weekend; even the derelict who wants only to panhandle enough quarters to buy a bottle of the cheapest wine — the meaning of his life is just that!). It’s not that people find life meaningless; it’s rather that their lives are cluttered with myriad inferior meanings and they need truth, which truth is given with the Saviour who wants only to give us himself.

Prior to his seizure at the hand of the Risen One the apostle Paul didn’t find his life meaningless; nevertheless, after his seizure at the hand of the Risen One he counted all the meanings that had preoccupied him to this point as garbage compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. (Phil. 3:8)

The church has been entrusted with the gospel. We who are Christ’s followers must announce him. When we announce him, however, more than a mere announcement happens; when we announce him he himself emerges from our witness and acts in our midst. Did not our Lord say to his earliest followers, “Whoever hears you hears me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, rejects him who sent me”? (Luke 10:16)

Why do Christians make financial sacrifices on behalf of the church? — because we have found that Jesus Christ is life for us, and we never want it said that we withheld such life from anyone else.

II: — There is another reason, a related reason, for our financial sacrifice. We want the gospel’s “indirect lighting” of our society to continue. When indirect lighting is used in a building the light-fixture isn’t seen but the illumination is evident. For centuries the illumination of so much of our society was the result of the indirect lighting of the gospel. Think of the laws that govern us; think of our criminal justice system; think of education; think of health care. And then imagine (if you can) the shape of a society where indirect Christian influence has been removed.

We must never think that the indirect lighting that has been in place for centuries will take centuries to disappear. On the contrary, it can disappear overnight. During the last 80 years of Czarist rule in Russia prior to the Revolution of 1917 there were 20 state-executions (no doubt for heinous crimes). During the first month of Revolutionary rule under Lenin there were over 1000 executions.

I have to smile when I hear church-detractors complain that the church of yesteryear gave rise to “moral legalism”. People who speak like this, I have found, are so very shallow that they couldn’t define legalism if they were asked to. More to the point, would our society be better off if instead of moral legalism (so-called) we had immoral lawlessness?

The influence of the Ten Commandments has been inestimable throughout the western world. The people today who snicker at them as “Victorian”: wait until their employer withholds earnings to which they are entitled, or wait until their employer won’t give them another day off work since Christmas falls on a Sunday. They will be the first to complain that they have been stolen from. Stolen from? Who said stealing is wrong? A minute ago the complainers were snickering at Victorians who spoke of right and wrong!

The people who snicker at the Ten Commandments as Victorian are too shallow to see that if only 1% of the population (just 1%!) behaves criminally then social existence is impossible. At many times throughout history social existence has been impossible — at least for a short while until a totalitarian arm-breaker appeared whom people were glad to see, since totalitarian arm-breakers at least allow a society to exist.

Needless to say, the indirect lighting of the gospel that illumines the wider society; this indirect lighting continues only as long as there is direct lighting of the gospel elsewhere; specifically, only as long as the gospel shines directly in the church. Indirect gospel-lighting of the wider society will remain only as long as direct gospel-lighting floods the church.

We must keep the gospel shining directly in the church, in the first place, just because the gospel quickened us and we want others to be quickened as well; in the second place we must keep the gospel shining directly in the church so that the indirect lighting of the gospel will continue to illumine our society. Where society isn’t rendered livable by indirect illumination it is rendered livable by a state-brutality other societies have found preferable only to mob-brutality.

III: — There is yet another reason for our financial sacrifice. Our giving money away is the confirmation that the power of money is a broken power in our lives.

According to Jesus there are only two powers in the cosmos: God and mammon. (Since you have heard me say many times that the only two powers in the cosmos are God and the power of death, death being the ruling power in a fallen world, it is plain that the power of money is most intimately related to the power of death. But more of this on another occasion.) Jesus says, without argumentation, “God or mammon: these are mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. God or mammon. Which one do you worship? Which one do you serve? Which one is going to triumph finally in you?” All of us know what the right answer is. There isn’t a person in this room ready to jump up and say, “I wish to ally myself with the power of mammon!” We all know what the right answer is. Still, there is only one way to demonstrate the answer we have given in the secret places of our heart; there is only one way to show where we have truly lined up; there is only one way to show that the power of money in our lives is a broken power. We must give it away. The only freedom we have with respect to money is the freedom to give it away.

Economists tells us that money is a medium of exchange. It’s easier for the farmer to pay money for an automobile than it is for him to take six million apples to the Ford dealer and hope that the dealer wants six million apples as much as the farmer wants a new car. Money is a medium of exchange that avoids the inconvenience of the barter-system, say the economists.

The economists are correct; but they are also exceedingly shallow unless they say a great deal more. After all, everyone knows that money is eversomuch more than merely a medium of exchange. Don’t we all say that money talks? If money “talks” then money is a power. Don’t we whisper to each other that money secures votes? Everybody knows that money makes or breaks people; money intimidates, money coerces, money enforces silence. (Not only does money talk; money keeps people from talking. In other words, money is a power so powerful that it can do anything.) All we need do to observe the power of money is to note how people thought when they lacked money, and how they think now that they have money; how they voted when they lacked money, how they vote now that they have it; what they expected from government when they lacked it, what they expect when they have it; how highly they thought of public schooling when they lacked it, how highly they think of private schooling now that they have it.) Money is a power so powerful, says Jesus, that it rivals the power of God himself. We confirm that the power of mammon is a broken power in our lives as and only as we give it away. The only freedom we have with respect to money is the freedom to give it away.

IV: — The last consideration for our financial sacrifice has to do with need.

(i) Admittedly, our church-building has been “needy”. We had two choices when we were told that it wouldn’t be long before the city-authorities put the yellow tape around the building and allowed no one to enter. Our two choices were to repair the building or to walk away from it. At the congregational meeting where this was discussed we voted 100% to repair the building.

We didn’t repair the building because we are museum “freaks” who are especially fond of antiquarian architecture. We repaired the building for one reason only: to facilitate the praise of God arising from those for whom life means Christ.

(ii) Another area of need is the material distress, physical distress of so many around us, together with emotional distress arising from material disadvantage.

“But isn’t it the responsibility of government to meet such needs?”, someone wants to ask. I’m not going to debate whether it is or isn’t the responsibility of government. I shall simply say that governments everywhere are getting out of the business of providing the assistance so many need. With what result? With the result that the church’s historic diaconal ministry will come back into its own.

Throughout the church’s 2000-year history the ministry of the diaconate has been distinguished from the ministry of the word. The ministry of the word was preaching, teaching, counselling, while the ministry of the diaconate was the providing of material help for those in especial need. In the past two decades The United Church of Canada has altered the meaning of “diaconal”; no longer does it refer to the providing of concrete assistance. Instead it refers to a professional church-worker half-way between lay and ordained. Those who are described as “diaconal”, in our denomination, are deemed “more” than lay but “less” than ordained. But this is a distortion of the historic meaning of the term. For 2000 years “diaconal” has meant “providing assistance to the materially needy.” In Calvin’s Geneva, for instance (in the year 1550, approximately), deacons had two major responsibilities: care of the sick and care of the poor.

During the middle ages an order of nuns took it upon themselves to provide proper Christian burial for those who had been executed by the state and to provide material assistance for their survivors (i.e., for widows and now-fatherless children).

I am convinced that as governments reduce government spending precisely where the church historically shone and where we have recently expected governments to shine; as governments reduce spending here the church will be called to recover its historic diaconal ministry. One result of the church’s recovering its historic diaconal ministry will be that the church will have handed to it, on a silver platter no less, the opportunity of recovering that credibility which the church complains at present of having lost.

(iii) The final need I shall mention today concerns outreach. Think of our congregation’s mission project in India. We are going to be supporting development-projects in two small Indian villages. We must never think that our money buys mere tokenism in India. What our money produces in terms of development there will benefit the village-people enormously.

Several years ago one of my friends, now on the medical staff of Sunnybrook Hospital, spent three years doing surgery in Africa. He tells me he thinks his surgery did some good in Africa; in fact his surgery did as much good in Africa as surgery does in Canada. It benefits one person at a time, one person at a time in the midst of millions. He told me that if we really want to do vastly more good than surgery can do we should send over a well-driller. “If you want to improve living conditions hugely”, he told me, “teach the people to do two things: drill a well and dig a latrine. A well and a latrine will do more than any amount of surgery.”

We have enormous opportunity to improve the material wellbeing of our friends in Indian villages. Let it never be said that they suffered unnecessarily on account of our stinginess.

Two weeks ago I told Jim Houston that I didn’t have another stewardship sermon in me. I didn’t. I still don’t. Therefore in place of a stewardship sermon I am going to ask us all to ponder four questions:

[1] How intimately do we know Jesus Christ, and what does he mean to us?

[2] What will our society look like if the indirect lighting of the gospel disappears and with it the illumination that remains essential?

[3] Have we ever confirmed, by giving money away gladly and readily, that money is a broken power in our lives?

[4] Are we going to allow our stinginess to cause others to suffer unnecessarily?

There is no sermon today, merely four questions.

                                                                    Victor A. Shepherd
October 1995